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TOPEKA — Decisions by elected state and county officials to reject Gov. Laura Kelly’s COVID-19 recommendations for limiting some business operations, mass gatherings and other activities is likely to trigger premature resurgence of the virus in Kansas, the state’s top public health official said Friday.
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said a surge could arrive in Kansas before the anticipated second wave in fall or winter. Kelly responded to the 2020 Legislature’s attempt to assume greater control of health and financial decisions during the pandemic by vetoing a GOP-backed oversight bill. She retained central control of $1.25 billion in federal disaster aid, but unexpectedly shifted to individual counties determinations of how to confront the deadly virus.
"We will have a resurgence, I can tell you," Norman said. "We’ll have to be nimble."
Norman, who has ruffled some legislators’ feathers since the virus took root in March, said he would welcome the opportunity to address House and Senate members about COVID-19.
"I’d be happy to do that," he told The Topeka Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board. "I could do that extemporaneously almost and put up a few relevant graphs and end up with a very non-subtle message that we need help, not interference."
"There’s been attempts to diminish the governor’s ability to respond in the heat of an emergency," he said. "For me, that’s like going to a house fire and crimping the hoses so the firemen can’t put out the fire. I do not appreciate that."
More blood needed
The Community Blood Center is struggling to support hospitals in Kansas and Missouri with critically low supplies of all blood types.
Chelsey Smith, an outreach coordinator for the northeast Kansas blood bank, says the organization has struggled to collect donations during the pandemic. The need for more blood increased at the start of May when hospitals began to resume elective procedures.
Now, Smith said, the organization’s blood supply is the lowest it has ever been. The goal is to have seven days’ worth of blood on hand. A two-day supply remains.
The Community Blood Center is limiting distribution for emergencies as medical providers approach the point where those who need blood won’t get it.
"Hospitals like to have their own supply of blood on their shelves at all times, just in case," Smith said. "Right now, we're having to seriously consider what we're able to fulfill as these orders are coming in."
Although the Community Blood Center strongly recommends appointments at donor locations in Topeka and the Kansas City area, the organization now is taking walk-ins as capacity allows.
The organization has heightened already extreme precautions for those who give blood. Donors and staff members wear masks, temperature checks are conducted at the door, and everybody is spaced six feet apart.
"We are basically following behind them and disinfecting every single thing that a donor touches," Smith said.
The organization doesn’t test whole blood for COVID-19 or antibodies.
200 and counting
In Kansas, the virus has infected more than 9,700 people and been a factor in the death of at least 208.
Only five states have a lower fatality rate from COVID-19 than Kansas, Norman said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said government leaders had an obligation during any crisis to provide stability to people they serve.
Kelly’s veto of the pandemic bill passed last week during a chaotic 24-hour gathering of the Legislature will add to challenges of Kansans, he said.
"Sadly, this has become routine," Ryckman said. "From the unnecessary lawsuit filed by the governor’s attorneys that jeopardized the first disaster declaration, an unemployment system that leaves those out of work guessing on when or if they will be paid, to a statewide four-phase plan that went from Phase 1 to Phase 1.5 to Phase 1.75/modified Phase 2 and then was suddenly, and with no warning, scrapped ... the one thing Kansans have not had is stability."
Norman told The Capital-Journal’s editorial board the green light from county commissions to return to normal economic and personal activities was a dangerous precedent. In the Kansas City area, Wyandotte County officials are sticking with Kelly’s blueprint, but officials in Johnson County are pulling back the curtain.
Voluntary application of advice from KDHE or local health departments on social distancing, personal hygiene and wearing of masks is likely to fall short of restraining spread of COVID-19, Norman said. Mandated state or county orders are a useful tool in bringing a population into adherence with best practices, he said.
"It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for long periods of time. People will be incredibly discouraged if we backslide," Norman said.
Norman said a second-wave surge with two to three times the April 19 peak of infection in Kansas could be handled by the state’s public and private health system.
A resurgence of four to six times that peak will exceed the system’s ability to respond, he said.
He requested the Kansas Hospital Association assist KDHE with collection of real-time information on the number of people with COVID-19 who were hospitalized, in ICU, on ventilators and preparing to go home.
The KDHE secretary said he was sensitive to unraveling of the social fabric caused by statewide closure of schools and businesses during to Kelly’s previous executive orders.
Members of the Legislature, business lobby groups and people across the state, especially residents of counties with few confirmed cases of COVID-19, were angered by the governor’s lock down.
House and Senate Republicans were among fierce critics of Kelly and KDHE, claiming the executive branch of state government recklessly caused damage to the state’s economy, forced companies out of business, prematurely shuttered school buildings and shoved tens of thousands of people into unemployment.
Kelly requested the Legislature reconvene in special session to develop a bipartisan, compromise bill to guide state government through pandemic emergencies.
The House and Senate are expected to convene at 8 a.m. Wednesday, but it is unclear what could be accomplished. Legislators are obligated to return to Topeka, but not required to do any work.