A coalition of some of the state’s most powerful business groups is asking the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to reverse its decision to make the locations of COVID-19 outbreaks public.
KDHE officials and Gov. Laura Kelly announced the move last week, saying residents needed more information and transparency in light of rising case counts throughout the state. The state began releasing the outbreak locations Wednesday.
Under the policy, specifics will be provided if there are five or more active cases associated with a given location. The names of private businesses won’t be disclosed unless there are 20 or more cases tied to it.
Two locations in Topeka are sites of active clusters, according to the data published on the KDHE website.
One, the Kansas Neurological Institute, reports eight cases stemming from an August outbreak. The facility has been grappling with cases since at least June.
The other cluster site is at a Reser’s Fine Foods plant in East Topeka, which shut down briefly in June because of a rash of cases. KDHE reports 45 active cases associated with the facility.
All but two businesses appeared to be meatpacking plants, a longtime Achilles heal for public health officials.
National Beef facilities in Dodge City and Liberal alone accounted for roughly 1,000 active cases, the KDHE data reported, and a separate Cargill facility in Dodge City had 594 cases tied to it.
The other businesses are an Amazon fulfillment center in Kansas City and a pet food plant in Emporia.
But in a letter to Kelly dated Wednesday, groups including the Kansas Chamber, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Kansas Livestock Association argued that making the information public was tantamount to the "public shaming" of these businesses and others that might be named.
They argued the decision had little public health rationale.
"We have made every effort to serve as a resource to the administration during this pandemic, which is why we are so perplexed by this heavy-handed response," the letter said. "What is the ultimate goal of notifying the public of a breakout location?"
The letter argued that the move contradicts guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and questioned whether the Kelly administration had the legal authority to make the move.
"We are curious what legal basis or authority exists for the state to adopt this policy and whether has your administration considered any possible legal ramifications against either the state or a business impacted by this policy decision," the letter said.
Previously, counties could make the decision to disclose the exact locations of outbreaks within their jurisdictions. While some did, others treated that information provided by KDHE as confidential.
KDHE Secretary Lee Norman insisted at a statehouse news conference that the policy change was in the public’s interest.
He used the example of a candy store earlier in the pandemic that had numerous cases and deaths traced back to the store.
"Do we have the obligation to the people of that region to understand that there is something about that particular store that is different?" Norman said. "We feel it is their right to understand that a consumer."
While most of the businesses in the first batch of data were larger, Norman said that "if history is our teacher" there will be a range of different enterprises experiencing outbreaks.
"We want them to be successful and [for people] to have safe environments to go to, whether it is working or shopping or eating," he said.
The remainder of the cluster sites primarily are linked to long-term care facilities and educational institutions, including 15 outbreaks at colleges and universities. That includes seven fraternities and sororities at Kansas State University.
An additional handful were tied to interscholastic sports teams, including the University of Kansas and K-State football teams.
Two outbreaks were associated with K-12 schools, including a school board meeting in Riley County and USD 443 in Dodge City.
Overall, the state reported 495 new cases since the pandemic began and 495 deaths, an increase of 10 since Monday.