KDHE secretary temporarily halts disclosure of specific COVID-19 cluster sites

Kansas fatality total surges in response to review of death certificates

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the spread of COVID-19 provided extra incentive for people to get an influenza vaccination. He expects Kansas hospital resources to be stretched this fall and winter from exposure to the flu and coronavirus. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the spread of COVID-19 provided extra incentive for people to get an influenza vaccination. He expects Kansas hospital resources to be stretched this fall and winter from exposure to the flu and coronavirus. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Department of Health and Environment temporarily halted Wednesday release of precise information about COVID-19 clusters to modify metrics relied upon to inform the public about hot spots of the spreading virus.

KDHE secretary Lee Norman plans to resume the reporting on clusters next week after modifying the list to concentrate attention on the most current outbreaks linked to businesses, residential facilities or events. The list has been used to reveal active COVID-19 clusters of 20 or more at private businesses and of five or more at other locations.

“Our goal is to focus and report the most current disease activity,” Norman said at the Capitol. “We know people appreciate the transparency. It allows Kansans to make informed decisions in assessing personal risk.”

On Wednesday, KDHE increased by 52 the number of Kansans who died with a positive test for the coronavirus that has plagued the world. It brought the state’s total number of deaths to 586. In Kansas, there have been 50,870 positive tests for the virus and 2,616 people have been hospitalized for treatment.

Thirty-seven of the latest deaths to be incorporated into the total resulted from KDHE’s ongoing reconciliation of death reports to the state by medical professionals, health care providers and local health departments. The fatalities associated with COVID-19 were verified based on review of death certificates submitted to the vital statistics office at KDHE.

“We regularly review COVID-19 deaths,” the secretary said. “It has happened all the way along since we started this in March.”

Norman said the 15 other deaths were attributable to the state moving through a period in which school and college openings and sporting events brought more people together in groups. Additional mass gatherings will increase the number of people testing positive for coronavirus and eventually expand the number who die, he said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she wasn't confident in the COVID-19 fatality figures released by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. She also expressed concern decisions about school openings are based on insufficient testing of the Kansas population. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she wasn’t confident in the COVID-19 fatality figures released by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. She also expressed concern decisions about school openings are based on insufficient testing of the Kansas population. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In an interview, Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, said she didn’t have confidence in coronavirus statistics reported by KDHE. She made the comment after being asked her opinion about the 52-person uptick in COVID-19 fatalities reported by the agency.

“I’m not sure the numbers you just gave me are accurate,” Wagle said.

The Senate president also said in a statement Kansas’ prevalence of COVID-19 testing was so low that state officials didn’t have an accurate picture of the virus’ spread in the population.

Some Republican politicians have pointed to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage that listed coronavirus as the singular cause of death for 6% of people who died. In an effort to minimize the U.S. death toll of approximately 196,000, President Donald Trump and others seized upon the CDC post. The theory doesn’t properly take into account that the other 94% had COVID-19, but also an underlying condition such as obesity, diabetes or respiratory issues that heighten risk of contracting the virus.

Norman, the KDHE secretary, said he was aware some people had expressed doubt about compilation of COVID-19 statistics in Kansas.

“There’s always going to be naysayers and conspiracy theorists,” he said. “I can tell you that we go through very detailed quality control. I feel quite comfortable with the methodologies we apply. These are good numbers.”

On Thursday, Gov. Laura Kelly and top partisan leaders in the House and Senate are scheduled to discuss investment of millions of dollars from federal disaster aid into a program to dramatically escalate the volume of coronavirus testing. Norman has advocated for development of a robust testing initiative by contracting with private laboratories and transitioning to a saliva test that wasn’t as difficult to administer as the nasal swab test.