© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Johnson County Says It Is Fully Open For Business Even As It Bolsters Public Health Staff

061119_meadowbrook park.jpg_dan margolies
Dan Margolies
Playgrounds that were closed in March, including Meadowbrook Park, are now accessible to children and families.

Johnson County so far has recorded 992 positive COVID-19 cases, including 71 deaths.

As debate continues over coronavirus restrictions, the Johnson County Commission emphasized Thursday that the county economy is open for business but also approved funds to bolster public health staffing.

The Commission reiterated its May 28 message about reopening the economy.

While the county continues to encourage people to practice social distancing, wash their hands and wear masks in public, its guidelines are voluntary and allow all businesses and community functions to operate. Restrictions on playgrounds, libraries and other amenities are starting to lift.

To continue to combat the virus, the commission approved a proposal to spend up to $4.1 million for ongoing disease investigation and containment. Most of that money will come from federal COVID-19 funds for temporary staffing, testing, contact tracing and investigation related to the pandemic.

But the proposal also calls for creating an epidemiology division for the long term, with six additional full-time professionals focused on disease detection and control, at an annual cost of about $560,000.

“For a county our size, quite frankly, we are grossly understaffed,” said Sanmi Areola, director of Johnson County’s Department of Health and Environment. “It’s a core public health function.”

The commission voted 5-2 in favor of the additional epidemiology hires. Commissioners Michael Ashcraft and Michael Brown dissented, saying they wanted more proof of the benefits before they could support the spending.

“For me, it’s a pretty big ask,” Ashcraft said.

All seven commissioners supported spending up to $3.5 million in federal funding, if necessary, for 35 part-time, temporary contact tracers, case investigators and laboratory expenses to continue to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Areola said county public health workers have been working overtime to deal with the pandemic but said that wasn’t sustainable. He argued that his department, which currently has four epidemiologists, requires more staff.

The additional hires will be a big help to the county’s school districts as they prepare to deal with the virus this fall, Areola said, and there are always other disease outbreaks to confront.

“When we do our job well, we prevent things from happening,” he said.

Johnson County so far has recorded 992 positive COVID-19 cases, including 71 deaths. Most of the deaths involved people in their 80s, but two people in their 40s, who had underlying obesity issues, have also died.

One Johnson County resident has tested positive after visiting a crowded bar in the Lake of the Ozarks over the Memorial Day holiday.

That person was advised to isolate for 10 days after the exposure and take proper precautions.

Several Johnson County commissioners said Thursday they have faith that residents will continue to act responsibly in the face of the pandemic but want no more restrictions on community activities.

Among the amenities now open:

· Playgrounds that were closed in March are now accessible to children and families. They include Meadowbrook Park and many city parks within Johnson County.

· Pickleball and tennis courts are open with some restrictions on large gatherings.

· Camps and preschools are also open with some guidelines, and beaches are open with social distancing.

· Pools can reopen but many cities are keeping their public pools closed.

· Johnson County Library branches reopen June 15 for limited service and with reduced hours. Meeting and conference rooms remain closed.

· The Overland Park Arboretum has reopened to members.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make non-profit journalism available for everyone.