Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas reported Friday afternoon that a long-time resident of one of its living facilities has died of COVID-19.


DSNWK, which serves the developmentally disabled, said in a news release that it has a cluster of eight cases in the residence, with one staff and seven residents testing positive for COVID-19.


The death is one of two new deaths in Ellis County, according to the Ellis County Health Department’s COVID-19 data dashboard on its website.


"DSNWK following the guidance of ECHD and KDHE has taken every measure to mitigate this cluster," the release said. "All remaining affected individuals are in stable condition and isolated to their respective living quarters or private residence."


The release said DSNWK continues to follow clear protocols to maintain a healthy and clean environment.


"These protocols include limiting access to service settings; routine temperature and health status checks for staff and residents; use of masks and other PPE; frequent hand washing and prevention steps," said the release. "DSNWK and the Ellis County Health Department have worked diligently to ensure the safety of the DSNWK family."


The Ellis County Health Department has notified anyone who is impacted by this current cluster, the release said.


On Friday, the health department reported two new deaths. Previously the county had recorded one death from the virus since counting began in March. The department updates the COVID-19 numbers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.


Friday’s numbers showed one of the smallest decreases in weeks, with 15 new active cases.


The county now has 219 active cases. There are three people hospitalized.


So far, 452 people have recovered. Including 13 probable cases counted by Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the county has now had a total of 674 cases.


The county has 12.6% of positives and a seven-day average percentage of positives of 14.7%.


In-home spread a problem


Last Tuesday in an update on the virus to the Ellis County Commission, Health Services director Jason Kennedy said the county would make a big dent in its number of cases if people would take social distancing, hand washing and mask precautions at home when there is a case.


"If people will strictly maintain isolation and quarantine, it will help significantly," Kennedy told the commissioners. "The vast majority of cases of all viral transmission happen in the home."


He said it’s unlikely for people to contract COVID-19 from intermittent contact, such as passing by someone at a store. The problem is with close, intimate contact.


"You will contact it if you’re sitting at the break table, behind closed doors, where you’re taking absolutely no measures to protect yourself," he gave as an example.


Staffing closes school, businesses


Hays Middle School had to close this past week because of the virus, the only school in Unified School District 489 to go temporarily to virtual learning so far since the start of the school year.


"They closed not because of a massive outbreak, like I’m sure everyone’s assuming," Kennedy said, "but they closed because they have so many staff in quarantine or it just wasn’t feasible for them to provide a safe environment for the kids with staffing and everything to bring them all back."


With schools, he said, if there’s a positive in a classroom, they shut it down for 48 hours.


"That gives us time to contact trace. That gives us time to clean, it gives us time to ensure that we’re bringing everybody back into a safe environment and we get notifications out there," he said. "This one just lasts a little longer because there’s just more to it."


In recent weeks several businesses also closed down temporarily, a decision they made themselves, he said.


"They didn’t have staffing, they didn’t have enough people to open their doors," Kennedy said. "We encourage really any business to take that decision on their own."


The health department contact traces through the business’ staff.


"We’ll pull the people that we feel are contacts," he said. "And they will be mandated to quarantine."


More testing in the county


On Tuesday when Kennedy spoke, the county had a seven-day average percentage of positives of 13%, which he said was a significant decline from the 22% around Aug. 27.


"Our level of percent of positive was outside the 22% mark, and honestly it was indicative of not enough testing," Kennedy said. "So the medical community has done a phenomenal job of bringing that down."


There were 2,221 new tests in the previous couple weeks, including a lot of asymptomatic testing at long-term care facilities in Ellis County, bringing the county’s total tested to 5,000 people.


"That truly is a testament to the amount of work, the amount of time that is put in to collecting samples, ensuring the correct paperwork is filed, that they get to where they are supposed to go to, and there’s a significant cost associated with that to those facilities," Kennedy said. "So all of the medical facilities in Ellis County have done a phenomenal job, they all still have plenty of capacity to test, we still have plenty of test kits available. Anyone that’s symptomatic, nobody’s been turned away because we didn’t have test kits."


Not unexpectedly with the start up of Fort Hays State University, Kennedy said 54% of the county’s total cases are in the 18-24 age group, with 63% of the active cases in that population.


As expected, the majority of cases have been in Hays, 92%. But Ellis accounts for 4%, Victoria for 3% and Schoenchen for 1%.


Commission Chairman Butch Schlyer commented that all the surveillance isn’t mitigating the situation with so much community spread. The testing is just counting numbers, he said.


"The more numbers you get, the more people panic," said Schyler. "We’re not going to mitigate this through surveillance. We’re just counting numbers. But while we’re doing this, it’s going to cost the county a lot of dollars. It’s going to cost the state dollars. It’s going to cost the federal government dollars, so we can have statistics for this."


No end to surveillance


Kennedy acknowledged that some of the recent testing has been on asymptomatic people in long-term-care facilities, following KDHE guidelines.


Asymptomatic testing, he noted, doesn’t tell anything about a person’s status at the moment.


"You cannot be contagious any longer, you can be past your infection, you can be over it, and still test positive, really, up to 90 days, usually closer to 30-60 days," he said. "That’s why asymptomatic testing isn’t recommended. It doesn’t show active or inactive virus. It shows presence of viral material."


But there’s value in the testing being done locally, he indicated.


"Some of these efforts at the state level are about gathering numbers," Kennedy said. "But I will tell you at the local level it’s truly about doing what we can to protect the citizens."


"Has KDHE given any indication as to when they might stop surveillance, if they ever will?" Schlyer asked.


"I don’t see any realistic change to that plan anytime soon," Kennedy said.


Staff is weary


Noting that surveillance takes a lot of effort and time, Schlyer asked Kennedy, "How are you and your staff holding up and doing all this?"


"They are working around the clock, weekends," Kennedy replied. "But it’s taking a toll on them. I see it on their faces every morning when I walk in."


Because the staff are all part of the community, they are also getting a lot of calls on their personal phones from people who are concerned, he said.


"There’s seems to be no respect of boundaries when we deal with COVID, which is OK. People are scared, they want the information," Kennedy said. "My staff is tired. They’re worn out. They’re beat up. But so is everybody else in this world. We’re all tired of COVID. We all just beg for it to go away. Sometimes we don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning, because we don’t want the day to start, because we know COVID is there. That’s not going away."


The health department is trying to bring on more staff, including applying for a grant for full-time positions.


"Any concern for losing staff?" Schlyer asked.


"That’s like my first question every morning, ‘you’re not going to quit are ya?’ So far they haven’t said yes, but their face says otherwise. They cannot keep a pace like this," Kennedy said.


The City of Hays has had a mask ordinance in place since July 17, and recently extended it until Oct. 5. During that time, as school has started back up, the number of cases in Ellis County, particularly Hays, has jumped drastically.


"These masks do little or no good. People may believe they’re safe with them, but essentially they’re not," Schlyer said. "Until we can get a safe, valid vaccine, this issue is going to be with us, and it’s going to continue to grow, and I guess all I can continue to encourage people to do is choose where you go and what you do."


Now in Phase 1


Commissioner Dustin Roths asked about herd immunity, and the county’s phased response plan to the pandemic.


Kennedy said herd immunity is not a realistic short-term response to the virus, and said Ellis County is in Phase 1 of its plan. That includes recommending masks, social distancing and avoiding mass gatherings, along with doing contact tracing with mandated quarantine and isolation, he said.


"The next benchmark that we would look for is 1% of active cases, and a percent of positive over 10-12%," he said, "but hospitalization and hospital capacity figure into that, and so far we haven’t seen a hospital capacity issue."


The 1% of active refers to a percentage of the total population, Kennedy said.


"So 280-ish active cases?" Roths asked.


"Yes," Kennedy answered.


Kennedy encouraged everyone to keep following the guidelines of the KDHE and the CDC for preventing the spread.


"Unfortunately, this is what the new normal looks like," he said. "We need everybody to work together to ensure we can keep schools and businesses open."