The heads of Pottawatomie County’s two hospitals pleaded with county commissioners Monday to reverse course and adopt the governor’s executive order mandating the wearing of facial coverings in public.

The rising number of COVID-19 cases in the county has strained hospital resources and wearing masks is the best means of stemming the spread of the virus, administrators said.

“It’s basically an issue of staff and resources to run our hospitals and clinics,” said Todd Willert, CEO of Community HealthCare System, headquartered at Onaga.

“The hospitals are getting overrun right now and we need to get control of the spread of this virus,” Willert said.

“In two weeks, we’ll be worse off than we are today. In two months, we’ll be much worse off than we are today. Masks work. Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways of stopping the spread of this virus.”

The strain on hospitals also has affected people receiving care for other matters. EMS Director Hal Bumgarner said patient transfers are taking much longer due to the lack of ICU beds in communities such as Manhattan and Topeka. Last week, patients were transferred as far away as El Dorado and Nebraska, he said.

“As this thing goes on, it’s going to be more and more challenging for our department,” Bumgarner said.

Steve Land, administrator of Wamego Health Center, said the rate for those tested positive for the virus has skyrocketed in the past two weeks — from 5% to 9% to 26%.

“We want to put forth a unified front and send a message to the community that we want to do everything we can to keep people safe,” Land said.

In early July, Governor Laura Kelly issued an executive order mandating the wearing of masks in all public places, inside and out, when social distancing wasn’t possible.

Later the same day, the commission — meeting in special session — voted 3-0 to “opt out” of the order, saying the mandate was unenforceable; that citizens should be free to choose for themselves; and that it wasn’t warranted in Pott County where there were a relatively few cases of COVID-19.

Instead, the commission adopted Health Order No. 7 which didn’t mandate, but strongly recommended the governor’s mandate. The commission gave no indication Monday it was prepared to change that position.

“What are the guidelines we’re playing by?” asked Commissioner Pat Weixelman. “If somebody can bring me a defined definition on when these masks need to be worn on a day-to-day basis, it would really help me in making a decision.”

Leslie Campbell, Pott County health director, supported the position of the hospital administrators and said masks should be worn in public at all times.

“We’re having lots of transmission,” Campbell said. “We’ve had 50 new cases since Friday and there are probably another 150 cases we don’t know about.”

As of noon Monday, 574 persons in the county had tested positive for the virus, according to the Kansas Department of Health & Environment website. That’s an increase of 61 new cases from the 513 listed Friday on Pott County’s website.

“Everyone’s being affected,” Campbell went on. “There have been more people in the hospital in the last three weeks than the whole time (since this started). Right now, wearing a mask would be the best thing.”

In other business Monday:

• The commission approved an expenditure of $90,000 to complete design engineering of the Green Valley interceptor sewer project.

The project, with a total estimated cost of $1.36 million, would facilitate “the continued expansion of the Blue Township urbanized area,” said Peter Clark, public works director.

The project would have an estimated life cycle of 75 to 100 years and would result in cost savings (both up-front and over time) of about $1.2 million, Clark said.

“It’s something that over the long haul I think will be money well-spent,” Weixelman said.

It was proposed to fund up to $1 million of the project from the operating fund of the Blue Township Sewer District, with the balance borrowed from the county general fund at an interest rate of 2%.

• EMS Director Hal Bumgarner said an unannounced inspection by the Kansas Board of Emergency Medical Services Oct. 29, resulted in a commendation “to you and your staff for an excellent job.”

“In all my years in EMS, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that happen,” Bumgarner said.

• The commission authorized the purchase of a new tanker truck for Blue Township Fire District 5, at a cost of $220,000.

Blue Township plans to make a $110,000 down payment from its current reserves and finance the remaining $110,000 as a lease-purchase over the next 10 years, according to Jared Barnes, county fire supervisor.

• The commission authorized an additional $8,565 from the county’s CARES funds for the purchase of a Field Mobile Program for the appraiser’s office.

The commission had originally approved the purchase at a cost of $24,941. The actual cost, however, is $33,506, Appraiser Robin Knoblauch said Monday.

Knoblauch also said “the phones have been crazy” in her office since property tax statements were mailed recently.

She said she anticipates a groundswell of property tax “payments-under-protest” due to the impact on businesses from COVID and higher mill levies due to building projects in the Rock Creek (10-mill increase) and Manhattan/Ogden School Districts (17-mill increase).

“It’s coming,” she said.