COVID-19 spread appears to be slowing locally despite confusing data from KDHE

Jonathan Riley

Crawford County officials said this week that the local COVID-19 situation is improving, but you might have thought otherwise if you had been relying on the state’s new coronavirus cluster reporting, which was suspended this week, just one week after it was launched on Sept. 9.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) began publishing the locations of COVID-19 outbreaks earlier this month, including three in Crawford County.

Pittsburg State University was identified on the KDHE website as the location of 100 cases, Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas was listed as the site of a cluster of nine cases, and Sugar Creek Packing in Frontenac as a cluster of 174 cases. As county officials explained Friday, however, those numbers were unreliable for several reasons.

“KDHE received lots of feedback, both positive and negative, after releasing the locations of active outbreaks last week on September 9,” the agency noted on its website this week. While the original plan was to update the cluster information weekly on Wednesdays, KDHE said it would not be updating it Sept.16 but anticipated another update on Sept. 23.

County Deputy Public Health Officer Linda Bean, meanwhile, said Friday she was “guardedly optimistic” about the latest numbers of positive coronavirus cases being identified in the county.

“As of last night we have had 75 new cases this week, which is down from 149 new cases that we had last week, and the week prior to that 302, and I believe 302 was kind of our peak week,” she said.

The county website listed a total of 248 active cases in isolation as of Friday.

Bean also discussed the specific clusters identified in KDHE’s reporting.

“I know personally that Community Health [Center of Southeast Kansas] was listed as an outbreak or a cluster and after further communication with KDHE — because we very closely track our internal numbers — part of that is, for Community Health where we have, you know, multiple clinics across multiple counties. They were counting everything as one, as if all of the cases were occurring in one facility when in actuality it could have been in 5, 6, 7, 8 different facilities.”

CHCSEK had 10 positive cases throughout the entire organization in June, Bean said, but those should not have been included as active cases or an active outbreak as reported by KDHE this month.

“So that was actually not completely accurate,” Bean said.

County Counselor Jim Emerson also noted that KDHE’s reporting on the outbreak at Sugar Creek appeared outdated.

“I think that was part of the issue, was that it wasn’t current data,” Emerson said, “so that was unreliable if you’re still talking about clusters from months ago.”

While the Sugar Creek bacon packing plant in Frontenac was the site of the county’s first major COVID-19 outbreak back in June, more recently county health officials have expressed much more concern about the spread of the disease among Pittsburg State University students and those they have come into contact with since the start of the semester.

Bean said the purpose of KDHE publishing the cluster information was to inform people of businesses or organizations that they might want to avoid because they’d been identified as the location of a COVID-19 outbreak, and was well-intentioned, but “if you don’t have real-time, accurate data, sometimes that can be misleading and more harmful than helpful, and I think that was kind of determined and decided.”

County health officials are not currently treating any specific local business as the source of an active outbreak, Bean said.

“So currently outside of our, you know, college age students that we continue to work with PSU very closely on, we have not necessarily identified a significant outbreak anywhere else,” she said.

While some businesses have been impacted by the spike in positive cases in recent weeks, including some that may have had multiple employees that had to stay home from work because of isolation or quarantine orders, no single location has been a big enough cluster that it would lead to targeted policy changes.

“It seems to be more community spread as opposed to an outbreak,” Bean said.