Top health official: Kansas ‘losing the battle’ on COVID-19

Coronavirus

Dr. Lee Norman, the head of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, answers questions from reporters during a news conference about the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Norman says the state’s hospitals will be stressed this fall and winter because of the pandemic and the state’s annual flu season. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ top public health official warned Friday that the state is “losing the battle” against the coronavirus as it reported another record increase in new cases.

The state Department of Health and Environment said Kansas reported 1,855 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since Wednesday, an increase of 2.9%, to bring the total for the pandemic to 65,807. The state also reported another 40 COVID-19-related deaths, increasing the pandemic total to 763. Twenty-six of those were reported Thursday in Shawnee County, where the local health department reviewed previous death certificates from the Topeka area.

“Other states are doing bad, and we’re doing worse than most,” Dr. Lee Norman, the head of the state health department, said during an interview. “We’re losing the battle right now.”

The state saw an average of 671 new cases a day for the seven days ending Friday, breaking the state’s previous record of 667 for the seven days ending Sept. 28. The state has seen that seven-day average hit or exceed 600 cases per day for five of the six reports it has issued in the past two weeks.

Norman blamed the increases on residents’ refusal to consistently follow public health guidelines for mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding large public gatherings. He said people need to do all of them in tandem to check the virus’ spread.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, decried Norman’s pessimistic assessment, arguing that the state’s residents are “doing a great job protecting their friends and families.” She accused Gov. Laura Kelly’s fellow Democrats of “pandering for votes.”

“Frankly, I am getting tired of the constant fear-mongering,” she said in a text to The Associated Press.

But Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician along with her husband in Rooks County, said some people in the northwest Kansas county of about 5,000 still say the coronavirus is “not that big of a deal” and are angry at the idea of having to wear masks.

The state health department said Rooks County has seen its cases increase from 70 to 123 during the past two weeks, a jump of 10.77 cases per 1,000 residents, the 10th worst in the state. It has had seven COVID-19-reported deaths, and its rate of 1.42 deaths per 1,000 residents is the state’s third-worst.

“You still hear things like ‘I am mad I have to wear a mask to the volleyball game,’ where I go, ‘We shouldn’t even be having volleyball games,’” she said. “I have had people say, ‘I will wear a mask when the president does.’ And you hear, ‘If he doesn’t have to wear one, why do I have to wear one?’”

In the Kansas City area, the Olathe school district canceled games between two of its high schools and two high schools in the Shawnee Mission district because of concerns about the coronavirus. In south-central Kansas, some games also were canceled.

Newton school Superintendent Fred Van Ranken anticipated that the number of students being quarantined would jump to about 100 from about three dozen a week ago. Some of the spike stems from school-related activities, with a single exposure accounting for more than 40 being quarantined. The district’s home of Harvey County has had 427 cases, up 75 during the past two weeks.

“Our teachers are essentially pulling double duty,” he said. “At the same time they are trying to deliver direct instruction in the classroom, they also are trying to include that kid who is quarantined.”

Norman predicted last week that the state’s reporting of new cases could increase to as many as 900 a day on average in the coming months. COVID-19-related deaths have for about a month hovered around 1.1% of reported cases, but with Friday’s report, the figure was 1.16%, the highest in almost two months.

The actual number of cases is thought to be much higher because people can be infected without feeling ill or they may have only minor symptoms, and because of a lack of testing, particularly early in the pandemic. Norman said earlier this week that between 4% and 4.5% of the state’s population probably has been infected since the pandemic reached Kansas in early March — between 116,000 and 131,000 cases.

“One of the things that we just have to collectively as a state start working together with is what are the social and psychological underpinnings for the reasons why for we’re going the direction we’re going,” Norman said. “Our curve is going absolutely the wrong direction.”

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