Kansas’ top health official sounds the alarm on COVID-19, predicts current trend line will ‘steepen’

Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, speaks at a news briefing on Wednesday, July 1, 2020, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Kansas in the last 10 days has seen a “significant increase” in new COVID-19 cases and is taking “another step in the wrong direction,” the state’s top health officer said Wednesday.

Since last Monday, the state has confirmed 2,547 new cases of the deadly respiratory virus, said Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Norman said the state was seeing an upward trend in cases for several reasons, some of which will continue to hamstring Kansas’ response to the virus in coming weeks.

“I predict that not only will we see this trend line continue, but it will steepen,” he said.

Chief among Norman’s concerns, he said, is that the compromise legislation on emergency management powers that was passed by the Kansas Legislature during a special session in early June imposes restrictions on contact tracing efforts that will prove burdensome.

For example, Norman said, if a local business has workers come down with the virus, part of contact tracing efforts would naturally be for KDHE to alert other employees and customers with whom those workers had been in close contact.

The legislative compromise, however, doesn’t require any third party to collect or maintain data regarding COVID-19 positive people or their contacts for the purposes of contact tracing. It also prohibits contact tracers from getting any data from third parties, like a local business, about infected people or their contacts. KDHE is also required to make rules for its contact tracers in line with those legislative provisions.

“(The law) requires us to make rules and regulations that will, I have no question about it, interfere with contract tracing,” Norman said.

Norman also highlighted key events during Kansas’ response to the virus as factors for the increasing caseload, such as Memorial Day gatherings and May 27 — when Gov. Laura Kelly’s reopening plan was forced to become guidance for individual counties rather than a statewide mandate.

“By this becoming guidance, that’s when many, many counties opened up and many returned to business as usual,” Norman said.

Norman did not address specifics of a statewide mask mandate as it relates to the executive order Kelly will issue, likely on Thursday. He did, however, say that Kansas simply has many factors working against it in terms of stemming the spread of the virus. Some of those factors include counties that will choose not to enforce Kelly’s mask mandate, which begins at midnight Friday.

The essential approaches to slowing the spread of COVID-19 beyond personal health precautions, Norman said, are four-fold: adequate testing capacity, rapid case investigation with positive patients, aggressive contact tracing, and isolation and quarantine measures.

“We have a bad convergence ahead. We’re in the middle of a bad convergence — 10 days, 2,500 cases, that’s evidence enough,” Norman said. “The solution isn’t a cure, because we don’t have a cure for COVID-19. The solution is prevention.”

Kansas on Wednesday confirmed 547 new COVID-19 cases since KDHE last released data on Monday, and the state’s total caseload now sits at nearly 15,000. KDHE also confirmed two more deaths attributed to the virus, which has now claimed the lives of 272 Kansans.

The 547 positive cases were out of 6,448 total COVID-19 tests, for a percent positive rate of 8.5% in the people tested since Monday. Overall, Kansans tested for COVID-19 have tested positive at a rate of 8.2% since the pandemic began in March.


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