The Ellis County Health Department has convened a community task force of a dozen entities to coordinate the county’s response to the coronavirus, although the county is considered low risk for COVID-19.
The task force met Tuesday for the first time and included HaysMed, the schools, Ellis County Emergency Management, the county board of health, the health department, the Sheriff’s Office, Hays Police Department, Hays Fire Department, Hays Regional Airport, City of Hays management and the Red Cross.
Only a couple of the state’s 105 counties have opened Emergency Operations Centers, according to Darin Myers, director of Ellis County Emergency Management, not including Ellis County.
"Our EOC is basically at an awareness level," Myers said. "At the point we’re at, being low risk, with no confirmed cases, and nobody under any suspected contagion of the virus, we’re just at an awareness level, monitoring the situation."
So far there have been two people in the county sampled for the virus, and those tested negative, according to Jason Kennedy, director of both the Ellis County Health Department and Ellis County Emergency Medical Services.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday reported there are 21 confirmed cases of the virus in Kansas, with 11 in Johnson County, five in Wyandotte County, two in Leavenworth County and one each in Butler, Douglas and Franklin counties. There are two out-of-state resident cases, one in Ford and one in Miami counties. That brings the total to 21, including one death.
Johnson County’s health officer Tuesday ordered all restaurants, bars, taverns, clubs and movie theaters closed for 15 days, but still allowing carry-out, delivery and drive-through, and limited public gatherings to 10. Douglas County is doing the same.
Johnson and Douglas counties’ responses are more restrictive than the state’s, where Gov. Laura Kelly closed the schools and banned all gatherings of more than 50 people. But there are exceptions with the 6-foot social distancing rule advocated by President Donald Trump and public health experts.
"A funeral is an exemption to the order, so they can still have funerals," Myers said. "Just take your social-distance precautions of six feet apart."
Restaurants also can remain open under the ban, he said.
"Like retail food establishments, preserve social distancing of six feet between tables, booths, bar stools and counters," said Myers, reading from the order during a discussion of the ban on Tuesday afternoon at his office in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.
The ban educates the public on what people can and can’t do, which could include, for example, the county limiting use of its facilities, such as weddings at the Schenk Building at the Ellis County Fair Grounds.
"For enforcement, we’d have to get some kind of a county resolution referring to this executive order and then obviously the commission would have to take that up," Myers said. "Our commission at this point is not interested in doing it at this point."
There are other exceptions as well, such as the court system.
Social distancing is already present in the county, to some degree, said Myers and Kennedy.
"By definition we do have an inherent amount of social distancing built into our communities," Kennedy said. "We don’t have a bunch of communal living spaces. We are remote from extremely urban areas. We have a large geographic footprint, so we have less people per square foot."
At the same time, however, "We do have a major thoroughfare with the Interstate, and that’s something we get, travelers from all over the world, and the airport too," he added.
If someone does test positive for the virus in Ellis County, the health department handles that information from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
"That’s the primary function of the health department, to do what’s called contact tracing," Kennedy said. "We talk with the subject, kind of trace their footsteps back through whatever the duration of time is that’s determined by the KDHE and then proceed with them in the investigation. We would make notifications to people that KDHE determines if the person is under investigation or not."
KDHE is no longer updating counties on persons under investigation, those who are being tested. Instead, they relay only the positives and negatives, Kennedy said.
With information about the virus unfolding minute-by-minute, Kennedy and Myers are juggling back-to-back conference calls with state officials, as well as in-person meetings with local agencies.
With COVID-19 a pandemic, the lead coordinating agency is the Ellis County Health Department, with other local agencies assisting.
In this case, support agencies Kennedy can tap into if needed include: private health care providers, HaysMed, the Ellis County Coroner’s Office, Ellis County Emergency Medical Services, Eagle Med, assisted living homes and nursing homes, High Plains Mental Health and others.
The county’s emergency preparedness plan sets out general guidelines for responders.
"It talks about medical surge, continuity of operations, fatality management, epidemiology," Myers said. "But you can’t have a plan specific to every pandemic, because every pandemic is different … But it gets you started, these are the resources, this is what you can do, these are your action steps, and you build that."
There are a lot of unknowns in any emergency, he said, so plans evolve with the challenge.
"This is new, so that is why the world is adapting, learning, taking action steps to mitigate through it," Myers said.
For Ellis County, Kennedy urged residents to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, available on its web site.
"It takes everybody doing their part," Kennedy said, "to slow the spread of the virus."