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Official Suggests Kansas Blew Chance For Coronavirus Respite

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service/File photo

Kansas’ top public health official predicted Wednesday that the state will face steeper increases in coronavirus cases and suggested that it blew its chance for a summer respite from the pandemic by reopening its economy too quickly.

Dr. Lee Norman, the top administrator at the state Department of Health and Environment, blamed a recent surge in new confirmed cases on gatherings over the long Memorial Day weekend and the May 26 lifting of statewide restrictions on businesses and gatherings. He said Kansas remains struck in its first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We’d have to have some calm before the next wave, and we’re not there or anywhere close to it," Norman said after a Statehouse news conference during which he described Kansas as being "in the middle of a bad convergence."

Norman’s comments came a day before Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who appointed him, was to issue an executive order requiring people to wear masks in public. The order could be toothless in much of the state because a law enacted last month allows counties to opt out and a mask requirement might not be enforced even if counties don’t do that.

Wyandotte County in the Kansas City area and Douglas County in northeastern Kansas, which is home to the main University of Kansas campus, already require masks. The health officer in Douglas County also ordered bars there closed for two weeks, starting Friday, after reported COVID-19 cases more than doubled in the last two weeks, from 85 to 188 as of Wednesday.

Kansas has had 14,990 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started, including 547 new ones since Monday for a 3.8% increase in two days. There were also two new COVID-19 deaths since Monday, raising the state’s overall tally to 272.

One new case involved an employee of the Kansas Legislature who tested positive along with his father and stepmother. Tom Day, director of legislative administrative services, said the employee has been working from home for a week and, "There has been very little contact with anyone else" in the Statehouse.

Since Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings immediately after Memorial Day, Kansas has had 5,653 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, which amounted to a 61% increase, and 84 deaths, for a 45% jump.

The Democratic governor’s action left the rules for businesses and gatherings to the state’s 105 counties and came after weeks of criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature that she was reopening the economy too slowly.

"We are seeing a significant increase in clusters related to gatherings where masks are not being worn, bars in particular," Norman said. "I’m worried about what we’re going to see happening over July Fourth."

Norman said he’s also worried that Kansas will see another spike in cases this fall because the State Fair is still set to take place in Hutchinson despite the pandemic. The fair board voted Tuesday to hold the event Sept. 11-20, The Hutchinson News reported.

Patrons will be required to wear masks at indoor commercial and competitive exhibit spaces and will be encouraged to wear them elsewhere. But crowds won’t be limited.

Norman called the decision to proceed with the event against his recommendation "disappointing."

Fair General Manager Robin Jennison said its safety plan will be fine-tuned as needed.

"It’s a tremendous boost for the economy of the area," he told the Hutchinson newspaper. "A lot of us feel at some point we need to get back on with our lives."

The novel coronavirus’ spread slowed in Kansas from mid-May until mid-June, but it has since had a resurgence.

The number of new cases a day for the two-week period ending Wednesday was 236, which was the state’s highest figure since the two weeks that ended May 15. The figure dipped to 95 for the two weeks that ended June 14.

Sixteen counties have seen reported cases more than double during the past two weeks, and another six counties that had none as of June 17 have had at least one, including Thomas County in northwest Kansas, which now has 15.

Riley County has seen its reported cases more than double, to 219 from 88 two weeks ago, something local officials attribute mainly to cases among people 18 to 24 who’ve frequented the Aggieville bar and restaurant district near the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan.

Neighboring Geary County also has seen its reported cases more than double, to 70 from 30 two weeks ago, and adjacent Pottawatomie County has seen an 85% jump, from 40 to 74.

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