Department of Labor increases presence as virus-related unemployment claims skyrocket; Kansas death toll at 13

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions about the coronavirus outbreak in her state during a news conference, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Kelly says the state is in the "exploratory phase" of determining what to do about containing the virus in its prison system. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Kansas’ Department of Labor has brought on numerous staffers from other state departments and is using Amazon Web Services to help wade through a deluge of calls from residents seeking guidance on unemployment claims, Gov. Laura Kelly said Thursday in her daily COVID-19 briefing.

The department has received as many as 877,000 calls in a single day since the pandemic began and more Kansans began to lose their jobs, leaving the department overwhelmed.

Department of Labor Secretary Delía García said that over the last two weeks 79,353 Kansans have filed new claims for unemployment benefits. Normally staffed with 21 workers, the department has increased its employees to 50 and hopes to staff as many as 60 or 70 workers in the coming weeks.

“We are working around the clock every day to provide the best possible services,” García said, appearing alongside Kelly.

The use of Amazon Web Services — essentially a deeper infrastructure of computer networks — will allow the Labor Department to sort out types of call inquiries as they come in, which will in turn allow people to be directed to the correct representative.

It also allows nondepartment employees who will help out during the crisis to answer the more mundane questions residents may have.

“When I said all hands on deck, I meant it, and state employees are responding,” Kelly said. “Years of neglect and underfunding have taken their toll on this agency and these critical systems.”

Kelly also announced the state Department of Revenue would be issuing an edict waiving penalties and interest on Quarter 1 estimated 2020 tax payments — which will apply to income tax, corporate income tax and privilege tax.

“Kansans, their families and many businesses have been hit hard by this epidemic,” she said. “We will pursue every possible strategy to get Kansans relief.”

Prior to Kelly’s briefing, the state Department of Health and Environment announced that cumulative confirmed cases of the virus in Kansas jumped just over 14.5% since Tuesday – from 482 to 552 — and the state confirmed three more COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the total to 13.

The 552 confirmed cases are out of 6,611 total tests, meaning 8.3% of tested Kansans have tested positive for the virus. A week prior, on March 26, only 5.5% of all tests returned positive.

Those numbers should be taken with the caveat that new research in recent days out of China, where the virus originated in late 2019, suggests that COVID-19 testing can have a 30% false-negative testing rate. American medical experts have suggested to national media outlets that number could be even higher.

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, 711 people have been tested either by the state or by private labs, and 31 cases have been confirmed positive. The testing rate, the department said, equates to 5.82 tests per 1,000 county residents.

KDHE is also tracking hospitalization rates for cases where such information is available. The department said 138 of the 413 positive COVID-19 cases that are being tracked have resulted in hospitalization thus far — a 33.4% rate for applicable cases.

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