Norton’s COVID-19 infection rate highest ever recorded in Kansas

Gov. Laura Kelly's budget director says she still will have to make difficult decisions as she prepares her proposed budget for the next fiscal year. A revised forecast released on Friday projects a shortfall of $152 million, rather than the $1.4 billion deficit previously feared. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A severe and deadly outbreak of COVID-19 that has ravaged the Norton community is by far the worst recorded in Kansas since the start of the pandemic, health officials said Wednesday.

Gov. Laura Kelly called the outbreak a “stark reminder” that the threat of COVID-19 is real, even in rural areas. She said she was directing state resources to assist with the outbreak.

“Outbreaks are not isolated incidents,” Kelly said. “For months, many have mistakenly shared the idea that this virus would never reach our rural and lower-population communities. Now, it is worse in those towns and counties than it is in our cities.”

The number of active cases in Norton County, which has a population of about 5,400, would translate to 5,500 infections per 100,000 people. That is more than twice the previous high mark in Kansas of 2,500 per 100,000 in September in Pawnee County.

Ashley Jones-Wisner, senior director of public affairs at the Kansas Department for Health and Environment, said the rate of infection in the northwest Kansas community is one of the worst of any community in the country. The local hospital and mortuary are struggling with capacity issues, she said.

Earlier this week, the Norton County Health Department announced that all 62 residents of Andbe Home, a long-term care facility, had tested positive for COVID-19. Ten of the residents have died. On Wednesday, the department said 35 staff members of the nursing home also have tested positive.

The governor said the state learned of the nursing home outbreak on Friday and has provided test kits, ventilators, purifying respirators and doses of the antiviral drug Remdesivir to Norton health officials.

The Kansas Department of Corrections on Wednesday said 175 inmates and 17 staff members have tested positive at the state-run prison in Norton.

“It’s not just coming from the prison or the nursing home,” Jones-Wisner said. “It’s everywhere. Their case numbers are huge, and you have a lot of people in the community who work two jobs. The school is having issues — I think they’re going to go fully remote. So I don’t think it’s fair to point fingers at once place over the other.”

The First State Bank appears on the KDHE list of outbreaks with eight infections.

Two more northwest Kansas counties — Gove and Sheridan — are also spiking in infections. KDHE on Wednesday reported 80 more deaths and 1,488 new cases statewide. The pandemic has now killed 952 Kansans.

The governor said two-thirds of active COVID-19 cases now are outside of the Kansas City and Wichita regions.

“Harmful anti-mask and anti-science rhetoric has politicized our ability to tackle a public health issue, much of it coming from our legislative leaders,” Kelly said. “Here’s the truth: The public health experts and scientists have done their homework, and they’re all saying the same thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Norton County or in Johnson County, we can stop this virus if we wear masks, follow good hygiene practices, socially distance and avoid mass gatherings.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the Norton County population is about 5,400. The city of Norton’s population is about 2,700.