TOPEKA — After 412 days of monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas health secretary Lee Norman is still “harping,” as he puts it, on the importance of keeping yourself safe.
Yes, things are getting better, he said during a briefing Tuesday with the University of Kansas Health System. Fewer people are sick and dying from the disease in Kansas, and tens of thousands of vaccines are arriving every few days.
Still, health officials fear the declining numbers and new advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could give people the wrong idea. Relaxed attention to basic precautions, such as wearing a mask, or spring break travels could lead to another deadly surge.
Norman said he planned to meet Tuesday with the Kansas Department of Commerce and will provide updated advice at a news briefing Wednesday with Gov. Laura Kelly.
“We want to make sure that we don’t over liberalize, if you will,” Norman said. “There’s still a state executive order out there (requiring masks) that 80-plus counties are following. And we want to make sure that we aren’t too restrictive or too liberal. I can guarantee you we won’t look like Texas.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Monday reported 590 new cases and four more deaths — a sharp contrast to pre-vaccine reports, when KDHE recorded up to 2,000 new cases per day and hundreds of people were dying every week. At the worst, the positivity rate for testing was 16-18%. So far in March, only 2.9% of people have tested positive for the virus.
Steve Stites, chief medical officer for KU Health, said he was encouraged by causal observations he has made as he walks around outside.
“It is so much better today than it was six months ago,” Stites said. “People really do wear their masks on the plaza. They wear them outside. There are people gathering, but they generally tend to be a little bit further apart, even on a warm day. It is just better. My fear is things get warmed up, people start taking their masks off if they haven’t been vaccinated, and then all of a sudden we’re going to see a rise.”
“If you’re the person who hasn’t been vaccinated and you get the infection and get really ill, it’s still gonna be bad,” Stites added. “We just have to be really careful. I think it’s not time yet to take off all the masks and try to say we’re normal. We are not normal.”
The CDC said Monday it was safe for fully vaccinated individuals to visit nearby family members who haven’t been vaccinated, although everyone should still wear a mask and physically distance if anybody is at high risk for serious illness.
Some health officials think the directive is premature. And there is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube if new evidence indicates the need for a more cautious approach.
The CDC has waffled on advice in the past, starting with mixed messages on face coverings.
From the beginning of the pandemic, Stites said, “part of the whole task has been trying to figure out what we were doing while we flew the airplane.”
In light of the headline-hogging decision by Texas to repeal its mask mandate and other restrictions, despite the ongoing threat, Stites urged Kansans: “Please, don’t be Texas.”
Then, he broke out in song.
“The eyes of Texas are upon you — don’t take off your mask,” he belted, then asked: “How’s that? What do you think, Norman? Do I have another career?”
Norman: “I want earplugs and not a mask.”
Norman said some Kansas counties have already finished with the second phase of the vaccine rollout and are “on pause” while vaccines are allocated elsewhere.
For the first phase, which began in mid-December and lasted about a month, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were reserved for health care workers and nursing home residents. The second phase initially focused on people over the age of 65 and expanded to include prisoners, K-12 teachers and workers in a variety of other fields — including child care, grocery, retail, food manufacturing, factories, assisted living.
“It’s an issue of collectivism,” Norman said of the strategy. “How much do you treat a population and preventative spread within a population versus protecting one individual instead, hoping that they can stay out of harm’s way? And there’s no absolute easy way to solve that. We just need more vaccine. And it’s also a question from a policy perspective: Who do you want to make unhappy?”
The underlying challenge remains the availability of vaccines. So far, 700,000 doses have been administered in Kansas.
The arrival of newly vetted Johnson and Johnson vaccines should help speed the process of moving through the next three phases of distribution. Resources at kansasvaccine.gov provide guidance on who is currently eligible for the vaccine and where to go to get it.
Stites said the expectation is that everyone will have been offered a vaccine by the end of May.
What went wrong
David Wild, vice president of performance improvement for KU Health, said the United States accounts for 4% of the world population, 20% of world deaths, and 30% of the world’s administered vaccine.
More than 29 million people in the United States have been infected with COVID-19 and 525,000 people have died in just one year — “staggering numbers, especially for a single disease,” Wild said.
Norman lamented the “speed bumps and stubbed toes” he encountered in the past year.
The biggest problem, he said, was the lack of federal foresight and oversight. There were shortages of everything: personal protective equipment, testing supplies, case investigators, contact tracers, ventilators, beds, staff, and more.
“Shortages, shortages, shortages,” Norman said. “Because of the lack of a cohesive nationwide strategy, we were competing with FEMA, we were competing with neighboring states, and it drove the price of everything up like crazy — supply and demand. So more than anything, I think we’re going to find out that the intersection between public health and public policy is something that we also need to take a strong preparedness approach to.”