KDHE tightens virus outbreak list to include only cases active in last 14 days; no clusters named in Douglas County

photo by: Associated Press

Dr. Lee Norman, head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, answers questions about the coronavirus pandemic during a news conference, Friday, May 8, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Updated at 5:18

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday revamped its practices for releasing the locations of active COVID-19 outbreaks across the state, narrowing the time frame required for active cases in an attempt to reduce confusion.

The change, which came a week after the department suspended updates in order to review feedback, significantly reduced the number of named outbreaks. Previously, the department had identified all active outbreaks, which it defined as two or more cases from one known exposure to a COVID-19 positive case if locations had five or more cases, or 20 in the case of private businesses.

This created some confusion during the initial naming process, though, as KDHE also classifies clusters as active until they’ve gone 28 days without a new case — in line with standard epidemiological practice. This practice also caused some consternation with some business organizations in Kansas earlier in September, who asked Gov. Laura Kelly not to release the names of specific businesses.

“I think we’ve reconciled those differences,” KDHE Secretary Dr. Lee Norman said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Now, the department will release only the names of COVID-19 outbreaks that have confirmed five or more cases in the last 14 days, or one incubation period of the respiratory virus.

“We stopped and thought about what the goal of listing this information publicly was,” KDHE spokesperson Ashley Jones-Wisner told the Journal-World. “We wanted to give the public timely information, so that’s why we made this switch.”

The department also heard confusion and frustration from locations named in the initial outbreak list that had a concentrated number of cases months ago, for example, but had since had only a handful of cases periodically trickle in — but still within the 28-day time period it would need to take them off the cluster list, Jones-Wisner said.

Jones-Wisner said the cumulative case count on the initial active cluster location list was confusing for the general public, which also contributed to the switch to only emphasizing cases from the last 14 days. Once a case no longer has five or more cases in a two-week span, the outbreak will be removed from the list, she said.

An example of this came from the University of Kansas football team, which was named as an active cluster with 14 cases in KDHE’s Sept. 9 update. This prompted concern from fans that the team’s first game of the season, scheduled three days later, could be in jeopardy, until a KU Athletics spokesperson confirmed that only three players had recently tested positive.

“We have gotten a handle on the number of cases that are within the last 14 days, which is the most relevant and the most important to the people who we’re focusing on that would benefit from this information,” Norman said.

Norman also reiterated that KDHE’s goal in releasing outbreak locations was twofold: increased transparency and giving Kansans the information needed to make decisions about their own health and wellbeing with regard to entering public spaces.

KDHE on Wednesday said it was actively tracking 211 outbreaks of COVID-19, but under the new disclosure policy, only 29 are named. The department identified no active clusters associated with the University of Kansas, any area athletic teams, or spaces in Douglas County. In the last update, Douglas County had four named clusters.

The department on Wednesday also released COVID-19 testing data, which confirmed 1,267 new cases of the respiratory virus since data was last released on Monday. KDHE also confirmed 21 additional deaths attributed to COVID-19, which has now killed 621 Kansans.

Norman on Wednesday addressed the higher uptick in deaths, saying that it is attributed to a process called reconciliation of vital statistics death records. Essentially, KDHE tracks COVID-19 deaths through two different systems: information from local health departments and through a department epidemiology system.

Occasionally, Norman said, the department will double check the two systems to make sure information isn’t missing, which can sometimes result in a high fluctuation of virus deaths that appear new.

“Really, it’s just an auditing to make sure (the totals) sync up,” he said.

The 1,267 new COVID-19 cases were out of a total of 7,590 confirmed test results, a percent positive test rate of 16.7%. That’s a rate far higher than what public health experts have identified as a benchmark of what areas are successfully managing the spread of COVID-19 — 10%.

Norman also on Wednesday voiced concerns that Kansas continues to register such high case numbers, especially as flu season approaches and could put further strain on the state’s hospital system.


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