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With A Third Of Kansas Coronavirus Cases In Johnson County, Troubled Commissioners Call For A Plan

Johnson County
Johnson County Commissioners: (back row, from left) Michael Ashcraft, Mike Brown, Steven Klika, Jim Allen; (front row from left) Becky Fast, Ed Eilert, Janee Hanzlick.

Johnson County Commissioners wrestled with their new reality on Thursday, saying they’re getting calls from constituents worried about the coronavirus, wondering about the costs to society and the economy from all the business shutdowns and stay-home orders.

By the end of their weekly meeting, they’d directed public health officials to develop a logistics plan as soon as possible, with costs identified, to ramp up coronavirus testing in the county, using private labs if necessary.

Health officials emphasized that the county’s shelter-at-home order is crucial to minimizing a more alarming spread of the epidemic.

“We think this will likely be a much bigger problem than we are seeing even thus far,” Johnson County Public Health Officer Joseph LeMaster warned commissioners. “We have quite a limited ability to do the testing that we need to do. This has caused us quite a lot of uncertainty about just how extensive the infection is across the region.”

Johnson County had 59 positive cases as of 11 a.m. Thursday, up from 24 on March 20. It had one-third of the total cases in Kansas. While elderly people are said to be at greatest risk, many of the Johnson County cases were for people under 50. The county has recorded one death, on March 21. So far, Johnson County has tested about 700 people.

But Johnson County Health and Environment Director Sanmi Areola told the commission that the county needs to test about 4,000 people, including people without symptoms, to address where the outbreak is present and more strategically isolate those people and mitigate the spread.

“We need more data,” Areola said.

Until that can happen, LeMaster said, the county’s residents need to stay home as much as possible to stop an epidemic that could overwhelm the limited hospital beds and health care infrastructure. He said the county has fewer than 150 adult intensive care hospital beds and 395 other adult hospital beds, and many of those are occupied by non-coronavirus patients.

“We are doing all we can to try and prevent a disaster,” he said.

Areola said the county has identified labs that can assist with the testing, but there’s a cost involved. He did not say what that cost is.

Johnson County Commission Chair Ed Eilert noted that Congress was on the verge of passing a massive stimulus bill that will help fund more testing. But it wasn’t clear exactly when that money will start to flow.

Commissioners said they realize it’s a balancing act, and people’s lives are at stake, but many residents are extremely frustrated.

Commissioner Steve Klika said people are wondering why the stay home order is for a month, through April 24, instead of just two weeks.

“What does success look like?” asked Commissioner Michael Ashcraft.

LeMaster defined success as managing the crisis so people needing critical care can get it.

He said the last thing he wants is a situation “where there were a large number of people who died at home, who were critically ill because we had nothing else to offer them.”

Johnson County has received several thousand hotline calls from people with questions about the emergency stay-home order and social distancing requirements. Many callers questioned why some businesses are “essential” and can keep operating while others must shut down.

Assistant County Manager Joseph Connor said there have been so many questions about enforcement that the district attorney, county legal department and health officials are providing interpretations to assist with education and compliance.

“The mitigation strategies that have been put in place will only be effective if individuals and businesses partner with us,” Connor said.

“Currently, we’ve got law enforcement that are following up with businesses that can help us with the education efforts,” he said. “If we do need to have it, the district attorneys’ office is supporting prosecution.”

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.

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