Coronavirus trends, testimonials humble and educate top Kansas health official

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. (July 29, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. (July 29, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman said rural counties lacking mask mandates have struggled more than their urban counterparts to contain COVID-19 in recent weeks.

In the 15 counties with mask ordinances, Norman reported a rapid dropoff in cases per 100,000 people over a four week period. He said in the 90 counties where masks aren’t required there has been no change from July 12 to Aug. 3, despite being less populated.

“These areas with masks tend to be more the more urban areas of the state, but even with higher concentrations of people their numbers are decreasing,” Norman said. “I believe if the counties with smaller populations were to do the same, we would see their cases drop below that of the urban counties.”

During a briefing Wednesday, Norman equated Kansas to an experiment where the control group is those without masks and the variable group is those with mask mandates.

“Do masks work? The bottom line in this natural experiment is the group wearing the mask is winning the battle,” Norman said. “When we see improvements in our cases it comes from those counties wearing masks.”

Norman said he has recently been speaking directly with people who have been infected by COVID-19 to learn more and to be able to share vital real-life testimonies.

From these conversations, Norman emphasized the lasting damage the virus can cause.

“We’ve spoken with patients who run the whole gambit from asymptomatic to being put on a ventilator,” Norman said. “A lot of these people have symptoms for months after having ‘recovered.’”

Often asked about the number of recoveries in Kansas, Norman said it’s difficult to formulate a number when there are patients like these who haven’t truly recovered but simply gotten over the acute phase of the infection.

He recalled speaking with a 19-year-old in Dodge City who had mild symptoms in May and was never hospitalized. This past weekend he was bedridden with a severe headache and fatigue, symptoms which had lingered since he was diagnosed.

“This served as a humbling experience in many regards and a reminder of how little we know about the virus and its impact on the body in both short term and long term,” Norman said before again urging people to wear masks.

Norman also reported 841 new cases of COVID-19 and three new deaths in Kansas since Monday. In total, KDHE has recorded 26,870 cases, 1,700 hospitalizations and 349 deaths.

He said health officials in Kansas were monitoring active clusters connected to team sports, childcare, schools and correctional facilities — where Norman has seen improvement. Larger outbreaks, like the one in Lansing Correctional Facility when case numbers surged past 150 and certain wings showed 75% positivity rates, aren’t happening anymore, he said.

“We still see frequent smaller outbreaks in corrections but what is different is how we are much quicker at identifying it and getting testing done,” Norman said.

Norman said thorough testing means they are able to mitigate the risk before another major outbreak occurs.

“We are testing not only the ill person but everyone in the facility, coming back five days later and testing again and then one more time at a later date,” Norman said. “We aren’t seeing those large numbers anymore because of the rapid deployment.”