Senate President Susan Wagle wants to reopen much of the economy immediately; Gov. Laura Kelly to reveal her strategy Thursday; KU hospital doctor warns of premature opening risk; Kansas Lottery sales fall 25% March; state launches new website at covid.ks.gov; death toll rises to 124

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TOPEKA — U.S. Senate candidate Susan Wagle released Tuesday a strategy for immediate resumption of most Kansas business operations at 50% capacity while retaining stay-at-home restrictions on assisted living facilities and nursing homes where especially vulnerable people live.


Wagle, a Wichita Republican and president of the Kansas Senate, said Gov. Laura Kelly should permit executive orders to expire so county health officials can take the lead role in decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 120 Kansas residents.


"The time is now," Wagle said. "We can no longer sit back and watch the rapid demise of the Kansas economy and our people due to the inability to create a safe and specific plan to move forward and begin to live, work and thrive again."


Kelly, the Democratic governor, said she was moving toward a blueprint for gradually reopening of Kansas society to avoid resurgence of COVID-19. The governor is expected to make public her intentions on Thursday.


"The governor continues to collect input from a wide variety of public health officials, industry leaders, business owners, faith leaders and emergency responders to ensure the plan for reopening prioritizes the health and safety of Kansas families," said Kelly spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald.


Wagle’s proposal would allow hospitals to resume elective surgery, restaurants to reopen with a 50% reduction in seating and retailers to conduct in-store shopping and curbside pickup. Gyms, libraries, community centers and theaters ought to reopen without delay, she said.


The GOP senator said the stay-at-home order issued by Kelly was paying off and that original projections of COVID-19 cases and deaths had been significantly reduced. There are enough hospital and ICU beds to adequately treat those who become infected and suffer severe complications from COVID-19, she said.


"A one-size-fits-all remedy doesn’t work for either the nation or for Kansas," Wagle said. "We must continue to practice safe social distancing and do our part to slow the spread of the virus, and we will. However, to save our economy, which is now at a tipping point, we must transition from stay at home to reopen safely.


On Tuesday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 124 fatalities and 3,491 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kansas. There have been 504 people hospitalized, 193 placed in ICU and 87 on ventilators. In terms of the deaths, 71% have been age 75 or older.


A cluster of meatpacking plant counties, including Ford, Finney, Seward and Lyon, have reported 1,312 positive tests for the virus. The counties of Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties have accounted for 1,663 of the cases in Kansas.


Word of caution


Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kan., said the biggest fear of the medical community was a premature reopening of society. Until widespread community testing is available in Kansas, he said, the risk of a surge in COVID-19 cases would exist until development of a vaccine.


"From a pure public health standpoint, if you just isolated the question and said, ’When is the safest time to go back out into the public?’ The answer is when you have vaccinations and therapy, or at the very least, you had adequate ability to test for who’s got it."


Stites said medical professionals were aware of mounting political pressure and evolving sentiment of citizens about the the risk of contracting the coronavirus.


As the economy opens, the doctor said, failure of people to abide by social distancing and personal hygiene advice carries the potential of rapid escalation of infection, hospitalization and death.


Lottery withdrawal


The COVID-19 pandemic exacted a 25% reduction in Kansas Lottery sales in March and vaporized two-thirds of investment by the state’s players in popular Powerball and Super Kansas Cash games.


Kansas Lottery executive director Stephen Durrell declined to speculate about the bottom line for April, other than to disclose "we had some good weeks and bad weeks."


The Kansas emergency declaration and stay-at-home order instituted in mid-March will have been in place throughout April. The 1,700 convenience and grocery retailers in Kansas involved in direct sales of lottery tickets were allowed to operate amid the pandemic, but about 120 closed or decided not to sell game tickets.


"Obviously, with the stay-at-home order folks were not out and about as much as they were during time before all these issues befell us," Durrell said.


The coronavirus’s bearish influence in March resulted in total lottery sales of $22.3 million in Kansas. The state’s March 2019 figure was $29.9 million, placing the year-to-year decline at 25.3%. In March, Super Kansas Cash led the nosedive with a 74% reduction in sales. It was followed by Powerball’s slide of 67%. Mega Millions suffered a 20% decline and Lotto America was down 14%.


Instant pull-tab games proved the most resilient, shrinking only 4% in March.


Durrell said transfer of lottery proceeds to the state treasury totaled $5.86 million in March, a modest decline from $5.92 million in March 2019. State legislators are aware of the situation, he said, and shouldn’t be surprised if this fiscal year’s contribution to the state treasury doesn’t reach the anticipated range of $74 million.


Slippage in sales was anticipated in 2020, Durrell said, because of deep interest during 2019 in massive jackpots for games available in Kansas. In wake of the pandemic, Powerball and Mega Millions operators may have influenced players by lowering starting jackpot amounts and the minimum jackpot increase between drawings.


"We want to thank our players for continuing to play on in the safest possible manner," Durrell said.


On March 17, the Kansas Lottery suspended gaming operations at the four state-owned casinos to comply with Kelly’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. The directive applied at Hollywood Casino in Kansas City, Kan., Kansas Crossing in Pittsburg, Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane and Boot Hill Casino in Dodge City.


The shuttered casinos generate $400 million in annual revenue and represent a substantial source of cash for municipal and state governments. So far in fiscal year 2020, which ends June 30, the state has received $65 million from the casinos. The share of casino revenue for local governments has been $8.8 million.


KU hospital adjusting


Tammy Peterman, president of the Kansas City division of the KU Health System, said the large medical campus in Kansas City, Kan., was preparing to begin admitting patients this week who had elective surgeries or treatments delayed by COVID-19. Other hospitals in Kansas are expected to do the likewise.


"There won’t be a switch that gets flipped really quickly," she said. "We know this will be a gradual process to bring in additional patients."


She said people entering the hospital will be screened and required to adhere to social distancing rules. Patients will continue to be tested and visitors will be limited, she said.


The KU hospital typically has a daily census of 750 patients but is operating with about 500. On Monday, 24 patients were being treated for the coronavirus with a dozen in intensive care. So far, the hospital has cared for more than 100 patients with COVID-19. Seventy-five patients have been released and 12 died.


Bob Page, president and CEO at KU Health Systems, said the hospital didn’t plan employee layoffs or furloughs through the fiscal year ending June 30.


"We are committed to keeping our staff whole from a base pay perspective," he said.


Some employees at the KU hospital have been redeployed to duties, such as testing and cleaning, not previously required. About 50 have been working with the state to perform contact tracing of people who may have been exposed to the virus, Page said.


New website


State officials have deployed a new website at covid.ks.gov to serve as a portal to unemployment benefits, available jobs, what to do if you are sick, and the latest data on infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Kansas.


The site soon will celebrate acts of kindness as well, the governor said.


Kansans have been moved during the pandemic by stories like the birthday parades organized by Merriam police for kids who can’t have a traditional birthday party, and a Wichita family who set up a food pantry in their yard with a simple rule — take what you need and leave what you can.


Last week brought heartwarming news of retired Troy farmer Dennis Ruhnke and the handwritten letter and N95 mask he sent to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.


"This is who we are as people," Kelly said. "And seeing the many ways Kansans are helping one another, especially during this difficult time, is truly inspirational."