Kansas showing signs of backsliding on social distancing, KDHE secretary says

photo by: Associated Press

Dr. Lee Norman, Kansas secretary of health and environment, answers questions about the coronavirus pandemic as Gov. Laura Kelly watches during a news conference, Monday, March 23, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Story updated at 4:06 p.m. Wednesday

A movement tracking system available to state governments indicates that the Sunflower State regressed recently in its social distancing efforts, Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman said Wednesday.

The system, called Unacast, uses anonymized GPS data from cell phones to show how much people are moving now compared to data collected before the pandemic. Norman said it can measure how people have decreased their level of travel and offers states a grade based on their social distancing practices. Kansas got a B on Monday, Norman said, and it slid to a C grade Wednesday.

Most concerning, Norman said, is that 45 of Kansas’ 105 counties received an F rating.

“It’s so critical, and we’re not doing well,” Norman said Wednesday in a joint press conference with Gov. Laura Kelly. “We have to uniformly, across the state of Kansas, get serious about this to decrease the amount of travel we’re doing and stay home.”

“That’s exactly what we can’t have happen. We’re trying very hard to bend this curve, but we can’t do that if Kansans don’t cooperate,” Kelly added. “We’ve got to have people staying home and saving lives.”

It was unclear Wednesday what exact data Norman and the state had access to. The publicly available data on Unacast’s website currently has a four-day lag time, the company noted on its website, while Norman said the data he had access to updated every other day.

The most recent daily trend data from Unacast that was available to the public Wednesday showed Kansas climbed from a D rating, based on data from March 26, to a C- rating, based on data from March 27.

On Unacast’s main website Wednesday, the state’s currently listed C- grade was based on a 40-55% change in average mobility, based on distance traveled, as well as a 60-65% change in what the company deems non-essential visits. That data, which appeared to include measurements up to March 28, showed a continued downward trend in average mobility and non-essential visits.

F grades were based on 25% or smaller changes in average distance traveled, Unacast said, and as of Wednesday, the main page on its website, which included data up to March 28, only showed 18 Kansas counties with such grades.

Douglas County was given a C grade in the latest data available on Unacast’s main website Wednesday, reflecting a 40-55% change in average distance traveled and a 60-65% change in non-essential visits. By comparison, Johnson County was listed with an A- rating on Unacast’s scale, because of a 55-70% change in average distance traveled and at least a 70% change in non-essential visits.

Cumulative confirmed cases of the virus in Kansas jumped just over 12.5% since Tuesday – from 428 to 482 — and the state confirmed its 10th death Wednesday.

The 482 confirmed cases are out of 5,893 total tests, meaning 8.2% of tested Kansans have tested positive for the virus. A week prior, on March 25, only 5% of all tests returned positive.

KDHE on Wednesday began releasing more comprehensive data in its daily updates, which now include the testing rate in each of Kansas’ 105 counties. In Douglas County, 661 people have been tested either by the state or by private labs, and 30 cases have been confirmed positive. The testing rate, the department said, equates to 5.41 tests per 1,000 county residents.

KDHE is also tracking hospitalization rates for cases where such information is available. The daily report shows 114 of the 354 positive COVID-19 cases that are being tracked have resulted in hospitalization thus far. That’s 32.2%, a small uptick from 31% on Monday.

Norman cautioned Wednesday that the state is still having problems getting the necessary swabs to conduct the level of COVID-19 testing needed to truly gauge the virus’ presence in Kansas.

To accurately test for the coronavirus, the swab can’t contain any natural materials — namely no wood or cotton — since those materials have their own DNA and genetic material.

In the coming weeks, Norman said, Kansas expects to have up to 64,000 test kits from a new manufacturer called Cepheid that can produce results in 45 minutes. The issues with the swabs will remain unless the federal government can step in and provide more resources.

Having such a marked increase in testing availability will allow the state to change its thinking from a public health standpoint, Norman said.

“Very clearly we need to do population studies, meaning testing people who are well,” he said. “It’s very fundamental work and will push the analysis (of the virus) upstream. But until that time, social distancing is the name of the game.”

As part of her daily remarks, Kelly confirmed that Gen. David Weishaar was sworn in Wednesday as Kansas’ Adjutant General and will begin the oversight of the state’s emergency response to COVID-19. The transition was planned before the pandemic, and outgoing Gen. Lee Tafanelli has agreed to stay on as a special advisor to Weishaar.

“I truly appreciate his willingness to serve Kansans during this very difficult time,” she said.

Kelly also said that residents need to be aware of severe weather and tornadoes with the official beginning of spring. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the state has to be aware of the normal dangers of springtime weather, she said.

The bottom line, Kelly said, is that folks should plan ahead and check with their local officials to see if regular storm shelters will be open.

“Try to practice social distancing and other precautions as much as possible,” she said. “The threat of this virus should not outweigh the imminent danger of a tornado.”


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