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Kansas City Leaders Encourage Residents To Prepare For Coronavirus Disruptions

Alex Smith
Kansas City health department head Rex Archer joined health and city leaders Tuesday to prepare for the appearance of the novel coronavirus.

As the community spread of the coronavirus appears to be accelerating in Seattle and other parts of the United States, Kansas City civic leaders and health experts insist the area is prepared for the problem.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and health department head Rex Archer met with police and fire departments and local health providers on Tuesday to coordinate their efforts and encourage local residents to take steps as well.

Erica Carney, medical director of Emergency Medical Services, said businesses and other organizations should plan for possible disruptions that might occur when the virus appears here.

“Use this as an opportunity to strengthen your already existing infrastructure,” Carney said. “Be open to having tabletop (exercises) about what if this happens, what if that happens.”

The virus has not been identified in Kansas or Missouri, yet dozens of people in the region are currently being monitored for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and health officials say the appearance of the virus in our area is inevitable.

Archer told reporters that local health providers and agencies still lack the materials required to conduct local testing for the virus. Currently, local providers can only collect samples to be tested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, Archer and Carney claimed that the ability to test locally is not yet necessary because the virus still has not been found here.

“You could actually make the argument that, for the individual, other than curiosity of knowing what you have, it doesn’t really change the outcome,” Archer said.

He did acknowledge that testing would be helpful at an early stage of an outbreak for public health workers to trace of the path of a virus.

Archer said he would expect more widespread availability of testing materials “within a few weeks.”

Experts suspect that the virus may have been circulating for weeks in the Seattle area before it was identified in patients late last week.

Archer has raised alarm in recent weeks over a lack of federal funding for the local health department, saying that low funding had left Kansas City unprepared to deal with more than a few isolated cases.

At the press conference, he downplayed those concerns.

“Anytime that you have a new challenge, you may at first think, ‘Boy, I need more resources,’ but the reality is this – right now – is not that different than influenza.”

Archer said he was concerned about how the spread of the virus might affect workers in the Kansas City area whose jobs didn’t provide for sick leave as well as people who already struggle with basic necessities.

Also on Tuesday, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment was monitoring "fewer than 30 individuals" for coronavirus symptoms, according to Steve Maheux, the county's emergency preparedness coordinator.

That news came after one of the area’s largest employers said it was monitoring two employees for possible exposure to the coronavirus. In a statement released Monday, Overland Park-based Black & Veatch announced that two employees were self-isolating after concerns after possible exposure.

Black & Veatch employees returned to work at the Overland Park headquarters after offices were cleaned on Monday afternoon, a company spokesperson said.

Neither employee had been confirmed to have contracted the virus as of Monday afternoon. But the engineering firm said it was operating “out of an abundance of caution” and taking steps beyond those recommended by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health experts believe community spreading of the virus has been taking place in some parts of the country.

In recent weeks, coronavirus testing has generally been limited to people in the United States who had COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath, and had traveled to a country where the virus has spreading or had been in contact with someone who has contracted the virus.

In CDC guidance updated on February 28, testing is also advised for patients with COVID-19 symptoms and no identified source of exposure.

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him by email at alexs@kcur.org.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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