Amid unending journey of despair, pandemic eases grip on Kansas

Latest challenge: Accounting for the use of vaccines in short supply

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, asks health secretary Lee Norman if his agency manipulated the number of reported COVID-19 cases before the recent decline. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman recounted for lawmakers Monday the sequence of crises his agency faced through the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first, there weren’t enough masks or other personal protection equipment. The state couldn’t test enough sick people, let alone test for asymptomatic spreaders in the general population. The Legislature shackled contact tracing efforts. Hospitals didn’t have the capacity to handle the thousands of sick patients who were diagnosed every day by late November. Doctors lacked treatment options.

Rep. Chuck Smith, R-Pittsburg, listens to health secretary Lee Norman’s presentation by video link during a committee hearing Monday at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Nearly 800 members of the Kansas National Guard deployed to help with distribution. At one point, they were flying Black Hawk helicopters to communities to deliver ventilators and other supplies.

The thing that became apparent, Norman said in a presentation to the House Children and Seniors Committee, is how a pandemic will expose any weakness.

“Normally, crises have a start and then they peak out and they wane off and they move on with life, and that will happen here,” Norman said. “It’s a longer timeline than any of us like, but we’ve really had many crises within this crisis.”

The outlook is better now, with 168,000 people vaccinated, 45,000 more doses of vaccines arriving every week, and a month and a half of steady decline in new cases.

On Monday, KDHE reported 1,983 new cases over the past three days — a decline from the 7,500 cases reported over a three-day period at the height of the pandemic. The agency also reported 30 new deaths, bringing the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Kansas to 3,809.

Hospitals, Norman said, are content with staffing and capacity now. He pointed to the experimental antibody cocktail that was used on President Donald Trump as a breakthrough for treatments in Kansas.

“This stuff works, and it’s one of the reasons our hospitals aren’t being overrun,” Norman said.

KDHE’s latest challenge is the distribution of vaccines, which are in short supply, across 105 counties — and properly accounting for how they are being used.

Norman stressed again, as he has for weeks, that numbers reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t provide an accurate snapshot of how many doses of vaccine have been administered in Kansas. Some hospitals are thousands of patients behind in logging their information into the statewide database, he said, and others are simply forwarding their paperwork to county health departments for input.

Still, he stressed, every available dose of vaccine is being delivered to county vaccination sites and injected into patients.

“Our data does not reflect this, and I’m not going to say to you, ‘Trust me I’m a doctor.’ I am just telling you that we are getting these doses into people’s arms,” Norman said.

Kansas is now in phase two of the vaccine rollout, which is expected to last several months. Vaccines are now being administered to people who are 65 and older, critical workers, and people in congregate settings — such as prisons or child care facilities. The first phase covered nursing homes and health care workers. People who have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to severe illness will be covered in the next phase.

KDHE has developed a website at www.kansasvaccine.gov to provide information about who is eligible to receive a vaccine and where to go to get the vaccine.

Norman said it is too soon to know how long the vaccines will protect people from the virus, or how effective it will be against emerging strains. So far, Norman said, the state hasn’t detected the U.K. or Africa variants, but the agency is increasing its capacity to look for new strains.

Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita, questioned Norman about the conspiracy theory that his agency exaggerated the number of positive COVID-19 cases by relying on hyper-sensitive lab tests. Penn wondered if a recent change in the “cycle threshold” of the tests could explain the decline in reported cases.

“I assure you that we have never manipulated the data,” Norman said. “We don’t even determine the cycle threshold — that’s on the manufacturer and the FDA that does that. And it is not responsible for the drop in cases in the state of Kansas.”