PITTSBURG, Kan. — After going through the entire month of May with no new coronavirus cases, several more have been confirmed in Crawford County this week, but the local health department is not recommending any major policy changes or new legally mandated restrictions in response.
The Crawford County Health Department confirmed two new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, on Monday. Three more were confirmed Tuesday, followed by another on Wednesday, six more on Thursday, and at least three more on Friday, according to the health department.
This brings the total number of cases identified in the county since the start of the pandemic to more than 20, although several of those who tested positive early on have since recovered and are no longer in isolation or quarantine. There has still only been one COVID-19 death in the county.
Several of the new cases are apparently connected to the Sugar Creek bacon packing plant in Frontenac, although not all of them, according to Crawford County Health Officer Rebecca Adamson. At Friday's county commission meeting, Adamson referred to “a food plant,” but also at least once mentioned Sugar Creek by name.
“There's been a lot of questions around closing a food plant in Crawford County because of some positive cases, and we would not close a food plant,” she said. “They are considered an essential function under the Kansas essential function framework.”
Commissioner Tom Moody asked Adamson “if we keep seeing these numbers on the rise coming from a specific plant, is there a point when we finally deal with that?”
“We already are dealing with it,” Adamson said. This week she had a conference call with Sugar Creek representatives and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) to discuss the issue, she said.
“So the state epidemiologist was on that call,” Adamson said. “I asked a lot of questions about testing the entire plant, and that is not recommended, to test asymptomatic people.”
Adamson pointed out, as KDHE Secretary Lee Norman also did at a press conference Thursday, that there is no test approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for asymptomatic coronavirus cases. Norman noted Thursday that blood tests can detect COVID-19 antibodies, which would indicate that someone previously had the disease, but will not necessarily show a current case.
Adamson said Sugar Creek is “being very proactive to prevent the spread” and following all KDHE, Kansas Department of Agriculture, and CDC guidelines. She noted that other food processing or packaging plants in Kansas have had many more cases than Sugar Creek and have still not been shut down by any state or local agency.
Moody asked if the health department had offered to test all employees of the local plant for coronavirus, and Adamson said it had.
“I offered that,” she said. “Sugar Creek declined on that at this point. I was in contact with the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, they were willing to help coordinate that, so I offered it, and the offer still stands.”
“Why would they not be interested in testing all the employees?” asked Moody.
“I have no idea,” Adamson said, but then added that it probably had to do with KDHE not recommending testing for asymptomatic people.
Adamson urged anyone who wants to get tested to do so, and said CHCSEK is willing to test people for COVID-19 whether they have symptoms or not. She also said, however, that there is no way to feasibly test everyone in the county or the state.
The Sugar Creek plant has approximately 580 employees, not all of whom live in Crawford County or even in Kansas, Adamson said, and the county health department is aware of other positive cases associated with the plant, but those aren't counted as Crawford County positive cases.
“I will say that the plant has been very cooperative on getting us all of the information that we requested,” she said.
Adamson also said everyone who has tested positive at Sugar Creek has been isolated and those who have been exposed to them have been self-quarantined under legal orders from the county. There is 24-hour video surveillance throughout the plant, she said, and all possible contacts are being identified. She also noted that employees at the plant wear personal protective equipment at all times, and the plant is “screening” all employees every day.
Adamson said the most important metrics to pay attention to are the local rate of COVID-19 deaths, ability to test for the virus, hospital capacity, and ability to isolate and quarantine. She said stricter public health orders in recent months, despite less cases confirmed in the county, were necessary because the county was not yet prepared to deal with an outbreak based on those metrics.
“There weren't testing capabilities yet,” she said. “We did not even really have a case definition for isolation and quarantining in the beginning of this pandemic. The hospitals were trying to prepare for patient surge and their surge capacity wasn't where it is now.”
Adamson said people should realize that COVID-19 is in Southeast Kansas.
“All the counties around us are having increased cases, just like us, and it was to be expected after things opened up,” Adamson said. “So if you're going to go to the grocery store, you need to take your public health precautions, wear your mask, socially distance, wash your hands.”
Even if the Sugar Creek plant or another business that saw a coronavirus outbreak was shut down, Adamson said, it would not eliminate the risk of COVID-19 spreading.
“I would just appreciate it if folks would realize that we really are working very hard to contain it,” she said.