Kansas counties reject new guidance on COVID-19 quarantines

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly puts on her face mask after giving an update on COVID-19 in the state during a press conference at the Statehouse where she implemented a face mask protocol in an executive order, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Topeka, Kan. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Two northeast Kansas counties on Thursday rejected at least part of the new federal and state guidelines for shortening the time people are quarantined after they’re possibly exposed to COVID-19.

New guidance Wednesday from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who’ve been exposed to coronavirus and show no symptoms but don’t get tested can end their quarantines after 10 days, instead of 14. The new guidance also says a person without symptoms who tests negative can end a quarantine after seven days. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment adopted that guidance, though its top administrator, Dr. Lee Norman, said it is still urging people to remain quarantined for 14 days.

Public health officials in Wyandotte County announced that the Kansas City-area county is sticking with 14-day quarantines for people who’ve been potentially exposed to coronavirus.

“It can take up to 14 days after exposure to the virus for someone to develop COVID-19. That has not changed,” Elizabeth Groenweghe, the county health department’s chief epidemiologist said in a statement. “Reducing the quarantine timeline could increase the risk for further COVID-19 spread in our community.”

Shawnee County will allow people without COVID-19 symptoms who’ve not been tested to shorten their quarantines to 10 days, Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, the county’s health officer, said Thursday. But he said it will not allow people who’ve tested negative to leave quarantine after seven days.

Pezzino said the testing system is stressed in Shawnee County, home to the state capital of Topeka, and the the county does not want to overload it. Also, he said, the spread of COVID-19 remains “uncontrolled” locally.

Shawnee and Wyandotte counties are the state’s third- and fourth-most populous counties, with about 340,000 residents between them, or 12% of the state’s population. Together, they have reported 326 COVID-19 deaths and more than 20,000 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases during the pandemic, or one case for every 17 residents.

Shawnee County had nearly 4,100 cases in November alone — more than it did during the previous eight months of the pandemic, according to state health department data.

“We are still at a very high level,” Pezzino said. “It is still an enormous amount of cases.”

Two of Shawnee County’s three county commissioners went into quarantine within the past week, something that will force the commission to meet virtually. Commissioner Kevin Cook, a Democrat, is in quarantine because his wife tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing mild symptoms, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported. The wife of Commissioner Aaron Mays also tested positive; he tested negative but will remain quarantined.

The state health department has reported more than 162,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases and 1,679 deaths in Kansas since the pandemic began.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this month will consider authorizing emergency use of two-dose vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, though the first doses will be rationed and it will likely be months before vaccines are available to everybody.

The state’s coronavirus vaccine plan calls for providing the vaccine first to health care workers at high risk of exposure to COVID-19.

In south-central Kansas, Reno County commissioners said the state should consider public and private school employees high-risk workers and give them priority for vaccinations right after health care workers. The three commissioners agreed to send a letter to the state health department, The Hutchinson News reported.

Meanwhile, a majority of the inmates Kansas is housing in a privately run Arizona prison have coronavirus.

The Kansas Department of Corrections said Thursday there were 77 active coronavirus cases among the inmates housed out-of-state as of Monday. The department said it is housing 118 offenders at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. It has moved inmates there to prevent crowding in Kansas state prisons.

The Saguaro prison is operated by CoreCivic, a large private corrections company based in the Nashville area. The company also designed and built a new prison for the state in Lansing to replace an aging facility there that had first opened in the 1860s.

Department spokeswoman Carol Pitts said the numbers of cases among Kansas inmates at the Arizona prison appear consistent with numbers for outbreaks in Kansas prisons. Since the pandemic reached Kansas in early March, the department has reported more than 4,800 cases and 11 deaths among inmates and nearly 800 cases and three deaths among staff at its prisons for adult offenders.

CoreCivic spokesman Steve Owen said in an email that the company “rigorously followed” local, state and federal health guidelines before the first case in one of its facilities was confirmed.

“We’re continuing to work closely our government partners to enhance procedures as needed,” he said.

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