Higher testing and increased compliance with mask wearing guidance are the top pieces of advice the White House Coronavirus Task Force has for Kansas, according to two reports obtained and published by the Center for Public Integrity.
The reports are part of weekly guidance submitted by the federal panel to the state for review, alongside a data analysis of COVID-19 infection and testing in the state.
In other states, including Missouri, leaders have resisted the task force’s repeated recommendations to implement a mask mandate or other intensive mitigation strategies.
In Kansas, however, that does not appear to be the case, even as many counties have opted out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask mandate and opted to allow bars to stay open later.
The most recent reports made no mention of closing or limiting bar and restaurant operations, only that "standard" metrics should be used when considering changes in counties with high infections.
Past reports, however, advocated a stricter line on keeping bars and restaurants open, even as many counties in the state moved in the opposite direction.
An Aug. 9 report released by the U.S. House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis recommended that bars be shuttered in areas with "rising test positivity." Counties in the red and yellow zones, meanwhile, should consider closing bars at 11 p.m. and indoor dining capacity should be reduced to 25%.
The more recent reports make no note of those recommendations, only that outdoor dining options should be expanded.
Health officials have said that keeping bars open until midnight as many counties, including Shawnee County, do encourage greater crowds to form.
"Is three hours really such a big deal? I think it is," Shawnee County health officer Gianfranco Pezzino said at a hearing on Aug. 13. "Those are crowded hours. (Bar owners) told us that. That’s why we did it. They told us that the weekends, the hours after 10:30-11 (p.m.) are the most busy and crowded hours of the entire week."
But state officials have guarded against any future business closures, including those targeting bars and restaurants, as businesses struggle to cope with the pandemic.
Many bars, like the Celtic Fox in Topeka, aren’t staying open until midnight on weekdays anymore due to a lack of customers.
Most people clear out of downtown by evening, General Manager Kelly Turner explained, and many major employers haven’t brought their workers back to physical offices yet.
But weekends are another story, Turner said, when 20% of a bar’s revenue could come after 10 p.m.
The loss of Saint Patrick’s Day revelry, as well as summer events that bring bar-goers downtown, meant that the business was in need of any boost it could get..
"It can be pretty detrimental if you start ticking up that closing time," Turner said.
Testing a must White House, state agree
The biggest recommendation from the task force has been to ramp up testing, something state officials have long acknowledged to be an area of needed improvement.
The Sept. 20 report notes that "community testing volumes are slipping" from their July levels. The Sept. 27 report echoes this and urges the state to "rapidly scale up testing to target individuals with COVID-19 with support for isolation to reduce community transmission."
Testing, the report noted, should be targeted in the east and northwestern areas of the state, where transmission has increased most rapidly.
Recent reports have underscored a consistent fact: that Kansas is in the red zone for COVID-19 infections, indicating 101 or more new cases per 100,000 over the course of a given week.
In some parts of the state that figure has been far higher — Cherokee County’s 34 new cases in the last two weeks gave it a rate of over 1,200 cases per 100,000.
But state lawmakers have insisted that expanded testing will give a fuller picture, potentially lowering the state’s infection rate, which currently sites between 8% and 10%.
"That’s why our denominator is all screwed up, when we’re trying to measure for prevalence," Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said of the state’s lack of testing during a hearing earlier this month.
The State Finance Council approved earlier this month $54 million of the state’s remaining federal CARES Act money to a statewide testing strategy aimed at boosting capacity.
Kelly formally announced that the state was entering Phase 1 of the new strategy Monday.
The plan is to increase testing of asymptomatic individuals, especially in counties where transmission is known to be high. The state will leverage public-private partnerships with labs in Lenexa and at Wichita State University, as well as the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s facilities.
The plan will also emphasize regular testing in schools, nursing homes and correctional facilities — all of which the White House task force underscored in its reports.
The Sept. 27 report also noted that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were in the process of pushing out testing supplies to help nursing homes, although many have still complained about the high cost and low availability of test materials.
"With shared goals and clear metrics, this coordinated strategy will go a long way in ensuring we can effectively test our population and identify where the virus exists in our communities," Kelly said at a news conference Monday. "Together, with the use of masks and recommended social distancing, we can better contain the virus in Kansas, and schools and businesses can reopen responsibly."
The reports did not recommend the state attempt to re-instate a more sweeping mask mandate, with Kelly’s initial edict rolled back in legislation approved in June so that counties could opt out if their officials so chose.
Instead, the Sept. 20 report pushed for the state to "strengthen compliance," although it praised Kelly’s efforts on the matter.
The task force elaborated in its most recent report, saying that the state should get more creative with "age-segmented and geographic relevant messaging" on issues including wearing face masks.
Kansas on Monday reported another seven-day record for new coronavirus cases, with KDHE reporting more than 2,000 new cases alone between Friday and Monday.
The number of deaths ticked upward to 637, as well, leading Kelly to again express concern that Kansans were not taking the virus seriously.
"We cannot accept these rising case numbers or normalize the fact that 637 Kansans have lost their lives to COVID-19," she said. "And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, my concerns remain the same."