Johnson County to officially drop most COVID recommendations

Johnson County mask order

The Johnson County commission on Thursday voted to put an official end to some health recommendations that were adopted during the earliest years of the COVID-19 pandemic. In two resolutions,

The Johnson County commission on Thursday voted to put an official end to some health recommendations that were adopted during the earliest years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In two resolutions, commissioners voted to end the local disaster emergency and all but two of the public health recommendations adopted in April, 2021 that were intended to curb the spread of the disease.

The resolutions will become effective to coincide with the end of the national emergency declaration. That was to be May 11 but may end early as a result of a U.S. Senate vote on Wednesday.

 Two health recommendations were not rescinded were and both express county support of vaccination and of adhering to state and federal health advice.

Given declining hospitalizations and deaths and the end of the national emergency, county officials said the resolutions could be safely rescinded.

Commission discussion becomes heated

As commissioners discussed the measures Thursday, there were some signs of the lingering fractiousness that has surrounded the issue over the past three years, both among about a half dozen visitors and commissioners themselves.

Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara said the emergency declarations were adopted under “false narratives” and were done with a financial motive.

She said the county was wrong about the seriousness of the pandemic and resulted in a current mental health crisis, inflation and labor shortage. Later she said the vaccine was “proven to be totally, totally a failure.”

“We need to apologize to this community,” she said.

But some other commissioners took exception to her remarks.

“I can’t let that stand,” said Chairman Mike Kelly.

The suggestion of a financial motive for county public health orders and recommendations, he said, “is a disservice and dishonor to the millions of folks and the over 1,000 people in Johnson County who lost their lives due to COVID.”

 Kelly later apologized for the “misinformation that continues to come from this dais about the pandemic,” drawing an outcry from some visitors in the commission chamber.

“As we move forward we must listen to science and professionals who have dedicated their lives to serving our community and not what they find on a Google search.”

Pfizer booster
The county will continue to offer vaccinations in its clinics and to give education and advice on COVID-19 as it does influenza and other health issues. File photo.

Two public health recommendations will remain

The seven public health recommendations had mostly to do with masking and maintaining physical distance in public, except among relatives and friends.

Gone will be two recommendations that people wear face coverings in indoor public spaces and that businesses encourage or require masks.

Two others recommendations encouraging six feet of distance among individuals and in businesses also will end.

The commission’s vote also strikes official encouragement that businesses and organizations do unspecified additional mitigation strategies to stop the spread of COVID.

However, a majority of commissioners voted to keep encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations and to follow health guidance from the local, state and national health departments.

The items the board kept were recommendations and not requirements.

During an agenda review session last week, Chairman Mike Kelly said, “I fear if we remove all these recommendations, even those that our health department continues to recommend,  it could be seen as denying the efficacy of the vaccines or the advice of the (federal Centers for Disease Control and state Department of Health and Environment), he said.

Move to end COVID measures immediately voted down

The county will continue to offer vaccinations in its clinics and to give education and advice on COVID-19 as it does influenza and other health issues.

The resolutions that were revoked have their roots in the earliest days of the pandemic, before effective treatment, vaccines and the evolution of more transmissible but less deadly variants.

The commission took several votes on amendments, turning down a proposal by Commissioner Michael Ashcraft to end the COVID measures immediately, regardless of what the federal government does.

However, the staff’s recommendation was to tie the end of local recommendations to the federal government to make for a smoother transition for programs that may be currently winding down.

The disaster emergency declaration, which allowed the county to receive state and federal aid, was first enacted in March, 2020 and later extended indefinitely.

County still without full-time health director

The public health recommendations – enacted April 29, 2021 – evolved from earlier, more restrictive public health orders concerning masks, physical distancing, curfews and limits on public gatherings.

Those restrictions resulted in prolonged and sometimes emotional objections during commission meetings.

A history of those orders and mandates can be found on the county’s website.

Debates over COVID restrictions were contentious throughout the country, and have been blamed for the exodus of more than 300 public health officers, some of whom cited harassment and stress.

Dr. Sanmi Areola, who became Johnson County’s health director shortly before the pandemic began, resigned for another job last November without comment. A search for his successor is still in progress.

Earlier in the meeting, Kelly proclaimed April 3-9 to be Public Health Awareness week.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at roxieham@gmail.com.