KDHE skips new weekly update on COVID-19 clusters after initial feedback; Kansas passes 50,000 case threshold

photo by: Associated Press

Lee Norman, Kansas secretary of health and environment, spoke about current numbers of COVID-19 cases Wednesday, July 8, 2020, during a news conference at the Kansas Statehouse. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

Only a week after it released the first list of active COVID-19 outbreaks in Kansas, the state Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday skipped its update to review the feedback the department received the week prior.

According to a statement on the department’s COVID-19 dashboard, the reporting of outbreak locations should be back on schedule next week. On Sept. 9, KDHE reported the locations and case counts for 191 outbreaks of five or more people across the state — with the exception of private businesses, who were not named unless they accounted for 20 or more cases.

“We know people appreciate the transparency and information, and that it allows Kansans to make informed decisions when assessing personal risk. KDHE staff has taken the feedback we received and is currently assessing ways in which we can report this information in a way that reflects current COVID-19 case increases,” the department said. “As we assess our process, we will not be releasing outbreak names and locations September 16, but anticipate doing so next Wednesday, September 23.”

The methodology of releasing data, especially for private businesses, drew opposing concerns from various organizations.

A conglomerate of Kansas business organizations, along with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly on Sept. 9 asking her administration not to release the names and locations of private businesses tied to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Meanwhile, The Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit investigative outlet covering the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, announced Tuesday that it was filing a complaint with the office of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt after KDHE denied an open records request for the list of businesses that were found to be points of transmission for between five and 19 cases of the virus.

The Reflector reported that a KDHE attorney cited an exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows government agencies to withhold public information “of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” but the agency wouldn’t clarify the difference in privacy concerns from releasing the location of a handful of cases attributed to a fraternity, for example, versus a private business.

Schmidt’s office has the authority to investigate allegations that public agencies violated the state’s open records and open meetings laws, as well as take corrective action if necessary. That action can include required training on complying with transparency laws, a mandate to turn over the records in question, a $500 fine for each violation of the law, as well as any relevant attorney fees.

On Wednesday, Kansas passed the threshold of 50,000 total cases of COVID-19, confirming an additional 971 cases of the respiratory virus since data was last released Monday. Because of what KDHE attributed to a “reconciliation of vital statistics death records,” the state death toll from COVID-19 increased by 52 Wednesday, and it now sits at 586 since the pandemic began in March.

The 971 new cases were out of a total of 5,845 tests, meaning the most recent group of Kansas’ tested returned with positive results at a rate of 16.6%.

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