Kansas health secretary says first wave of COVID-19 isn’t over, expect more infections

By: - September 30, 2020 6:00 pm

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, points out the relatively low number of deaths from the flu compared to COVID-19 during a news briefing Wednesday at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman on Wednesday said the state remains in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the number of infections will be worse when the second wave arrives.

Between 3-5% of the state’s 2.9 million people have already been infected, Norman said, and the spread of the virus is shifting from large metropolitan areas into more rural communities.

Norman delivered his weekly briefing at the Statehouse alongside a large replica of flu and death certificates, which he reviewed in detail in an attempt to bolster confidence in KDHE reporting, and a chart showing the number of annual flu deaths pale in comparison to those killed by COVID-19.

The agency has struggled to refute naysayers who refuse to believe COVID-19 is the primary cause of death for the 678 the disease has killed in Kansas, or that the pandemic is more serious than the flu. KDHE numbers show 196, 76, and 117 deaths from the flu in the past three years.

The agency has two processes for verifying COVID-19 deaths, Norman said, both of which rely on the death certificate filled out by a physician. Local health officials notify KDHE of COVID-19 deaths, and the agency verifies those numbers after the death certificate is filed with the Office of Vital Statistics. The agency also looks for previously unreported deaths where COVID-19 was listed as the primary cause.

“It’s been such a political hot potato, quite honestly — both, ‘Does this disease exist,’ has there been too much or too little reaction to it, and, ‘How can I discount the credibility of the people that are raising the red flag about it,'” Norman said. “It has never made logical sense to me to have discounted it because the same physicians that are taking care of you when you are alive are the same ones that are certifying death and cause of death.

“If you trust the physician to care care of you when you’re alive, then you should trust your physician when you die.”

KDHE has added 41 deaths to the statewide total in the past two days.

Kansas health officials have documented nearly 60,000 infections since the virus was first detected in the state in early March. Norman said he expects the state soon could see up to 900 new cases per day.

It is unclear how many Kansans have had undetected or unreported infections. However, Norman said, an American Red Cross sampling of antibody tests in blood donations shows 4% have had the disease.

KDHE is still working on new projections, Norman said, but he expects the first wave of the pandemic to level off at current rates before numbers escalate again.

Two weeks ago, Johnson, Wyandotte and Sedgwick counties accounted for 55% of new infections in the state. Now, as the virus intensifies in other parts of the state, those three counties account for just 35% of new cases.

The latest list of active clusters shows 39 places in Kansas associated with five or more outbreaks in the past 14 days. They include 19 long-term care facilities.

Six of the outbreaks are in Dodge City in southwest Kansas.

Gov. Laura Kelly announced Wednesday the state’s labor department on Friday will begin processing the $300 weekly boost to unemployment aid made available through the federal Lost Wages Assistance program. The funds are available to Kansans who lost their job because of the pandemic.

Payments will be retroactive to the week ending Aug. 1.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.