KDHE shifting gears on public report of site-specific COVID-19 clusters in Kansas

Revised list to target outbreaks of five or more cases regardless of location

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the agency plans to revise information shared with the public about known clusters of COVID-19 infection. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the agency revised information shared with the public about known clusters of COVID-19 infection. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Department of Health and Environment released a retooled list Wednesday of site-specific COVID-19 clusters that identified outbreaks of five cases or more occurring within the previous 14 days.

The original format for the KDHE report launched Sept. 9 defined clusters as businesses with at least 20 cases or as events and groups linked to five cases or more. It also included outbreaks that added as few as one new case within the prior 28 days. Those thresholds were questioned by journalists as insufficient and denounced by businesses as excessive.

In response, KDHE eliminated the distinction for purposes of this report — setting the benchmark in the new version at five regardless of locale.

“Somebody, let’s say, has eight cases today and then a week from now to have it down to four or less and then to no longer be on the list,” said Lee Norman, secretary of KDHE said in an interview with the Kansas Reflector. “I think that’s a more realistic way to inform people so they can make choices.”

In addition, KDHE decided to focus more attention on real-time situations by narrowing the report to COVID-19 outbreaks with symptom-onset dates in the previous 14 days. The agency came under criticism for listing clusters that began months ago and resulted in significant exposures to the virus but had been reduced to a trickle. As a consequence, the report’s list of businesses with clusters will shrink.

“What we feel like we’ve done is modified it to really meet the needs of people looking at the list,” Norman said. “We’re doing it and customizing essentially for the purposes that we think the public will benefit from the most.”

Alan Cobb, president of the Kansas Chamber, said the business lobbying organization appreciated the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly revising its approach to reporting COVID-19 outbreaks.

“KDHE’s updated approach to keeping Kansans informed about the potential risks of COVID-19 better reflects current data,” he said.

Cobb said KDHE should provide businesses advance notice of being added to the public cluster list and be given an opportunity to “meaningfully respond.” Relying on outdated information during the pandemic induces fear and anxiety, he said.

On Wednesday, KDHE reported an additional 21 fatalities linked to coronavirus since Monday. Nine of the 21 resulted from the agency’s ongoing effort to reconcile death notifications disclosed by health providers with official causes of death in documents filed with KDHE. Since the virus began spreading in March, Kansas has recorded 621 deaths tied to COVID-19.

The agency said 1,267 new cases of coronavirus in Kansas had been identified through testing since Monday to put the statewide total at 55,226.

Norman said a central purpose of KDHE was public safety and the agency’s goal during the pandemic was to be transparent with information useful to people.

The new cluster list issued by KDHE identified the No. 1 outbreak to be at Kenwoodview Health and Rehabilitation Center in Salina at 35 cases. The rest of the top five with case numbers from the past 14 days: Rolling Hills Health and Rehabilitation, Topeka, 29; National Beef, Dodge City, 20; Azria Health Woodhaven, Ellinwood, 16; SunPorch of Dodge City, 16; and Dodge City Community College, 14.

In all, the revised KDHE report included 26 locations with more than half at long-term care facilities. Four public school sites on the list were Baxter Springs High School, Nettels Elementary School in Pittsburg, Meade Elementary School and the Dodge City school district. There were three religious sites, including a revival event hosted by Abundant Life Family Church in Dodge City. In addition to National Beef, the large meatpacker in southwest Kansas, the other business on the list was Acme Foundry in Coffeyville.

Sen. Mike Thompson, a Johnson County Republican, said during a legislative committee hearing that at some point the COVID-19 emergency can be called off because there was a "pretty infinitesimally small number of people who actually died from COVID." (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Johnson County Republican, said during a legislative committee hearing that at some point the COVID-19 emergency can be called off because there was a “pretty infinitesimally small number of people who actually died from COVID.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

During a legislative committee hearing, Sen. Mike Thompson, a Republican from Shawnee, said the state’s emergency management law should be amended to prevent a governor from ever ordering businesses to shut down.

The Kansas recovery rate of people with COVID-19 is nearly 100%, Thompson said, a far cry from the 6% initially predicted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That’s a pretty infinitesimally small number of people who actually died from COVID,” Thompson said. “At what point do we say, OK, it’s a small enough number that we could call off this emergency?”

The normal flu season “kills a lot of people, too,” Thompson said. “Actually, it’s probably more identifiable that the deaths are from flu rather than the COVID from all the data that I’ve seen.”

Will Lawrence, chief of staff to Gov. Laura Kelly, said the administration would continue to take the advice of medical professionals “on that front.”

“I don’t think there should be any expectation that this is going to be over anytime soon,” Lawrence said.

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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.