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Jackson County health director warns COVID-19 is worse than ever: ‘Things are not OK’

A flyer is taped to a glass door. It reads "Face Coverings are required while in this building." There are pictures on it depicting children wearing surgical-style face masks and demonstrating they should stay six feet apart. In the background, people wearing masks can be seen entering or leaving the building.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A woman enters J.A. Rogers Elementary on Jan. 12 where a sign reminds visitors they are required to wear masks in the building.

Interim Jackson County health director Ray Dlugolecki told KCUR that people are at risk of dying because hospitals around Kansas City are overwhelmed.

The COVID-19 situation in Jackson County is looking “dire.”

That’s according to a letter that the county health department released to the public late last week, saying the pandemic is now disrupting critical infrastructure in the region, like hospitals and schools.

The health department sent the letter, said interim director Ray Dlugolecki, because the pandemic is the worst it’s ever been. The county’s weekly COVID-19 case rate is more than 10 times higher than the benchmark for “high transmission” set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dlugolecki says the department has heard from schools where superintendents are filling in as substitute teachers and driving buses, and from EMS workers who have trouble finding hospitals that can take heart attack patients.

“This is not OK. And things are not OK in Jackson County,” Dlugolecki says.

Meanwhile, public health departments in Missouri are unable to create or enforce health orders like mask mandates, following a 2021 Cole County court decision. Those powers now rest solely with elected officials like the Jackson County Legislature, which withdrew a proposed school mask mandate on Tuesday before it came to a vote.

Dlugolecki spoke with Kansas City Today host Nomin Ujiyediin about where the pandemic stands in Jackson County, the power of elected officials to enact measures to contain COVID, and where the pandemic could lead if it continues to run unchecked.

Interim Jackson County health director Ray Dlugolecki.
Courtesy Jackson County Health Department
Interim Jackson County health director Ray Dlugolecki.

Interview highlights

On why the pandemic in Jackson County is worse than it’s ever been:

Our data is telling us that our case rate is 1,200 cases per 100,000 people. And that's 10 times higher than the CDC’s designation for high transmission. We're seeing an increase in hospitalizations. An average of roughly 245 people are going into the hospital every single day in the Kansas City metro area.

We're in the meetings when our superintendents are sharing stories with each other about… having to teach classes or having to drive a school bus. We're listening when our EMS partners are talking about driving 20 extra minutes with heart attack patients, because there are no trauma centers that have availability to take people.

On how politics have impacted his department’s work:

Health departments across the state of Missouri have been severely limited through a series of political decisions... Right now the responsibility for enacting protective measures lies almost exclusively in the state of Missouri with elected officials. And that is a distinct difference than how it has operated in the past.

Many of these elected officials don't have training in how to effectively manage an outbreak. They don't have training in terms of responding to communicable disease. They don't have training in terms of how to interrupt transmission in a school or a daycare. And so our job is to make sure that they are fully aware of what is going on and what solutions we have.

On elected officials’ power to enact public health measures:

We have strategies that are available to us that are not as harmful to the economy: vaccination, mask wearing, risk-reduction activities. They can protect our economy from having sick workers who are not able to staff businesses. They can protect our workers from dying.

Waiting until we are in a crisis mode comes with more restrictive actions that may be necessary to protect life. And if we choose not to do anything whatsoever, we're risking the lives and the wellbeing of people. We need additional strategies beyond what we have available to us, to have our best bet at interrupting transmission. And right now, we can only accomplish that through community masking and things like that.

And since that lies with the (Jackson County) legislature, our recommendation to the legislature, and to our elected officials — and this includes school districts as well, that have the ability to enact mass requirements — our recommendations are that we employ these strategies to give us the best chance at preserving healthcare capacity and protecting life and preventing suffering.

On the pandemic’s possible impact on health care:

If our current trajectory continues, we start to ration care to our population overall. Right now, right here in the Kansas City area, surgeries that are very much needed are being delayed. People that are out in Kansas are waiting in emergency rooms for a transfer to a higher-level hospital. Some of them are dying in the emergency room while waiting for those transfers.

It’s not to be alarmist in any way, it's just to explain, again, the truths and the realities of the situation that we find ourselves in: This could continue to get worse if we choose not to do anything.

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