A request that Ellis County be allowed to skip ahead to Phase 2 of Gov. Laura Kelly’s gradual reopening plan has yet to be answered by the state.

Ellis County Health Department director Jason Kennedy emailed a letter May 14 to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment asking that Ellis County be exempt from Kelly’s Phase 1.5, which is stricter than Phase 2 regarding which businesses can open.

At the time Kennedy asked, Phase 2 was set to start June 1, but Tuesday she moved that up to Friday.

"I requested that exemption specifically because we met the state’s initial metrics," Kennedy told the Ellis County Commissioners during their regular meeting Monday evening. "I have received no response either from KDHE, the governor’s office or really anyone at the state level that I sent the request to."

Kennedy said the request was a longshot, but one he indicated was justified.

"I did send a letter to Dr. Lee Norman, the secretary of the KDHE," Kennedy said. "Because we have met every single health metric that was set forth from the state when the initial Ad Astra plan came out. That is a 14-day decrease in cases; we have not seen a new case in 32 days. That is a decrease in hospitalizations; we have to date not had a single hospitalization of Ellis County residents. And it was a decrease in deaths. We thankfully have not had any deaths at this point in Ellis County."

But short of getting an answer, Kennedy said businesses and individuals in Ellis County should continue in Phase 1.5.

"I just encourage us to continue doing that until we see something from the governor’s office," he said.

County Commissioner Dustin Roths praised Kennedy’s approach.

"I want to thank Jason for looking out for the business interests of Ellis County too," Roths said at the meeting in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main. "I know in his job it would be relatively easy to err always, always, always on the side of more and more safety to the detriment of the business community. He really took a step back and looked at the greater picture and I appreciate him for that."

Asked Tuesday afternoon for an update on the status of the request, Kennedy told The Hays Daily News there was still no word. Besides state officials, Kennedy said he’d cc:ed the request to Ellis County’s state legislators as well as representatives in Washington, D.C.

"I did receive a response from Rep. (Roger) Marshall, Rep. (Barb) Wasinger and Sen. (Rick) Billinger," he said. "They have helped as much as they can. It is nice to receive that support back."

Even though Ellis County has fared well so far through the virus, the Ellis County Commissioners during their meeting on Monday agreed to sign a countywide state of disaster emergency declaration.

The commissioners made the decision after hearing from Kennedy and interim county administrator Darin Myers, who also heads Ellis County Fire and Emergency Management.

Myers told the commissioners that the disaster declaration will be necessary if the county needs to request more personal protective equipment from the state.

Plenty of PPE for now

So far the county has received more than $200,000 of PPE from the state, he said, and currently has a stockpile of face shields, procedural masks, N95 masks, gloves and gowns.

But in anticipation of possible federal requirements, the state is reverting to previous procedures that require a county sign a disaster declaration to get supplies.

"We still do have an excess of supplies in my office, that we could still hand out if we need to," Myers said. "But that doesn’t mean that next week that something could drastically change and we may have to make a request."

Different agencies and businesses, whether health care professionals, dentist offices, or the hospital itself, will be told by the state to contact their local Emergency Management Department to request supplies from the state, Myers said.

"If we don’t have the disaster signed, I won’t be able to fill those requests," he said. "The state would deny our request."

Right now Myers said his department is supplying PPE to public safety and health care professionals, law enforcement, Emergency Management Services, HaysMed hospital and the fire departments.

"It’s a bit of a conundrum," said County Commission chairman Butch Schlyer. "They want us to declare an emergency, but yet our health director just asked if we could be waived from 1.5 because we don’t have an emergency."

Myers agreed.

"We’re basically post-31 days from having any confirmed cases, they’ve all since recovered, no deaths, no hospitalizations, the health office is meeting all the contact tracing requirements the state has had," Myers said. "We’re like .0004 of our population has even been impacted by it."

Still awaiting test kits

The health department still has a request pending with the state for 2,800 test kits, which haven’t been received, said Kennedy.

It’s likely more supplies will be needed, especially if a vaccine becomes available, he said.

"Regardless of what the state’s intentions are here, I do see a necessity for Ellis County to continue to be able to request resources from them and work with them," Kennedy said.

"Do you have any concerns about Ellis County in our herd immunity from the coronavirus?" asked Roths.

"We just haven’t been touched by it," Roths said. "It’s been the problem I’ve had with the governor’s resolutions the entire time. When we could have been running our economy similarly to how we ever did, practicing social distancing, not had people traveling in and out of hotbed areas. … I dont think I would have done any of this stuff had they allowed us to govern more locally on the issue."

The only way to assess herd immunity, Kennedy said, is with antibody testing, which is available in Ellis County but currently unreliable, given so many false positives.

"I don’t feel like we’re in an emergency declaration at all," Roths said. "But if that’s the rules they make for us so that we can stay prepared, I guess that’s what we have to do is toe the line with them."

"If we have to make an emergency declaration to garner future supplies, we might as well do it up front as wait," agreed Schlyer.

"We’ve been ahead on this," said Commissioner Dean Haselhorst. "I don’t think we want to fall behind now."