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TOPEKA — Four weeks, 21 deaths and 698 infections ago, Kansas confirmed its first known case of COVID-19.
It was another time, another place.
"It's a bit jaw-dropping to reflect on how much of our world has changed in such a short period of time,“ Gov. Laura Kelly said. ”The nature of this global pandemic requires that we take many things day by day and hour by hour."
As a contemptible pathogen ruptured the lungs and daily lives of Kansans, the governor discharged executive orders designed to cushion the tremor of an unprecedented pandemic. She closed public schools, banned evictions and utility shutoffs, extended deadlines, limited social gatherings and, as confirmed infections of the coronavirus swooshed, imposed a statewide stay-at-home order.
Toilet paper became a sacred commodity. Unemployment claims skyrocketed. Medical supplies ran low.
Sometimes, facts dissolved in the crescendo of chaos. The governor didn’t authorize a clandestine spying program or require essential workers to obtain official papers in order to leave their residence, for instance.
And she didn’t send the Kansas National Guard to police the streets.
"There are a lot of rumors out there,“ Kelly said. ”That's one of them. The reality in Kansas is that we have activated 72 guardsmen and women, and they are deployed primarily for distribution purposes, logistics purposes. That's it, and I don't see that changing as we move forward.“
Following is a look at some of the pervasive rumors, and what is really happening.
Myth: The Kansas National Guard is preparing to mobilize and enforce home quarantines.
This is a false claim given traction by a letter circulating on social media that asserts the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will mobilize the National Guard to enforce a national quarantine.
The federal homeland security agency doesn’t have authority to activate the National Guard. Additionally, Kansas Guard officials said, there is no discussion of imposing a nationwide quarantine.
“Rumors like this letter only create confusion about the role of the Kansas National Guard and how we are supporting our communities,” said Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, the adjutant general of Kansas. “Be sure that you are getting your information from a reliable source and help us stop the spread of these rumors.”
On Twitter, the Kansas Guard is attempting to push back with posts using #SpreadFactsNotFear and #StopTheRumors.
Myth: Before you leave the house, you need signed papers granting you permission.
This rumor, also perpetuated in social media posts, is debunked in the executive order itself, which reads: “No individual leaving their home in order (to) perform an activity or function allowed under this order shall be required to carry or present any letter, identification card, or other paper proving that they are allowed to leave their home.”
Police have the authority to issue misdemeanor citations for those who leave home without a good reason, but the executive order says law enforcement officers "should use their discretion and consider the totality of the circumstances as they determine appropriate enforcement action.“
The Kelly administration has pleaded with Kansans to comply with her order to stay at home except when absolutely necessary but hasn’t given any directives to enforce the order.
If someone stops you and demands to see your “papers,” police recommend you call 911.
Myth: State officials are using your cellphone to spy on you.
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, wants Kansans to do a better job of staying home so hospitals can better manage the crisis.
You probably have heard about the need to “flatten the curve,” a reference to the way infections appear over time if plotted on a line chart. If a lot of people get sick at once, which will happen if people don’t take the stay-at-home order seriously, hospitals won’t be able to care for all of their severely ill patients.
Norman repeatedly has voiced frustration with those who make a game out of finding exemptions that allow them to leave home. To underscore the message, Norman pointed to an online scorecard published by Unacast, a private company that collects GPS data from cellphones. Kansas gets a C- because overall movement hasn’t changed enough to slow sufficiently the spread of the virus.
After Norman brought it up, some questioned whether Kansas officials had direct access to cellphone data. They don’t.
"I didn't realize it was going to cause such a stir the other day,“ Norman said. ”There's a number of different programs. They're available to everyone who goes onto the internet, by the way. It's not something we invented here in the state of Kansas."
Just to be sure, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who is running for a U.S. Senate seat, filed an open records request with KDHE on Friday to review the agency's use of third-party data collections. Her inquiry asks whether KDHE has information beyond what is publicly available.
“We hope we discover no breach of privacy with our efforts, and Kansas will feel comforted knowing their legislative partners are working on their behalf,” Wagle said.
Companies like Google and Unacast collect locations and a host of other data from cellphone users in exchange for the applications people use on their phones — like games or maps.
Google recently launched community mobility reports for states and counties. Kansans appear to have decreased work movement by 30% and retail and recreation by 36%. Park activity is up 72%.
"Basically, what it says is stay home,“ Norman said. ”People are still moving around."
Myth: A homemade mask will prevent transmission of the virus.
If you are squeamish, you might want to skip this section.
Homemade masks do little to stop the microscopic goo from coughs and sneezes that easily passes through cloth, Norman said. The warm, moist concoction held close to your mouth effectively becomes a nasty petri dish.
On the other hand, Norman said, wearing a mask when you go out in public may be a good idea because it encourages those you meet to keep their distance.
"You're less likely to get up close to somebody that's wearing a mask,“ Norman said. ”It's just part of a basic belief set, which is that person is best avoided. And it's thought that it actually improves social distancing. I won't go through how graphic sneezing through a cotton mask is, but it's pretty dramatic what it doesn't stop."
Myth: Young people won’t get sick if they get the coronavirus.
There are several problems with this assertion.
Even if young adults aren’t affected by the virus, they may be hurting the people around them.
Norman said it has become abundantly clear that 20- to 26-year-olds have the disease. They are spreading the virus more than others, he said, because they don’t feel symptoms, and they are less likely to follow rules or feel vulnerable.
And a lot of young adults do get sick.
Because of limited testing supplies, the documented cases of COVID-19 in Kansas tend to reflect those who are the most sick. The median age of known cases in Kansas is 55, but about 30% of the positive tests are for people younger than 45.
Here is the breakdown by age and confirmed cases:
Not a myth: One-week surge of 191%
The number of COVID-19 cases accelerated in Wyandotte County as officials dealt with fallout from several religious gatherings and an outbreak at Riverbend Post Acute Care Center, where at least 17 patients and two staff tested positive.
The county sheriff’s department and the Kansas City, Kan., police department planned to step up enforcement of a stay-at-home order.
"We know that Wyandotte County’s population is uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19 because of the number of residents with underlying conditions and without health insurance,“ said Allen Greiner, chief medical officer with the city-county unified government. "We have taken aggressive action in the Kansas City region and state of Kansas, but we must be even more diligent to take care of our community in Wyandotte County.”
As of Friday, there were 137 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the county. That represented a 191% increase in cases from a week ago, Greiner said.
And, he said, the county was weeks away from a peak in infection rates.
“We are in the early days of this outbreak,” he said. “The epidemiological models we are using show that the peak number of cases won’t occur until at least the end of April.”