Douglas County health officials announced Thursday afternoon mass gatherings beyond 15 individuals will be prohibited in the county in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
The revised public health order will take effect starting Friday.
Previously, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health allowed mass gatherings of up to 45 people. But the county's positivity rate started trending upward recently, with its 14-day moving average increasing to nearly 14%.
“We believe this spike is due to people letting their guards down with lapses in mask wearing, attending social gatherings that allow for transmission of COVID-19, and people who are experiencing symptoms being out in public instead of self-isolating to reduce chances for exposing others,” said Dr. Thomas Marcellino, Douglas County’s local health officer.
“It’s important for everyone now to double down on those public health practices, especially mask wearing, to get this turned around," Marcellino continued, "and we are announcing these changes at a community level and in our education guidance today."
As of Thursday, health officials reported at least 650 active COVID-19 cases in Douglas County. There have been at least 3,636 cases of the coronavirus in the county since the pandemic began.
Douglas County officials are also aiming to start doing COVID-19 surveillance testing throughout the community until a vaccine is found. Health officials hope to start it by the end of the month, with a priority toward those in K-12 schools throughout the county.
The surveillance test would be a saliva test, similar to the test distributed to University of Kansas students prior to the fall semester, according to George Diepenbrock, a spokesperson for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. The testing is funded through the CARES Act.
The CARES Act is the Coronavirus Aide, Relief and Security Act. It was a stimulus package created by the federal government near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Douglas County was allocated $24.9 million in funds for cities in the county, according to a Douglas County news release. On Sept. 9, Kansas approved the county's plan for COVID-19 aid and economic support.
County health officials advise a hybrid model for school districts to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Health officials believe with more surveillance testing, school environments can be more controlled.
“Based on risk assessment and the evolution of data, it is clear that K-12 schools can operate with reduced risks when certain mitigation practices are in place,” Marcellino said. “This includes masks being used properly, proper social distancing, the following of cleaning guidelines, along with compliance with isolation and quarantine orders after contact tracing.”
Masks are still required in indoor spaces and in outdoor spaces when keeping six feet apart isn’t possible.
The county initially allowed gatherings up to 45 people in early June under phase three of its reopening plan.