They Voted Down Masks. So This Small-Town Doctor Quit.
Dr. John Shell explained in stark terms to the Board of Commissioners in rural Coffey County, Kansas, that no mask mandate means more deaths. But they weren’t swayed.
Dr. John Shell of rural Kansas had never quit anything in his life.
But the 58-year-old small-town doctor says he was left with no choice after his Nov. 23 appearance via Zoom before the Board of Commissioners in Coffey Count.
As the county’s volunteer health officer, Shell had decided in July that Coffey would join 80 of Kansas’ 105 counties in opting out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s initial mask mandate, because there were so few cases in the area.
But last month Kelly issued a new mask mandate that applied to the 81 counties that had opted out of the first one. The virus was now spreading across Coffey County and Shell had seen too many people continue to go about without masks even as cases spiked. He decided just recommending masks and relying on the good sense of the populace was not enough and announced that Coffey County would not be opting out this time. It would observe the new mandate, due to take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 25, Thanksgiving Day.
The deadline was still two days away when Shell was invited to appear before the board. He assumed he was there just to explain his reasoning.
“I didn’t realize they were going to vote on whether to pursue the mandate or not,” he said. “I assumed I was still the one who would determine that.”
Shell began by telling the commissioners that he was having trouble hearing them and a quip from one caused the basement room at the county courthouse where they were convening to fill with laughter.
“We have our masks on,” the commissioner said.
Nobody was laughing when Shell told the board of a bride who had not wanted anybody to wear a mask at her wedding.
“Her own father got COVID from the wedding and died,” Shell reported.
Shell added, “I’m not making that stuff up. But nobody has died from wearing a mask.”
He had an invitation for folks who oppose a mandate.
“For those who don't think a mask is necessary, it’s perfectly acceptable for them to come to the hospital and take care of sick patients,” he said. “And then we don't need to have to use any mask or PPE. And if they then succumb to the illness and are one of those that are hospitalized or even die from it, then I guess we’ve proven our point.”
He continued, “I think we’ve proven that people don't make good and right decisions all the time. And if we were having this discussion back in the ’60s when they were eradicating smallpox, we would still have smallpox running rampant throughout the world. That’s where I stand with it.”
He said he hoped that a mandate would lead people to wear a mask for the same reason those not inclined to wear a seatbelt do so anyway.
“Because it’s law,” he said.
County Attorney Wade Bowie complained to the meeting that his office would be saddled with enforcing a mandate.
“It doesn’t excite me,” Bowie told the commissioners. “I deal with plenty in the county attorney's office—drug dealers, child molesters, domestic violence cases, you name it.”
A nurse representing the health department actually cast doubt on the need for a mandate. She allowed to the commissioners that a recent spike in cases seemed tied to Halloween, but suggested the problem was not door-to-door trick or treating, but family gatherings at home.
“I’m not calling Halloween out or anything,” she made sure to say.
She also noted that the weekly tally of new cases in this tiny county of less than 9,000 had since dropped from 34 to 24.
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep doing what we need to do,” Shell insisted.
Shell had no doubt the new cases would spike again if the county did not focus on what should be the primary goal.
“Not getting infected in the first place,” he said.
Two of the six commissioners indicated they were in favor of a mandate. One noted that four members of his family had tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks and that five others are health-care workers and three are teachers.
Another commissioner spoke of an obligation we all have to one another.
“I’m not going to put this in [the] form of patriot duty, but I’m going to put it in the form of duty to your fellow man, to do everything possible to keep this virus under control.”
He then said of the mandate, “I’m going to say I’m for it and I know I’m in the minority, but that’s where I stand.”
Shell ended the Zoom appearance still unaware that the board would be voting on whether or not to go along with the mandate. He was at least spared from seeing the county attorney Bowie act as if lives were not at stake.
“It’s a no-win situation either way,” Bowie said. “There’s pros and cons either way.”
The votes came minutes later, 3-2 in favor of opting out of the governor’s mandate.
Bowie telephoned Shell to inform him that the commissioners had done something the doctor had not known they could do.
Shell’s 15 stellar years serving without pay as the county’s chief medical officer ended with him making an instant decision.
“I said, ‘Wow, then I guess I’m going to resign my position as a health officer,’” Shell told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘Who should I send the letter to?’ He said, ‘You can send that to me.’”
The speed of the resignation did not mean it was even remotely easy.
“I never quit anything in my life,” Shell later told The Daily Beast.
He explained that he had done so only because “I didn’t think I could stand by the decision and let it happen and say it was an OK thing. They were listening to my recommendation and disregarding it. I felt there were front line people at risk.”
He himself had become infected, most likely while out of state, helping his mother through a bout of COVID-19. He had worn a mask the whole time, save for when they were both eating. And sitting on the other side of the room was apparently not an adequate precaution. His wife was infected when he returned home. But all three of them were lucky enough to have recovered. The only lingering effect for him was a loss of smell, most lamentable when his wife bakes cookies.
But nobody can count on being so fortunate. That included the crowd Shell saw in attendance at a high-school football game. The players all wore helmets and padding. But the stands were filled with mask-less people with no regard for social distancing.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Shell said.
Masks do work and he thought he had made that clear to the commissioners. He was left feeling that the majority had already made up their minds.
He has heard the political arguments regarding liberty and government intrusion.
“People are thinking government is bad and anything associated with government can’t be good and if they tell me to wear a mask, then I shouldn’t,” he said.
He further noted, “The conspiracy theories are out there.”
But he discovered something else is out there when news of his resignation spread.
“I would say that after I resigned there was an extreme outpouring of support,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had the support I had. It was like I had died and had my own memorial.”
He received a remarkable number of letters and cards for a small community.
“I think they felt what I did was the right thing to do,” he said. “One lady actually made a red mask and it said, ‘I support Dr. Shell.’”
He is delighted to see that his resignation appears to have brought some clarity.
“The surprising thing looking back at this is, the fact that I stepped down started so much more of a controversy that it has more people wearing masks.”
A drawing of a mask with the words “I’M WITH DR. SHELL” and “WEAR YOUR MASK! GO, COFFEY COUNTY!” spread across social media.
“It’s kind of gone full circle,” Shell said.
But the commissioners had still opted out and the weekly new cases in the county had spiked from 25 to 43.
“If the government has to step in once in a while to ensure we do the right things for the majority of people, then maybe that’s what it needs to do,” he said.