In pandemic surge, Jackson County wrestles with safety questions

Jeff Fox

The COVID-19 resurgence driven by the highly contagious Delta variant is posing concerns for Jackson County elected leaders looking out for the safety of county employees as well as the public. Some acknowledge that only so much can be done to encourage vaccinations, facemasks and other steps to slow the disease. 

County Executive Frank White Jr. told legislators on Monday that the pandemic continues to take a toll. 

“So I think the associates of the county, I mean we're really going to have to look at how important getting vaccinated is,” White said, “because if your production continues to suffer and you take people out of work, it really hurts the whole group and hurts the organization.” 

Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, also expressed concerns about the safety of employees. 

“I understand that you can't mandate Joe on the street to do the right thing and get vaccinated,” Williams said, “but I think there's going to be more and more conversations about where our responsibilities lie as employers, and the fact that we are providing services to the community, and we have people that are interacting with the community, and if they (the public) refuse to get vaccinated, where's our responsibility on that that too?” 

“Ultimately,” she continued, “I think that insurance companies are going to require employers to make people get vaccinated because that's where a lot of the money is (involved). We're going to end up seeing great losses if we don't get it under control.” 

Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, pointed out that COVID-19 is now hitting young people harder. He said he has four friends, ages 17 to 33, currently with the disease. 

“We did not see that last year,” he said. 

Williams underlined the risks for young people as well. With the Delta variant, she said, many unvaccinated people are spreading the disease to those who are vaccinated, and that moves the virus to others who are vulnerable, such as children. 

“So parents think that they built a bubble around their kids,” she said, “and they're going to be fine because the vaccinated adult has been responsible, but in fact because of the irresponsible actions of other people it's making it worse and worse and worse.” 

Legislator Ronald Finley, D-Kansas City, said the current COVID-19 surge is distressing and that although outreach efforts to encourage vaccinations are good they might not be enough. 

“I know that it's a difficult topic – very difficult topic – the mandated wearing of masks, and closings,” he said. “I think it's time to start at least discussing or considering what might need to be done in light of these numbers that continue to go up.” 

White did not endorse that suggestion. He said his main focus is on the safety of county employees. He did share a frustration with the widespread rejection of the vaccines. 

“It's just hard to understand. ... All we have to do is make it available. As long as we make it available, I think we're doing our job,” White said. “As long as we voice how important it is, I think we're doing our job. I think we're being proactive.” 

“But I don't think any more programing or spending and more money on vaccine awareness – because I think there's enough out there right now – I think that it's just it's a personal decision that they make for themselves, and go from there.” 

County Administrator Troy Schulte acknowledged that a new state law, passed this spring and going into effect next month, further restricts the ability of local governments to issue health orders and, for instance, limit hours on bars and restaurants. 

“It will significantly reduce our ability to be responsive to this ongoing pandemic,” he said.