Norman: KU, other Kansas colleges ‘doing the best they can’ to manage COVID-19 pandemic with limited control, supplies

photo by: Associated Press

Lee Norman, Kansas secretary of health and environment, speaks to the press at the Statehouse during the coronavirus pandemic at a weekly briefing, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Topeka, Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across Kansas have been tasked with a difficult “balancing act” of trying to resume some semblance of normal educational activities while at the same time weighing significant public health concerns, the state’s top health official told the Journal-World on Friday.

That’s why despite some public criticisms, Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, thinks that higher education institutions such as the University of Kansas and other public colleges in the state are “doing the best they can” to deal with all sides of the equation in an unprecedented situation.

“When you look at ‘what are the things I can control versus the things I can’t,’ I think KU has done a great job of doing what they can do,” Norman said in a phone interview.

Norman, in news conferences and TV interviews throughout the pandemic, has touched on the general challenges that college campuses bring in managing a public health crisis, but hasn’t had the opportunity to go into more complete detail about his thoughts on universities reopening during a pandemic that’s showing no signs of ceasing.

He told the Journal-World that KU started planning behind the scenes for the fall semester early, and that its initial surveillance testing of the whole university community upon a return to campus will set up the state’s flagship university well to be as successful as possible.

Norman acknowledged, though, that there is much at play that universities and their leaders don’t have the ability to control. Days before KU reopened for the fall semester, for example, images and videos of rampant partying on campus circulated on social media, prompting high-ranking student, faculty and staff leaders to urge a two-week delay of in-person instruction.

“There’s always going to be limiting factors. Young people are social, young people often think they’re invincible, therefore it’s easy to put concern about COVID-19 fairly far down the list of concerns,” Norman said. “In reality, they want to come back, have fun, be social, and yes, get to their educational goals, and yes, get to their extracurricular goals.”

This naturally creates difficult policy decisions for university administrators, Norman said, and it makes sense that higher education institutions wouldn’t simply snap to a judgment requiring an entirely online semester that’s so different from what most students had in mind for a college experience.

KU’s mass entry testing program, which tested over 22,000 students, faculty and staff members upon their arrival to campus, will establish what Norman called a “good bedrock plan” for managing the spread of the virus.

The Journal-World interviewed Norman before KU on Friday afternoon released a more comprehensive dashboard detailing test results and other data from the entirety of its entry testing program and the beginning of a more targeted testing effort going forward. That targeted effort includes around 525 tests per week — 350 of which will be random samples of the population.

Norman said Friday that from a public health perspective, more testing capacity is always better, but the reality is that Kansas simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to test 20,000 people on KU’s campus once a week — which is what would happen in a best-case scenario.

“Those broad testing programs are expensive, they tie up a lot of resources, and from a broader public health perspective, could probably be put to better use,” he said. “The strength of sampling like this is you have a statistically relevant number that you’re testing to get a general understanding. Another positive is you’re sensitive then to the entire community, and statewide, to not exhaust our testing capacity.”

KU’s more strategic testing program will allow both state and commercial labs to keep producing test results quickly enough that they are still relevant for recipients. If a lab takes seven days to produce a result, it’s clearly exceeded its capacity and that isn’t helpful for anyone, Norman said.

“The downside is you can’t identify every single case unless you test them really every single day. Practically speaking, you can’t do tests with that great of frequency,” Norman said. “There’s no bandwidth to do that and not enough resources to make that work.”

Norman also addressed why KU — with the exception of 14 cases attributed to the football team — was absent from KDHE’s initial list of active statewide outbreaks of the virus. It was due to the university’s entry testing of every community member, which made it somewhat illogical to attribute transmission to a specific KU location.

Schools such as Kansas State University had multiple outbreaks listed in KDHE’s report, but that’s because they didn’t mandate testing of every person like KU did, and therefore it wasn’t as easy to assume positive cases were brought to Manhattan from students’ home communities, Norman said.

Still, he said it makes sense that people were confused why KU — which at the time had reported 546 cases of COVID-19 — wasn’t listed as having any active outbreaks.

“I think it is legitimate (to be) asking those questions. But this problem will go away with each day, week, month as we go on,” he said. “And the data will always take a few days to catch up. I didn’t see anything disingenuous at all about the fact (clusters) weren’t related to KU. We understood that they did their epidemiology work and related it back to their home counties.”

KU on Friday announced a new dashboard to report COVID-19 data, and indicated that its total case count now sits at nearly 800. As the state’s top health official, Norman has the statutory authority to order the closure of organizations or events that run contrary to the interests of public health — which ostensibly means he could close KU’s campus if he felt it necessary.

While he said he does not want to order a complete shutdown of any university campus, whether KU’s or not, Norman didn’t dismiss the idea of shutting down aspects of university operations.

“The way I think about this is you cannot mitigate risk down to zero in this pandemic. The best you can do is mitigate all of the things you can,” he said. “We want to be able to inform people how to mitigate risk. And if part of mitigating risk is eliminating certain programs for now, taking a gap year in certain programs for now, then I would much rather do it that way in a strategic area than with a broad brush and say ‘this whole enterprise, we’re shutting it down.'”

It’s more important, he said, to keep fundamentals in place. In higher education, that means protecting the overall goal of providing a learning environment for students.

“…If there’s something that is disproportionately accelerating the risk, then I think we would have to look at peeling that off and closing it, perhaps,” Norman said.

Norman encouraged the general public to be patient with the public agencies overseeing the response to COVID-19, and likened the effort they’re undertaking to “building the airplane as we fly it.”

“It’s going to be a challenge going forward, and we’ll have to be nimble,” he said. “Roll with the punches. It’s going to change day by day.”

Contact Conner Mitchell

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