New data on COVID-19 in Kansas encouraging, but masks, social distancing still needed, KDHE secretary says

Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, speaks at a news briefing on Friday, May 29, 2020, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Though the impact of COVID-19 is not on the wane, the state’s top health officer on Friday cited encouraging signs for how Kansas is managing the disease’s spread.

New data has shown that only six states have a lower infection rate of COVID-19 than Kansas, Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said.

Infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are gauged on a scale of how many people an infected person could spread the disease to, assuming everyone in a community is vulnerable. The seasonal flu, for example, has an infectious value of around 1.3, meaning anyone who has influenza will spread it to just over one other person, statistically.

The infectious value of COVID-19 has been determined to be 5.87, Norman said Friday. And for any infectious disease to die out in a community, the value needs to be below 1.

In Kansas, the value sits at only 0.87, Norman said. While encouraging, it’s also a reminder that Kansans should stay steadfast in practicing social distancing and wearing masks to avoid an influx of new cases.

“That’s a spectacular result for Kansas,” Norman said in a news conference. “I applaud the people who are showing great discretion in pushing (the rate) down, but we must remain vigilant to keep it on that same trajectory.”

Norman also highlighted that only five states have a lower fatality rate in confirmed COVID-19 cases than Kansas, another encouraging sign for the state as it begins to reopen its doors. When asked why Kansas had been successful in lowering the spread, Norman’s answer was simple: sound public health guidelines.

“I think it’s because of the fact we’re using proven techniques to push down the disease spread,” he said. “Early school closure, early stay-at-home orders, and at least a sufficient amount of people are taking the hand-washing and mask-wearing seriously.”

Gov. Laura Kelly has not appeared with Norman at the news briefings since last week, and only spoke Tuesday to veto legislation that limited her powers to manage the pandemic. Kelly will resume the normal Monday-Wednesday-Friday briefing schedule next week, her office said.

Norman said he advised Kelly on “public health principles” before she acted Tuesday to end statewide restrictions that would have kept bars and nightclubs from reopening and would have limited mass gatherings. Health officers in each of the state’s 105 counties now decide the rules, though they can refer to her plan for reopening the economy in phases for guidance.

Officials in the state’s two most populous counties, Johnson and Sedgwick, are using Kelly’s reopening guidelines as recommendations for businesses, but they’re not imposing enforceable rules. Wyandotte County, which is in the Kansas City area and has had the most COVID-19-related deaths in the state, said bars could reopen Friday if they limited indoor crowds to 15 people, enforced social distancing in their indoor and outdoor seating areas, and required staff to wear masks.

Norman called bars and nightclubs “inherently unsafe.” Asked whether he would have allowed them to reopen, he said, “Not at this juncture.”

“If the officials feel that it’s safe to reopen in their counties, we would still hope that people would vote with their feet,” Norman said. “This virus is still out there, I assure you.”

Kansas on Friday confirmed 382 new cases of COVID-19 since data was last released on Wednesday, bringing the state’s cumulative total to 9,719 cases. KDHE also confirmed three more deaths from the virus, which has now killed 208 Kansans since the pandemic took hold in March.

KDHE is currently tracking 122 outbreaks of COVID-19, 47 of which are no longer active. Those outbreaks account for 4,981 cases and 141 deaths in the state and can be traced to the following locations:

• 56 from private industry, 19 of which are closed, resulting in 414 cases and four deaths;

• 30 from long-term care facilities, 13 of which are closed, resulting in 690 cases and 109 deaths;

• 12 from various gatherings, resulting in 143 cases and 11 deaths;

• 10 from meatpacking plants, resulting in 2,647 cases and nine deaths;

• Six from group-living arrangements, four of which are closed, resulting in 52 cases and two deaths;

• Five from health care facilities, four of which are closed, resulting in 44 cases;

• Three from correctional facilities, resulting in 991 cases and six deaths.

Norman noted that new clusters from recent private gatherings have been traced to funerals, Mother’s Day celebrations and a “keg party.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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