Even though Ellis County’s COVID-19 case numbers are again rising, the county is still doing better compared to the rest of the state.


Out of the state’s 105 counties, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ranked the county 42nd in number of cases per 100,000. The county is 20th in the state for population, with 28,500 people, said Ellis County Health Services director Jason Kennedy.


But Kennedy is concerned about the recent increase as Fort Hays State University started classes this week and the county’s K-12 schools start next week.


"I understand that the county is tired," Kennedy said to the Ellis County Commission on Monday evening during his weekly report at their regular meeting. "I understand that the citizens are tired. I understand that we’re all tired of COVID.


"But if we want kids back in the buildings, if we want kids to get something from this year, if we want kids to be educated and to do it in an environment that’s safe for them, we need people to not be tired. We need people to be educated, and they need to follow the basic principles of public health mitigation measures."


That means, besides hand washing and other measures, "do not gather in groups," he said.


"I don’t know how many times I can stress that," said Kennedy.


The health department Friday reported four new cases of the virus, and on Monday there were eight more. Two of the most recent are associated with weddings in another county, he said.


"If you gather in groups, masks are not going to be what you need," Kennedy said. "They help, but masks and social distancing go together, in conjunction. One without the other is increased risk."


The county has had 158 total cases since the pandemic reached Kansas in March, and 147 of those have recovered. There are 13 active cases now, he said.


"So we are doing better per capita, but with inclines happening, with Fort Hays State coming back to town, with schools going back in session, inclines are concerning because they impact the state’s metrics and gating criteria for schools," Kennedy said. "I have an 8, 6 and 3-year-old. I want my kids to go to school."


The gating criteria provided to schools by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is guidance on what it looks like to go back to school under a rubric of metrics with various grades, with a variety of possible school activities, under different scenarios. County gating criteria is similar but different, Kennedy said.


Schools have individualized plans determined by a group effort of the school board, the schools and the health department, he said.


Ellis County schools are as ready as they can be.


"The schools, they truly have done everything they can to create a safe environment within the schools," he said. "Now it’s up to the public to create a safe environment outside the schools."


Old and young


Commissioner Dustin Roths said getting kids back to school is important for the parents, the economy and the kids, but it must be done while keeping everyone safe.


"As we all know, this definitely hits an older population much harder when they contract COVID-19," Roths said.


"We gotta remember that within school buildings there’s an older population," Kennedy said. "There’s teachers, there’s custodial staff, there’s administrator staff, there’s volunteers. My mother volunteers; she’s in the at-risk population. We have those at-risk populations mixed with maybe a less at-risk population of students."


Numbers go up


Commission chair Butch Schlyer said that with Fort Hays testing its students, faculty and staff, and the local school districts possibly doing so as well, that the county should expect numbers to go up.


"Absolutely," Kennedy said.


But Schlyer noted that testing positive doesn’t indicate that someone is necessarily sick and having symptoms.


Kennedy agreed, explaining that for that reason the county tracks the seven- and 14-day "percent of positives" number, along with other numbers, to get a better understanding of the disease burden of the virus locally.


"If percent of positive goes up, that means we have more spread inside the community," he said. "If percent of positive stays low, and we get more cases, it’s a product of more testing."


Additionally, locally clinics and HaysMed report cases of COVID-like illness to the state, and the county tracks that. Those are people who go to the doctor sick, with symptoms, and don’t feel well.


"We have seen a steady decline" in those numbers over the last month to month and a half, Kennedy said. "We are having more positives, but we don’t have as many sick people. So we have positive tests results but people aren’t as sick, which is great."


So far, a total of 3,102 Ellis County residents have been tested either in-county or out-of-county.


Up to college kids


The increase that’s starting now indicates a lot of things, Kennedy told the commissioners.


"It indicates people taking their last summer vacation, it indicates weddings, it indicates funerals, it indicates people moving more, it indicates people gathering in groups," he said. "It indicates people becoming less accepting of these draconian measures. It means people are not adhering to the strict public health principles. And it also indicates that we might have imported cases into the community with people that travel."


Fort Hays has done a good job preparing and educating the students, said Kennedy.


"Now we need the kids to do their part," he said.


KDHE is doing the contact investigation and tracing of FHSU faculty, staff and students. That’s the case because the county doesn’t have a multi-jurisdictional view of communicable diseases in the county.


FHSU cases are routed to the student’s county, state and country of origin.


"The state can see it," he said, knowing before the county does.


The health department is also working with FHSU on plans to get kids advised and isolated and in quarantine as soon as possible.


"If the process isn’t working," he said, "We’ll reevaluate and fix it."