White House task force assessment of COVID-19 in Kansas: ‘exponential and unyielding spread’

Report recommendations: Don’t gather outside of home, stop school sports, enforce mandates

By: and - November 18, 2020 9:49 am

Rep. John Eplee, a physician at Amberwell Health hospital in Atchison, says he encourages all of his patients to wear a mask and get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican Rep. John Eplee wishes he could turn the clock back 10 months and beg for national guidance on a pandemic that has killed more than 1,100 Kansans and threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

Eplee, a family physician at Amberwell Health hospital in Atchison, says he is “just trying to survive” until he can get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“If I could do one thing,” he said, “I would develop a time machine, go back, get national guidance, get a strong mask recommendation for the entire United States and, honestly, have public figures that would wear masks and strongly encourage everyone to wear a mask to save us from this terrible, invisible enemy.”

Federal guidance now scrutinizes the state’s handling of the pandemic, warns of potential shortages in medical supplies, and pushes for better enforcement of health orders, including the wearing of masks.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, delivers weekly reports on each state, assessing the severity of community transmission and providing recommendations for action by state and local leaders. Pence briefed governors on Monday on COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.

For weeks, Kansas has been in the “red zone” because of high numbers of new cases and a high positivity rate for tests. This week’s assessment: “There is exponential and unyielding spread across the state.”

This week’s report reflects numbers from Nov. 7-13. It shows the rate of new cases per 100,000 people in Kansas was 619, more than twice the national average of 294. The positivity rate among lab tests here was 22.9%, the fifth-highest in the nation. At least 50% of nursing homes have at least one positive staff member.

The death rate in Kansas was 3.1 per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of 2.3.

During a briefing Tuesday with medical providers, Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman attributed some of the worsening situation to household gatherings.

“It used to be more in the aforementioned prisons and nursing homes, but now it’s communitywide in every community,” Norman said. “That’s what’s really driving these numbers.”


Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman attributes part of the surge in new COVID-19 cases to household gatherings. “If we screw up during Thanksgiving,” he says, “December is going to be bleak.” (Oct. 7, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Residents of the 84 Kansas counties that are in the “red zone” are advised in the White House report to avoid gathering outside their home until conditions improve.

The report also suggests cancellation of school sports and the recruitment of “local influencers” who can help deliver the message about the need to wear a mask in public and social distance.


Rankings based on new cases in past three weeks

Top 10 metro areas
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Top 10 counties

Gov. Laura Kelly proposed a statewide mask mandate in early July, but a compromise with Republican leaders in the Legislature during the special session in June allowed counties to opt out of her order. Just 25 counties accepted her recommendation in the first few weeks, but that number has grown to 39 as community transmission of the virus impacts more rural areas.

“No. 1, they need to help themselves,” Norman said of the state’s rural residents. “I think they’ve been very slow to come aboard with the anticontagion measures that we know work.”

The White House report calls for improved enforcement of mask mandates, which falls upon local law enforcement agencies.

Eplee said the mandates are a “toothless tiger” because “the enforcement piece is just not there.” He said it was critical that health professionals like himself help spread the word through their communities that mask wearing is essential and vaccines currently in development will be safe and effective.

“They’re probably the most effective vaccine we’ve ever seen,” Eplee said. “They’re very safe. They’re not kind of safe. They’re extremely safe. They’re maybe the safest vaccine. Get one as soon as you can.”

Those who don’t wear a mask, Eplee said, “put all of us at risk.”

“We can argue about that till the cows come home,” Eplee said, “but I believed in that back in the spring, I believed in it in the summer, and I say it again now that we have to all wear masks. The experts say that a mask is the best thing we have, and they would almost prefer wearing masks even beyond the vaccine. They think it’s that foolproof, that safe.”

Other recommendations in the White House report include reducing indoor capacity at restaurants to 25%, limiting bar hours, monitor testing and contract tracing to ensure rapid turnaround, and “consider pausing extracurricular school activities, even though athletics are not transmission risks, as the surrounding activities are where transmission is occurring.”

The report also warns of the risk that university students will let their guard down when they return home for Thanksgiving break.

Norman said families should still get together for Thanksgiving but practice social distancing to avoid close contact.

“If we screw up during Thanksgiving, and have a huge surge of cases, December is going to be bleak,” Norman said.


Patients, space and supplies

Kansas hospitals are at or nearing capacity as COVID-19 patients multiply. Rural hospitals, like the one in Atchison, can no longer transfer patients to the overflowing hospitals in larger metro areas.

“The upper Midwest is absolutely burning up with this,” Eplee said. “Our house is on fire here in Kansas and around us.”

Every day, on average, hospitals in Kansas last week admitted 149 patients with confirmed COVID-19 and 70 patients with suspected COVID-19.

Norman said adding space for patients isn’t a solution because hospitals don’t have enough staff to care for them. Instead, efforts are focused on transporting people to the right hospital setting.

“We have a lot of beds in Kansas, but they’re in the wrong place,” Norman said. “They’re not critical care beds. What I think we need here and what we’re working on very diligently is repatriating the recovering patients … so as to open up beds in tertiary or primary care facilities.”

The White House report said patient numbers in Kansas may be underestimated, which could lead to lower allocation of critical supplies. State officials are encouraged to work with hospitals to improve data reporting on new admissions.

About 10% of Kansas hospitals have less than a week’s supply of N-95 masks, surgical gowns and gloves, the report said, and another 10% have a two-week supply.


No fans for KU sports

Doug Girod, chancellor at the University of Kansas, said Tuesday the surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the region prompted a decision to stop hosting fans at KU home sports events for the remainder of November. The university’s pandemic advisory team’s recommendation will apply to two volleyball games, a pair of football games and two women’s basketball games.

He said the discussion about December events, including men’s basketball games, would take place later this week.

“We know this is disappointing to those of you who planned to be on campus to root for the Jayhawks,” Girod said. “While we are not aware of any incidents of COVID-19 transmission at any home athletics competitions this year, the recent spike in cases and hospitalizations makes it unwise to host fans at this time.”

Girod, a physician, said spread of the coronavirus had placed Kansas and adjacent states “at a tipping point,” because the number of cases was escalating daily and hospitals were at or near capacity.

“Now is the time for each of us to renew our commitment to mitigation efforts, particularly with respect to mask-wearing and social distancing, which have served us well so far,” he said. “I implore each of us to commit to thinking not only about ourselves, but about the entire community, in every decision we make.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.

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.