TOPEKA (KSNT) – Shawnee County has joined a group now recommending everyone wear masks and limit mass gatherings as the COVID-19 Delta variant spreads further in Kansas, health officials announced Wednesday.

Shawnee County Health Officer Dr. Erin Locke is asking everyone, even if vaccinated, to wear a mask and practice social distancing in “crowded indoor situations.” She is also recommending indoor mass gathering events to limit their attendance to 50% percent of the room capacity.

Governor Laura Kelly gestures to a map marking COVID-19 hotspots in Kansas, as she announces a new rule requiring masks on state employees in those counties. (KSNT Photo/Rebekah Chung)

The new recommendations fall in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance, which falls back on earlier messages and asks people to wear masks indoors, even if they’re vaccinated. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced Wednesday that the state would require staff and visitors to its buildings in counties marked COVID-19 hotspots to wear masks inside again, and Shawnee County falls into that category. She previously told Kansans her administration has “consistently followed the recommendations from the experts at the CDC – and we don’t intend to stop.”

Shawnee County has seen a growing number of COVID-19 cases, and the health department said it’s thanks to the Delta variant.

“Shawnee County has seen 5 consecutive weeks of increasing cases, percent positivity and hospitalizations. These increases continue to be driven by the emergence of the Delta variant in our community, which is 60% more contagious than previous variants. Viral sequencing has identified the Delta variant as the dominant community strain in Shawnee County. Early infection with the Delta variant has frequently been mistaken for allergies or a “common cold” before more significant symptoms develop later in the illness. COVID-19 vaccines continue to be effective against variants, including Delta, and are effective in significantly reducing the risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death.”

Shawnee County Health Department

While the health department has asked everyone to wear masks in crowded indoor places, it said the COVID-19 vaccine is still effective in reducing just how serious symptoms from the virus can be. It also gave a specific number of just how many vaccinated people in Shawnee County have still contracted the virus.

The vast majority of cases and hospitalizations in Shawnee County continue to be in unvaccinated individuals. In fact, Shawnee County has only documented 103 total vaccine breakthrough cases or just over 1 vaccine breakthrough case for every 1,000 fully vaccinated residents.

Shawnee County Health Department

As of July 28, 79,000 people, or 45% of Shawnee County’s total population have gotten both shots or a single-shot vaccine against COVID-19, according to the Shawnee County Health Department.

The Shawnee County Health Department will also attend the Shawnee County Commission’s Thursday meeting as it considers approving Resolution No. 2021-55, which would extend the area’s current COVID-19 Incident Command Structure through Oct. 28, 2021.

Since letting the area’s mask mandate from the height of the pandemic expire on April 16, the Shawnee County Commission not has passed any new mask mandate for its properties, private businesses or the public. For now, the guidance for masks and mass gathering limits is a recommendation, not a requirement, from the Shawnee County Health Department. Kelly said while she has made masks required in state buildings again, she would defer to local governments to determine if they need another mask mandate for their counties.

In a related news release, Ascension, the health system that runs Via Christi Hospital in Manhattan, said Tuesday it will now require all of its staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine.