The state’s business community and public health officials have generally shared a common goal over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic: keeping Kansans, and by extension consumers, safe.
That shared goal is still intact but members of the business community are increasingly concerned that the two entities are drifting further apart in how best to accomplish it.
The most recent touchpoint came earlier this week when the Kansas Department of Health and Environment announced for the first time publicly the locations of COVID-19 outbreaks statewide.
Not all would be disclosed — five or more cases had to be tied to a particular location for it to be posted in KDHE’s data dashboard.
Clusters linked to private businesses had an even higher threshold: 20 cases had to be linked to a particular establishment to be publicly disclosed.
Earlier this week, KDHE data showed outbreaks occurring everywhere from football teams at the University of Kansas and Kansas State, a school board meeting in Dodge City and four state correctional facilities.
But some of the businesses on the list were not happy about their inclusion.
At least two businesses claim that KDHE data misrepresents the current state of the virus at their facilities, putting them on the list when their active number of cases falls below the 20-case threshold.
Other facilities, especially meatpacking plants, fear customers will be wary of consuming a product that came from a facility labeled an outbreak.
All this adds up to a case from business leaders, argued in a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday, that the KDHE decision amounts to nothing more than the "public shaming" of establishments.
"We have made every effort to serve as a resource to the administration during this pandemic, which is why we are so perplexed by this heavy-handed response," the letter said. "What is the ultimate goal of notifying the public of a breakout location?"
Cities ranging from Anchorage, Alaska, to El Paso, Texas, have opted to disclose locations of outbreaks, as have some counties in Kansas.
Yet few, if any, states have taken that step.
Officials in Wisconsin backed off such a plan in July after pushback from business groups. Gov. Tony Evers defended the move earlier this week by saying it better helped state health officials monitor the spread of the virus.
"it's information that's not public," Evers told reporters.
That is very different from the perspective that has been taken by Kansas officials, who argue public disclosure is a vital means of transparency for customers.
"With the numbers all going in the wrong direction ... we have to start getting more serious," KDHE Secretary Lee Norman told reporters. "One of the ways to do this is to provide people the information they need."
Some counties already disclosed locations of outbreaks prior to the KDHE decision. But many counties in the southwest elected not to make clusters at meatpacking facilities public, according to a Wichita Eagle investigation in July.
Those outbreaks have been among the most sizable in the state, the KDHE data showed. Five of the eight facilities named were packing facilities, including the largest outbreak linked to a private business.
Multiple companies have taken issue with KDHE’s data. Cargill confirmed to the Dodge City Globe that the number of cases listed in the dashboard for their Dodge City facility are the overall number of cases reported since May.
Instead of the 594 active cases KDHE lists, a spokesperson said they "only have 11 active cases, with about half of those expected to return to work later this week."
Simmons Pet Food similarly disputes the number of active cases at their Emporia packing facility, which KDHE lists as 66.
But Julie Maus, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas-based company, said fewer than 1% of their 1,200 employees currently have the virus.
"Based on KDHE’s policy criteria of 20 cases, we do not believe Simmons meets the threshold of an active cluster," she said in an email.
At one facility, employees were hesitant to go to work after their facility wound up on the list, said Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber.
"We don’t want to protect bad actors, but I don’t know that what has happened so far is protecting the public with real data," Cobb said.
KDHE spokeswoman Kristi Zears said an outbreak is still considered active if a new case is reported within the past two incubation periods, roughly 28 days.
"This is a standard public health measurement," Zears wrote in an email
But because the state does not distinguish between active and recovered cases, the KDHE data can appear to indicate far more cases at a facility than there may currently be.
Cobb said the data mismatches underscores a larger problem where KDHE is not interested in engaging with employers to clarify numbers.
"I think it might just give a little window into what the folks at KDHE are doing, which is not always cooperative but punitive," he said.
Dan Murray, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, argued it is not clear how a given case can be tracked to a particular business with 100% certainty.
"We live in a very fungible society where people are going from school to basketball to Walmart to a small business to their own homes," he said. "There is no guarantee that the transmission of COVID occurred at that particular business, yet that business will bear the scarlet letter of being the source."
Zears said the case would be deemed associated with a certain location, whether that is a business, school or mass gathering, "if the public health investigation has found that they likely contracted the disease from that location/event."
"This includes anyone (employees, customers, vendors, etc).," she wrote
Concern exists that tension with KDHE could adversely impact the ability for public health officials, both state and local, to work with businesses.
That includes contact tracing, although health officials rely on businesses less under new rules passed in June by the Legislature that make individual participation voluntary.
This means that businesses can’t be compelled to maintain records about the movement of employees and customers.
Even still, Dennis Keisel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said it was not difficult to imagine a situation in which workers are instructed not to participate in contact tracing over fears it could be linked back to their place of employment.
"If they’re worried that our little general store is on the cluster list .... we’re all going to be unemployed because I can’t afford to pay [employees] because we don’t have any customers," he said. "I can see scenarios like that."
"There might be some businesses who are concerned about some blowback, of public shaming if you will, because of cases that might have intersected with their business," he said. "Could it result in under-reporting? I think that is a legitimate concern that we all should be considerate of."
Riley County Public Health Department administrator Julie Gibbs acknowledged that there was initially worries that announcing the location of outbreaks, which the county has done for some time, could prove counter-productive.
"There was some concern with that early on," Gibbs said.
But soon, she said, businesses warmed to the idea because it helped quiet gossip, which could easily spread through smaller communities.
"They’d rather this than rumors going around that there was an outbreak here or that there could be an outbreak there," Gibbs said. "I think it’s better coming from a trusted source that this is where the outbreaks are."
Business groups have countered that such a determination should be up to each individual merchant.
"The businesses can do that voluntarily if they’re so concerned, if they want to squelch rumors," Cobb said.
And even though the data reporting is done by KDHE at the state level, there is still a concern that local health departments will get caught up in the blowback through no fault of their own.
Keisel noted that many of those officials took the job with no expectation that they would encounter a pandemic — much less the political twists and turns that have accompanied the spread of COVID-19.
"I think some businesses might just blame the public health system as a whole," Keisel said. "And in Kansas, public health is decentralized, it is organized at the county level. And these orders have come down from the state ... But who is doing the disease investigation and reporting the cases back up to KDHE? Well, its the local health officials. It is almost a shoot the messenger kind of thing."