KDHE misreports local coronavirus cluster information again

Jonathan Riley
Lee Norman, secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment speaks during a weekly press conference at the Statehouse in May -- EVERT NELSON/TOPEKA CAPITAL-JOURNAL

PITTSBURG, Kan. — The Kansas Department of Health and Environment seems to be having trouble getting its facts straight when it comes to reporting on local outbreaks of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, KDHE added a new “cluster summary” section to its COVID-19 case information page that it said it would update weekly, but then after receiving “lots of feedback, both positive and negative” following its first release of outbreak information, the department said last week it was pausing reporting for one week.

After restarting its cluster reporting this week, however, the state agency responsible for monitoring the coronavirus pandemic still appears to be getting basic information wrong about outbreaks at the local level, if its reporting on coronavirus “clusters” in Crawford County is any indication.

In KDHE’s initial cluster reporting on Sept. 9, Pittsburg State University was listed as the location of 100 positive cases, Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas (CHCSEK) as the site of a cluster of nine cases, and Sugar Creek Packing in Frontenac as a cluster of 174 cases.

The Sugar Creek cluster apparently referred to the first major outbreak in Crawford County back in June, however, as county officials said last week they did not consider any specific business in the county to be the site of an active outbreak.

Meanwhile in the case of CHCSEK — which has clinics in multiple counties — Crawford County Deputy Public Health Officer Linda Bean said last week that KDHE was “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 counted as an active outbreak as reported by KDHE this month.

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

In its “cluster summary” updated Wednesday, KDHE was not listing Sugar Creek or CHCSEK as “exposure locations.” Pittsburg State was still on the list — with seven cases in the last 14 days compared to the 100 listed two weeks ago.

Another outbreak location was also added. George Nettels Elementary School in Pittsburg, according to KDHE, was the exposure location of nine positive coronavirus cases in the previous 14 days as of Wednesday. But once again, local officials are disputing the state health department’s assessment.

“This is not an accurate number,” according to Elishia Seals, public information director for Pittsburg Community Schools. “We are in contact with KDHE to have this corrected.”

As of Wednesday, “George Nettels has had 4 positive cases in the past 14 days, all outside of school exposure,” Seals said in an email. “This is not considered a cluster or outbreak.”

Pittsburg’s school district maintains a detailed list of COVID-19 incidents, Seals noted, which can be found at www.usd250.org/covid-updates, and sends parents an email anytime their child is impacted by an incident, whether it is from non-close contact in their classroom or confirmed close contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease.

“Should the incident be related to a positive case they will also receive a phone call from their building administration,” Seals added.