Committee brainstorms $5.7M for virus relief

Margaret Allen

More than a dozen people from Ellis County met Monday on Zoom to start brainstorming how to spend $5.74 million in federal virus relief to the county.

The CARES Act funding is the first in three expected installments. It’s meant to be spent before the end of the year.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to eat the apple here,” said Hays city manager Toby Dougherty during the video meeting. “We’ve got $5.7 million that came without a lot of strict guidance. It’s essentially for two purposes. It’s to reimburse entities for costs incurred as a direct result of the pandemic, and then also to be a direct aid plan for future expenditures as we progress in dealing with the pandemic. And those aren’t necessarily independent of each other.”

The people at the meeting represented entities eligible for the money, ranging from city and county governments, nonprofits and social services to mental health and medical providers, K-12 schools and higher education, and business.

The money is part of more than an initial $1 billion in local relief to Kansas, passed to the counties through Gov. Laura Kelly’s SPARK task force.

Each county must file a spending plan with the state by Aug. 15.

Ellis County administrator J.D. Cox organized the committee and led the Monday afternoon meeting. The group will meet again at 3 p.m. Thursday on Zoom, bringing rough dollar calculations for the various categories of need.

As preliminary numbers, the group tentatively agreed to set aside $500,000 for reimbursements, $1 million for future contingencies, and $4.2 million for direct aid.

He suggested each representative bring a shortlist and dollar amount of incurred expenditures and planned expenditures, to start putting numbers on the needs.

“If we have $20 million of possible expenses, then we got a rough task ahead of us,” Dougherty said. “If we have $7 million, we’ve got a manageable task ahead of us.”

Besides Dougherty and Cox, members of the committee are Hays Medical Center president and CEO Eddie Herrman; High Plains Mental Health executive director Walt Hill; Fort Hays State University President Tisa Mason; Holy Family Elementary School principal Rachel Wentling; USD 489 superintendent Ron Wilson; Grow Hays executive director Doug Williams; Downtown Hays Development Corp. executive director Sara Bloom; First Call for Help executive director Linda Mills; United Way of Ellis County executive director Erica Berges; Hays Area Chamber of Commerce director Sarah Wasinger; Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas president and CEO Jerry Michaud; and Hays Convention and Vistors Bureau executive director Melissa Dixon.

The committee members plan to add representatives for the aging, agriculture, oil and faith communities.

Some entities will have larger expenses than others, said Dougherty, who mentioned the schools as an example.

HaysMed’s Herrman said one of his biggest concerns is COVID-19 testing and tracing, particularly in regard to safely opening schools, and the support schools will need, whether grade school, middle school, high school, FHSU or NCKTech.

Not only will classrooms need physical social distancing, he said, but probably online platforms as well.

“We know that for schools they’re going to have people that are immunocompromised and/or their parents are immunocompromised, and they can’t afford for their kid to get COVID and bring it home, or they can’t afford for their kid to get COVID because they’ve been compromised,” Herrman said. “Those are things that are keeping me up at night right now.”

High Plains’ Hill agreed that the schools will need support, citing challenges to families with the kids being home, in some cases with increases in substance abuse and domestic violence.

“What happens at school is going to have a big impact on what happens in other social domains,” Hill said. “Parents are very stressed right now about this, from what they tell me.”

Quick turnaround on testing is paramount in the event of an outbreak, Herrman said, to manage quarantines.

Right now the testing for Ellis County falls on the hospital, which runs it through Quest Diagnostics. Locally there’s a limited number of rapid tests that have a one-hour turnaround capability. Most testing takes three days to get results, he said, and the more of that kind of testing, the longer it takes, as labs, including KDHE, get backed up.

“So now you’re at the point where heck, these people have already done have their quarantine before you even know whether they’re positive or negative,” Herrman said. “And we know not everyone can afford to comply with a seven-day quarantine and miss work. So you’re going to have noncompliant people.”

FHSU’s Mason said the Kansas Board of Regents has put in a funding request for testing, quarantine and tracing.

“We’re being told that we’ll know if we get that money by Aug. 1,” Mason said.

“The dollars that come in for testing and contact tracing will be coordinated and given and distributed also with our partnerships,” she said. “We’ll be continuing to coordinate and move some of that money over to the county and HaysMed to help pull all of this off.”

Herrman noted that there are logistical hurdles that will make quarantine and tracer activity difficult.

While the university can isolate people housed on its campus, many FHSU and NCK students are off campus.

“Do we try and use hotels to get the kids that aren’t positive out of that environment and into a safe, clean environment?” he asked.

There will be issues with K-12 kids as well, Herrman said.

“Not every family can afford to isolate and separate,” he said. “If you’re not in a house that’s big enough to do that in, so what do we do in those cases?”

“Thank you very much, good thoughts,” said Ellis County’s Cox, asking if testing kits should be included for funding in the plan.

“What kind of money would we be looking at to do something like that?” he said.

Herrman said the University of Kansas Health System is part of a large purchasing pool of hospitals that can access needed kits.

The chamber’s Wasinger asked what the outlook is for COVID-19 in the community.

“Do we feel like the worst is behind us,” she asked, “or do we feel like the worst is yet to come?”

“I would say at our current run rate of how long it’s taking us to double, it’s ahead of us,” Herrman replied.

“It took us two and a half months to double the number of active cases that we have in the county,” he said. “And this last time it took us 10 days, 12 days, to double the double that took two and a half. So I would say that we’re at about a four-times to six-times acceleration of our previous pace for COVID cases. And we haven’t even gotten big groups really back together.”

Herrman said the medical community already has successfully reached out to some organizers of big events.

“We’ve been fortunate,” he said, “to kind of talk some people out of having certain things that were going to get really huge groups together, which is absolutely proven is going to bite you.”

First Call’s Mills reported a similar expectation for people needing help with rent and other basic needs.

“I believe that it is yet to come, over August, September, October,” she said. “People’s unemployment bonus, so to speak, will be gone, their unemployment might be used up at that point. And that’s when we think we’ll see a big surge in requests.”

Midwest Energy, she said, starts sending out cut-off notices in mid-October, wanting people to get caught up on their bill before November’s cold weather.

Hill mentioned that prohibitions on evictions may also be expiring this fall, creating problems for people who are unable to pay.

For the aging community, Wasinger said, there’s a need for families to physically see their loved ones in person.

“If there are funds that can be utilized to create safe spaces for families to even meet with their loved ones who are in the aging homes, that would probably be a very positive way to spend some of the money,” she said.

Business and tourism representatives Melissa Dixon and Sara Bloom mentioned the challenges faced by the business community and nonprofits, all seeing revenue shortfalls. A challenge is making shoppers and visitors feel safe going into stores, restaurants and other venues.

Hill said the idea of being socially connected but physically distanced might form the basis of a marketing campaign.

“I think a whole area of social marketing around this could be very helpful to our communities as part of getting people to feel connected,” Hill said. “Social marketing can be very powerful from a mental health perspective, a business perspective.”