Disabled, elderly advocates eager for KDHE reporting of site-specific COVID-19 outbreaks

Kansas’ fatality total linked to coronavirus surpasses 600

By: - September 21, 2020 12:37 pm
Kansas organizations advocating for people with disabilities and elderly individuals are urging Lee Norman, left, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and Gov. Laura Kelly to resume and expand public disclosure of COVID-19 clusters. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas organizations advocating for people with disabilities and elderly individuals are urging Lee Norman, left, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and Gov. Laura Kelly to resume and expand public disclosure of COVID-19 clusters. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas needs to be among at least 35 states regularly publishing facility-specific information about spread of COVID-19 to provide clarity for people making decisions about long-term care placements for the elderly or congregate housing that serves people with disabilities, advocates said Monday.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment temporarily halted reporting on clusters of confirmed coronavirus infection to retool information presented in the weekly analysis of where the virus was rearing its head at businesses, mass gatherings and a range of events.

Initially, KDHE said the plan was to disclose outbreaks at businesses with more than 20 cases or clusters of five or greater cases associated with other places or events. It’s unclear precisely what changes the agency might make to reporting.

KDHE administrators indicated disclosures designed to serve interests of government transparency and to help people make decisions about exposure to risk would be resumed perhaps as early as Wednesday.

Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, said release of information about site-specific clusters of COVID-19 in hands of the state health department was a matter of life and death. Kansas’ initial effort was more limited than public reporting by a majority of states detailing coronavirus infection at congregate settings in which residents are more likely to become seriously ill or die than those who live in the community, he said.

“We’re on the edge of consensus,” Nichols said. “Moving toward more transparency would have Kansas join more states in the center of that bubble of national consensus.”

He pointed to Mississippi’s work to release COVID-19 reports while respecting privacy rights of residents of state state, especially the rights of people with disabilities that historically were subject to privacy invasions. The state of Mississippi provides cumulative data of cases and deaths for each county in specific congregate settings. It’s done in nursing homes, but also in intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, personal care homes that include assisted living facilities and residential care facilities.

On Monday, KDHE updated its coronavirus totals to reflect confirmation of 53,959 cases scattered throughout the state’s 105 counties. The Kansas death total attributed to the coronavirus climbed to 600, KDHE said.

Sean Gatewood, co-administrator of KanCare Advocates Network, said the coalition of more than 50 organizations and individuals who work on behalf of the 400,000 Kansans involved with Medicaid appreciated officials in the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly making the sharing with the public information about COVID-19 a priority.

He said a global pandemic wasn’t a time to limit transparency of public health information.

“Making decisions during a time of crisis is difficult, but for older adults and those who live in group settings, those decisions can have life and death consequences,” Gatewood said. “Knowing where there are outbreaks of the virus arms the public with a critical tool for making healthy, safe and informed choices.”

In terms of neighboring states, KanCare Advocate Network said, Nebraska didn’t provide COVID-19 data on long-term care facilities. Missouri and Oklahoma offer aggregate numbers at the state or county levels. Colorado is among the 35 states issuing data or information at the facility level, the organization said.

Lee Norman, secretary of the state Department of Health and Environment, said the agency received both praise and criticism for the first edition of the statewide report pinpointing coronavirus clusters in Kansas.

“It allows Kansans to make informed decisions in assessing personal risk of where they go,” Norman said.

KDHE declined a Kansas Open Records Act request from the Kansas Reflector to also release the identity of businesses with one to 19 infections. The agency pointed to a “personal privacy” exemption in state law in denying the request.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.