Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman, along with University of Kansas Health System Chief Medical Officer Steve Stites and Dana Hawkinson, KU Health System medical director for infection prevention and control, hosted a conference call with reporters Friday morning addressing a range of questions about the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s certainly been a significant increase in the amount of conversations about a path forward as far as the isolation, the stay-at-home orders,” Moran said in opening the discussion, adding that those conversations are happening not just in Kansas but nationwide.
Norman discussed Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order, which was originally set to expire by April 19 but has since been extended until May 3. In response to a question from the Morning Sun he said the authority for deciding further coronavirus restrictions may revert to the county level at that point — though certain criteria would likely have to be met before that could happen.
“I think you can probably hang your hat on 14 days of sustained reduction in new cases and then a county-by-county evaluation whether to extend it or not,” Norman said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if individual counties would choose to extend it because of a unique trend in their local area.”
Another issue Norman addressed was testing — an area where Kansas has been ranked 50th out of 50 states. Norman said the state is doing the best it can with the testing supplies it is able to acquire, which have sometimes been prioritized for other states that have been hit harder by the virus.
“It’s not like we’re hoarding testing supplies or selling them on the black market or something,” Norman said. “We’re using everything we’re getting in the door.”
Norman noted that Kansas is doing better than 33 other states in terms of deaths per capita.
“You can test til the cows come home but that doesn’t do any good unless you do something about it, and that’s why we’re bringing on 400 additional people to do contact tracing for earlier quarantine and isolation for those people that we find through enhanced testing,” Norman said.
Stites and Hawkinson both said it was important to reopen the economy — provided it can be done safely.
“We definitely need to open, we need to get the economy back, we need to get people working, we need to try and help the people that are staying at home so they can get out,” Hawkinson said. “It does have to be in a very timed and protocol-like measure, because you know, you take your foot off the gas and this virus, this infection could spread like wildfire.”
Stites similarly emphasized that when the most strict limits on business and public activities are loosened, other measures such as social distancing and frequent handwashing will have to remain in place.
“If we reopen and people don’t follow that and they act like they can do just as they did two months ago, then we will still see a surge,” Stites said.
The stay-at-home orders cannot stay in place forever, he said, but they have done a lot to limit the spread of the virus while giving officials time to get necessary medical and testing supplies and to start to get a better understanding of COVID-19.
“It’s going to be reopening with personal responsibility,” Stites said. “That is the key to I think a successful outcome.”
The medical professionals on the call said the novel coronavirus should not be compared to the flu and is much more serious, although Stites noted that an accurate fatality rate for the virus in the US remains elusive, as it remains unclear how many people have the virus or have previously had it without showing symptoms.
While pointing out that it was important to get a better understanding of COVID-19, Moran stressed the seriousness of the impact on the economy in Kansas, where profit margins of small businesses are often low.
“Unfortunately, particularly in rural Kansas but really across our state, the businesses that we lose may never return, and so there is this economic side,” Moran said.
Moran also noted he had just heard from the National Institutes of Health that it would announce a new cooperative effort with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the European Medicines Agency and a range of bio-pharmaceutical companies to pool resources to move forward in developing a coronavirus vaccine.