Kansas names businesses, schools, churches, long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says the identification of COVID-19 hot spots will help guide residents in decisions about their personal safety. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday released for the first time the names and places associated with active outbreaks of COVID-19 across the state.

The list includes seven Greek houses at Kansas State University, plus eight other universities and colleges, more than two-dozen long-term care facilities, nine private businesses, four religious gatherings, two public schools and six sports teams.

KDHE secretary Lee Norman said the purpose of releasing the information is to empower Kansans to be proactive about assessing their personal health risks.

“If an individual sees locations they regularly visit on the cluster list, they will have a better sense of how they are increasing their own personal risk and perhaps make some individual decisions to reduce the spread of the disease,” Norman said.

KDHE also reported 495 Kansas residents have died from the novel coronavirus, an 8% increase from last week. Health officials have documented 47,410 cases since the virus was first detected in Kansas in early March. Norman warned the impact of the virus is likely to intensify in the fall and winter months.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s office last week announced the decision to begin naming the locations connected to five or more confirmed cases of COVID-19. For private businesses, the threshold for being named publicly is 20 cases.

Seven business groups, including the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to the governor on Wednesday asking her not to move forward with plans to identify active cases associated with businesses.

In addition to the Kansas Chamber, the letter was sent on behalf of Associated General Contractors of Kansas, Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas Bankers Association, National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Builders Association, and Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We are unsure what the benefit of this disclosure offers, other than a public shaming of businesses where an outbreak occurs,” said Kansas Chamber president and CEO Alan Cobb. “That said, we are curious what legal basis or authority exists for the state to adopt this policy and whether the governor and her administration have considered any possible legal ramifications against either the state or a business impacted by this policy decision. We have seen Kansas businesses go above and beyond the call to protect their employees, customers, and Kansans during the last five months.”

KDHE reported the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Kansas City has 42 active cases, and eight businesses where food is handled are associated with more than 2,000 cases. They include 594 at Cargill and 647 at National Beef meatpacking plants in Dodge City.

“We’re going to have businesses that continue to have cases pop up,” Norman said, “but what we’re really interested in is a trend line to see if we can help them to push down the number of cases to keep people safe.”

The public identification of hot spots is a departure from the first five months of the pandemic, when officials considered the information to be classified.

In June, the Kansas City Star first reported on a secret internal document that detailed every active outbreak. The document was made available through an open records request by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

Kansas Reflector has submitted an open records request seeking the name, location and number of cases for any business associated with an active cluster of any size.

KDHE identified clusters associated with religious gatherings at Faith Chapel Assembly of God in Louisburg (21), Faith Tabernacle Apostolic Church in Junction City (7), Hannah’s House in Independence (9) and Plevna Church in Plevna (14).

John Clayton, the pastor at Faith Chapel Assembly of God, said the church has suspended all in-person services until after Sept. 13. Before the outbreak, he said, the church practiced social distancing and provided hand sanitizer.

“It’s a virus,” Clayton said. “I don’t know if you can stop it completely, but we definitely haven’t been careless.”

He said he likes privacy, but if the state wants to identify locations of outbreaks, “there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“I am not a big fan of rumors,” Clayton said. “I would much rather, if people want to know, they can contact me and I would be happy to let them know what’s going on.”

The largest cluster among higher education institutions is at Benedictine College in Atchison, where there are 98 active cases. There are also outbreaks associated with Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University, Pittsburg State University, Dodge City Community College, Hutchinson Community College, Bethel College and Hesston College.

At K-State, there are 60 cases spread among Alpha Delta Pi, Alpha Xi Delta, Delta Sigma Phi, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and Theta Xi.

KDHE’s report says 31 cases in Cherokee County are associated with the Maranatha Church Camp in Everton, Missouri, and nine cases are associated with the We Buy BlaKCK event in Kansas City.

The largest outbreak at a long-term care facility is at the 120-bed Holiday Resort in Emporia, where there are 88 cases.