Sedgwick County has issued a 30-day stay-at-home order to restrict public activity as the coronavirus continues to spread in the community.
The public health order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
Sedgwick County’s health officer, Dr. Garold Minns, signed the order Tuesday morning as the county's next step to contain the coronavirus. Minns says the action is needed to make headway against the disease.
"These strategies are essential for flattening the curve, and making sure that our health care system does not become overwhelmed with patients," Minns said at a news conference.
The stay-at-home rule is intended to slow the rate of community spread of COVID-19 through intensified social distancing. It is not an isolation or quarantine order. Residents are allowed to leave their homes to take care of daily errands like getting groceries or gas, or attending medical appointments. Going outside is OK too so long as you maintain social distancing.
The rule includes 26 exceptions to allow certain businesses and services to continue operations provided they follow social distancing rules and limit gatherings to fewer than 10 people. Other businesses not on the list would be forced to close and work remotely if possible.
"It is a lot," commission Chairman Pete Meitzner said of the exemptions. "But I think if you read it, it says you can live a close-to-normal life."
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were six known positive cases of COVID-19 in Sedgwick County. The first case was announced less than a week ago.
"These cases are a fraction of what is out there as far as infection," said Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stolz.
Health officials say the number of active cases could be in the hundreds — maybe up to 1,000 — but the lack of testing supplies prevents an accurate count.
Doctors, hospital administrators and health professionals in the community had urged county commissioners to implement a stay-at-home rule to prepare for an expected surge in cases in the next two to four weeks.
“Looking at epidemiologic curves for us here in Wichita based on the limited data that we have, the expected surge is going to be sometime in the next two to four weeks," Dr. Chloe Steinshouer told commissioners Monday. "So actions that we take today or now will be the ones to protect us when we peak with the disease."
Patricia Wyatt-Harris, the president of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County, sent a letter to county leaders urging them to pass a shelter-in-place order immediately.
"Though Sedgwick County is fortunate to have only a few confirmed cases of COVID-19 thus far, that is unlikely to last long," she wrote. "Because a surge of new cases could quickly overwhelm our hospital systems and put citizens’ lives at risk, it is critical to take action now to decrease local spread."
During a special meeting Monday afternoon, Commissioner Lacey Cruse read from a letter sent to commissioners from an infectious disease doctor:
"We are unable to report accurate numbers in the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County due to lack of testing resources," the letter read. "People are not being tested because we don’t have the resources to test them so we really don’t know what the numbers are."
Cruse, Meitzner and Commissioner David Dennis voted in favor of making a recommendation for the stay-at-home rule. Commissioners Michael O'Donnell and Jim Howell voted against the recommendation.
"We are encouraging everyone to stay at home with this order," Meitzner said during a county briefing Tuesday morning.
The county's and medical community's recommendations prompted Minns to approve the public health order.
"I think feedback from the medical community was helpful, and I also think the fact that we had another case showed us that it’s still on its upward swing," Minns said.
Asked if he's optimistic that the stay-at-home order will be sufficient, Minns replied: "I have to be. I don't like the alternative. So I hope for sure it does work."
The county has already limited the size of public gatherings, closed facilities and restricted access to buildings and venues in the past few weeks.
“I get it that many of you think that this is an overreaction," Cruse said, "but the data and the experts tell us otherwise."
Law enforcement responses
City and county law enforcement officers say they won’t strongly enforce the stay-at home order – but they’re urging the public to comply voluntarily.
Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay says the department’s focus will be on “education instead of enforcement.”
Kansas state statute says violations of quarantine orders are a Class C misdemeanor and can be ticketed. But Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett says with the stay at home order, "we’re not there yet."
“This is largely a request to folks to be as compliant as possible, use your common sense, and try to avoid spread," he said.
Bennett says it would be up to Minns to issue a more specific order.
Law enforcement officers are also changing how they respond to calls while while the current order is in effect.
9-1-1 services are still available for emergencies, but Ramsay says the goal is to limit how often the department sends an officer out.
“We will be triaging calls where if it can be a handled over the phone, a police officer will call you instead of responding," he said. "And the purpose of that is to slow the spread, keep staff healthy and available for emergency calls."
A phone bank will be staffed around the clock to take certain calls. Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter says deputies might take reports over the phone rather than responding in person.
"But that does not change the level of service that we are going to provide," he said.
The Emergency Accident Reporting Plan is also in effect for non-serious care accidents.
Read the full order here: