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As Coronavirus Cases Climb In Kansas, It's Hard To Measure How The State Is Doing

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service

When the coronavirus hit Kansas, there’s no question the state — like the rest of the country — was unprepared. That showed in the mad scramble to buy more surgical and N95 masks, gowns and nasal swabs.

Public officials say Kansas has made progress on those and other fronts. Yet gaps in data make it hard to pinpoint whether Kansas has what it needs — at a time when cases are increasing at an alarming rate.

Here’s a quick look at where Kansas stands now on the most important measures.

How common is coronavirus in Kansas?

Kansas has identified more than 26,000 cases of coronavirus so far. In all likelihood, that’s a gross undercount for at least three reasons.

First, many people carrying the virus experience few or no symptoms. Second, many who’ve had symptoms — especially early on in the pandemic when supplies were most limited — couldn’t get tested. Finally, studies at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere suggest COVID-19 tests often fail to catch the virus.

That’s why experts like to look at other figures, too, to gauge the spread of the disease. Those include deaths, hospitalizations and the percentage of tests that come back positive.

How many people are dying?

Here’s some good news: Fewer people are dying of coronavirus than a few months ago.

  • April: 4.3 people died per day on average in Kansas.
  • May: 2.7 people
  • June: 1.8 people
  • July so far: 1.3 people

But deaths go up in the weeks after hospitalizations go up, so there’s cause for worry.

Where do we stand on hospitalizations?

Here comes the bad news. In mid-July, the number of reported COVID-19 inpatients crept close to 400. April, May and June never saw numbers that high.

  • On an average day in April, 104 people were in the hospital with coronavirus
  • On an average day in May, 196 people
  • On an average day in June, 170 people
  • On an average day in July so far: 256 people

Hospital admissions can climb quickly, especially when celebrations and gatherings lead to bursts of viral spread that show up in local emergency rooms two or three weeks later.

Another sign that the virus has picked up pace

About 16% of Kansans who got tested in the past week got a COVID-19 diagnosis, according to Johns Hopkins University.

As more people get tested, the rate of positive cases should drop, because testing reaches beyond just those with nasty coughs and fevers.

That was the case well into June for both Kansas and the U.S. But then the positive rate started climbing, even though testing increased. Check out these Johns Hopkins graphs for the U.S. and Kansas to see for yourself.

So does Kansas have enough testing supplies now?

Kansas and its hospitals struggled to get testing supplies when the pandemic hit. The state was testing a smaller proportion of its population than any other state. Although things have gotten better, it remains in the bottom 10 states.

Several thousand Kansans get tested per day now, yet hospitals and labs across the state would be able to test thousands more.

The state lab in Topeka — which runs tests for free — can handle 1,000 tests a day, a spokeswoman said. At times, the staff works overtime to get as many as 1,500 done.

Another 40 sites across Kansas run equipment that can handle up to 8,000 COVID-19 tests a day combined, state health officials say. On top of that, some clinics and hospitals outsource their testing to major commercial laboratories.

State health officials have heard anecdotally that some health care providers continue to run into shortages of compounds, pipette tips and other supplies needed to carry out tests. And some places waiting on testing equipment have been told by vendors to wait weeks or months for delivery.

And what about contact tracers?

George Washington University estimates Kansas needs around 2,700 contact tracers. Yet public health experts don’t know how many tracers are on the job in Kansas in total.

County health departments do most of the work. However, University of Kansas research from April found some counties lacked enough manpower.

The state health department has 27 tracers and will train another 23 this week. That’s a small fraction of the 400 that the health department originally envisioned.

A spokeswoman said the agency trained volunteers to boost its numbers, but then found they weren’t needed.

Do we have enough ICU beds and ventilators?

Of the more than 1,600 Kansans who’ve landed in the hospital with COVID-19, more than one in four got sick enough to need space in intensive care units. Those ICU beds are critical to keeping people alive.

But pinning down capacity is tricky because daily counts tend to be incomplete. As of July 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 690, or about half, of ICU beds in Kansas were full.

Most COVID-19 patients don’t get sick enough to need ventilators, even if they land in the hospital.

Ventilator tallies are also incomplete, but of the nearly 300 coronavirus inpatients reported at Kansas hospitals last Friday, fewer than 10% were on ventilators. And even with other patients added in, 85% of the ventilators at those hospitals were available.

What about supplies of protective gear, like face masks?

The decentralized nature of supply distribution makes it hard to know the situation. Hospitals, nursing homes and other places buy supplies independently, or sometimes get help from local emergency departments. Those, in turn, get help from the state.

The Kansas Department of Emergency Management said in an email that the state helps dole out N95s, gowns and more, as supplies allow. Right now, it said, hand sanitizer and medium through extra-large gloves are in short supply.

Nursing homes in Kansas and across the country have struggled especially to get supplies. As a result, some have relied on cloth face masks for months, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t count those masks as personal protective gear. In May, Kaiser Health News reported that one-fifth of the nation’s nursing homes didn’t have even a week’s worth of gear on hand.

The Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services found more than a third of nearly 400 facilities surveyed this month say they will need more N95 masks, gloves, gowns, surgical masks or hand sanitizer within two weeks.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is based in the Kansas News Service’s Topeka newsroom. She writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. He aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.