University of Washington researchers predict epicenter of coronavirus pandemic in Kansas will hit in late April; Gov. Laura Kelly signs order to bolster jobless benefits; Kansas reports 10th death, KDHE issues exposure advisory after church gathering in Kansas City, Kan.

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.


TOPEKA — The volume of coronavirus-infected patients in Kansas is expected to peak in the final week of April and kill nearly 700 of the state’s residents during the next four months, a university report says.


A 50-state analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington also projected Kansas would have a sufficient number of hospital beds, even if some weren’t in the right location, and could have nearly enough ICU beds to meet demand. UW’s updated information on Kansas said 21 people could die every day in Kansas at the onslaught’s apex.


Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said KDHE produced a set of predictions comparable in some ways with UW’s. He said Kansas’ peak of infection would be April 24 while UW anticipated April 28 as the day Kansas consumed the greatest amount of medical resources caring for the sick or dying.


KDHE hasn’t released fatality projections, despite the agency secretary’s pledge to do so. UW’s assumptions place the death toll in Kansas at 687 by Aug. 4.


"In many regards, it’s a little bit like the weather," said Norman, who has a son living in Brooklyn, N.Y., who contracted the virus. "Predicting tomorrow’s weather, we’re going to be pretty good at it. If we’re predicting three or four weeks or months out, it’s not ever as easy."


UW forecast that COVID-19 would claim the lives of more than 1,149 people in Oklahoma and 1,055 in Missouri by Aug. 4. In Colorado, UW’s model estimated 2,151 would die from COVID-19 during that four-month span.


For comparison sake, Mississippi and Kansas both have a population of 2.9 million. The UW report showed Mississippi hospitals could be overwhelmed. The state might fall 3,000 hospital beds short, lose 92 people daily by April 18 and suffer 2,292 deaths by August, the report said.


"We will get through April. I assure you, it’s not going to be any fun," Norman said. "What we expect to see is the number of cases will die down during the spring and summer time, but I think we are pretty sure we’re going to see a re-occurrence in the fall."


Nationally, UW’s latest projections anticipate 83,967 fatalities by Aug. 4. Federal health officials have warned the virus could kill as many as 200,000 people in the U.S.


"Our estimated trajectory of COVID-19 deaths assumes continued and uninterrupted vigilance by the general public, hospital and health workers, and government agencies," said Christopher Murray, director of the health institute at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. "The trajectory of the pandemic will change, and dramatically for the worse, if people ease up on social distancing or relax with other precautions."


Unemployment claims


More than 55,000 Kansans filed new unemployment claims last week, more than doubling the 24,000 received a week earlier by the Kansas Department of Labor. In an average week, the agency might take in 1,800 jobless claims.


"These numbers are unbelievable," said Delia Garcia, the state’s labor secretary. "We will get through this. It's a partnership. It's about sharing information. It's about people being kind. This is the most important time to take care of each other, and we will. We will do that."


Gov. Laura Kelly announced she would sign a new executive order to unlock federal aid for unemployment claims. The state will waive the one-week waiting period, won’t require individuals to seek work, and will increase jobless benefits by $600 per month. The governor said those changes are necessary for Kansas to fully take advantage of federal funds allocated in a stimulus bill signed by President Donald Trump.


The governor urged Kansans to file claims online at getkansasbenefits.gov.


In the meantime, the state is redirecting personnel from other state agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, to aid an overwhelmed labor department with a high volume of calls from Kansans seeking benefits. The agency’s call center received 877,000 inquiries on Monday, and have recently averaged 230,000 calls per day.


"That’s like every resident of Topeka, Lawrence and Emporia calling every day," Kelly said. "We have seen a significant increase in unemployment claims over the last two weeks as a direct result of the economic slowdown."


In addition, she said, supplemental orders would be issued to clarify intent of the stay-at-home order as it related to church services and outdoor activities. The governor said the order contemplated continuation of those activities in a way that minimized human contact.


Kelly also said family planning and abortion clinics were considered essential health care businesses and exempt from any order to close.


State and county health officials in Kansas have documented 10 deaths related to the coronavirus along with 428 infections in 39 counties. Two-thirds of confirmed cases are in Wyandotte, Johnson and Sedgwick counties.


So far, there have been four fatalities in Wyandotte County, three in Johnson County and one each in Crawford, Sedgwick and Shawnee counties.


KDHE issued a public advisory after "multiple people" were exposed to the coronavirus, became ill and tested positive after attending the March 16-22 conference of ministers and church workers at Miracle Temple Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, Kan.


Lee Tafanelli, the Kansas adjutant general and director of emergency management, said the public shouldn’t allow potential exposure to COVID-19 outweigh the threat of an approaching tornado. The question of temporarily taking refuge in a crowded tornado shelter during storms came up during the governor’s daily news briefing.


Evolving threat


House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, led the Legislative Coordinating Council through a required review of Kelly’s executive order extending a collection of county stay-at-home mandates into a statewide code of conduct on Monday. The council of Republican and Democratic legislators let her order stand.


Kelly also generated loud skepticism from Republicans with her March 17 order shutting down public schools, except for online or small-group instruction, for remainder of the academic year. The governor also was accused of being an alarmist when she adopted restrictions on business operations and limits on gatherings of more than 10.


But experience of other nations and in states within this country has altered public opinion in Kansas as potential health consequences of a pandemic come into better focus, Ryckman said.


"I think it’s true not just for my colleagues but everybody in the state," Ryckman said. "As more information comes available, the threat becomes more in front of you. I hope some of these precautions, that some of these worst fears, do not become reality. That these precautions do protect us."


The Kansas Legislature is scheduled to return to Topeka at 11 a.m. April 27.


Norman, who is a physician as well as KDHE secretary, said it was highly unlikely conditions would permit the state’s 165 lawmakers to be called back into session so soon after the virus peaked in Kansas.


"The peak means there’s still a lot of cases," Norman said, "but may be on the downhill side. I don’t second guess the Legislature, but I think it would be unwise to gather people that soon after a peak."



Broader testing


KDHE officials anticipate acquisition of new testing avenues to dramatically increase COVID-19 assessments in Kansas. The agency is awaiting delivery of supplies that will allow for testing of 65,000 individuals and produce a result within 45 minutes, when less than a month ago it could take several days. The goal is 1,000 tests each day.


The testing strategy will shift from diagnosis of disease in people who already appear sick to testing otherwise healthy people to contribute to studies useful to researchers trying to bring precision to flattening the infection curve, Norman said.


Specifically, he said, Kansas officials want cooperation from the public to reduce the state’s "R0," pronounced as "R naught." It is a mathematical term indicating how contagious an infectious disease is.


Norman said available evidence suggested the R0 of coronavirus could be 4.6, meaning each infected person was likely to pass the virus to 4.5 people. The goal, through greater adherence to social distancing and personal hygiene recommendations, is to slow the pace of transmission and drop the R0 to one-to-two or one-to-one, he said.


"You don’t need to be a mathematician to understand that is a very pronounced impact," the health secretary said. "That’s a dramatic flattening of the curve."


He said a public health compliance rate of 45% would require the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kan., to need 2,000 hospital beds at peak of the coronavirus infection. If the compliance percentage improved to 55%, he said, demand for KU hospital beds would drop to 500, which would be within the hospital’s capacity.