Officials plan next steps in dealing with SugarCreek outbreak

Jonathan Riley
The SugarCreek bacon packing plant in Frontenac has recently been connected to an outbreak of hundreds of COVID-19 cases. -- JONATHAN RILEY/THE MORNING SUN

Note: This article has been updated from the version appearing in the Saturday, June 20, print edition of the Morning Sun.

CRAWFORD COUNTY, Kan. — As the scale of the coronavirus outbreak tied to the SugarCreek bacon packing plant in Frontenac has become clearer over the past week, it has also become apparent that area residents and government agencies will be facing a new set of challenges in attempting to contain the spread of the virus.

Two weeks ago there had been less than 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Crawford County since the start of the pandemic, and no new cases for more than a month, but as of Friday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) was reporting 167 cases in the county. While a significant number of those have apparently been asymptomatic and some may ultimately prove to not actually be county residents, the total number of cases associated with the SugarCreek plant also appears to be significantly higher.

County Counselor Jim Emerson said Friday there were “at least 200-plus” cases connected to the plant — more than a third of its workforce — including at least 100 Crawford County residents, and another hundred or more cases of residents of other Kansas counties or of Missouri. Sorting out how to handle all the cases, particularly those of residents across the state line, he said, has been frustrating for both local government officials and SugarCreek.

“We’re notified what happens in Crawford County, and trying to figure out everything else has been a problem,” Emerson said, “and it’s just because we’re on the border with Missouri and a lot of people work from outside of Crawford County that work there.”

On Thursday, the Crawford County Health Department announced Rebecca Adamson’s resignation as county public health officer. Adamson will remain director of the health department.

The distinction between the two roles, as officials made clear at Friday’s Crawford County Commission meeting, largely has to do with issuing county public health orders, as well as responsibility for making sure both county- and state-level health orders are enforced.

“Rebecca has absolutely done a stellar job with the management of the pandemic and the health officer position and I certainly want to acknowledge and recognize that,” said Crawford County Mental Health Center Executive Administrator Michael Ehling.

After a recess for a few hours the commission reconvened Friday afternoon and appointed Dr. Timothy Stebbins as the county’s new public health officer and Dr. Linda Bean as deputy public health officer.

As Emerson explained at Friday’s meeting, the county can face legal consequences if it fails to enforce isolation and quarantine orders for residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“I know there’s been some gray area evidently before, but moving forward, we have got to do something,” said Commissioner Tom Moody, “and we’ve got to start now.”

Officials at the Friday meeting also included representatives from area law enforcement agencies. Following a separate discussion with those officials, Sheriff Danny Smith reported back to the commission that the county’s local law enforcement agencies are all on the same page and prepared to deal with enforcement issues.

Smith said there had only been a few cases reported of people who had tested positive disobeying their legal quarantine or isolation orders — though some of those people have apparently done so repeatedly.

“If there’s anything that this commission can do to make it easier for you to do what you’ve got to do, please let us know,” Moody said, “because from what I’m hearing it’s the same people that are quarantined are violating over and over, so we need to pick it up on this.”

Smith noted that individual isolation and quarantine orders for people who have tested positive are different from the state- and county-wide orders that applied to all county residents from March until May.

One factor that officials on Friday morning anticipated as potentially impeding enforcement of individual orders involved privacy requirements for medical information. Rather than photos — or even names — of people who have been ordered to remain in isolation or self-quarantine, law enforcement agencies might only be provided addresses, officials said Friday.

“That really complicates it,” said Commissioner Bruce Blair. “I mean that really complicates the situation.”

By Friday afternoon, however, Emerson said he had received clarification from KDHE that law enforcement would not be prevented from being told the names of individuals under quarantine and isolation orders.

Emerson noted, however, that even if local law enforcement can get the names of people under self-quarantine and isolation orders, other state requirements — such as the recent addition of Arkansas to Kansas’ travel quarantine list — cannot be easily enforced.

“That is something that, unless you’re the CIA maybe or Homeland Security, that is not going to be able to be enforced, I mean, unless we put up checkpoints,” he said.

“And they’ve just got to realize that, that things are going to happen, people will be here from Arkansas, you can’t stop that, there’s no way to enforce that.”

Emerson also discussed a Thursday conference call arranged with help from Rep. Monica Murnan (D-Pittsburg) between county officials and SugarCreek and KDHE representatives.

“As I sat and listened to it for 30, 45 minutes, I think I realized that call needed to be probably a week and a half ago,” Emerson said.

SugarCreek Chief Operations Officer Curt Terry was on the call, Emerson said.

“One of the things that Commissioner Moody made clear to him was that he did not appreciate how our health officer was treated, how she was kind of berated by the COO,” Emerson said. “That’s not the way you treat people, whether it’s your employee or one of our employees, and he apologized for that on the call a couple of times and said it would not happen again.”

Adamson noted that there is a Tyson plant in southwest Missouri and some of its workers may have family members that work in Crawford County.

Moody asked if Adamson knew of any cases at the J. M. Smucker Company facility across the street from the SugarCreek plant. She said there had been none confirmed, but there has also not been widespread testing of those employees, although some families have members who work at both plants.

SugarCreek has not responded to the Morning Sun’s requests for comment this week.