COVID-19 cases drop in Ellis County

Margaret Allen

The COVID-19 trend in Ellis County is dropping like a rock, but there will likely be other waves, according to Ellis County Health Services director Jason Kennedy.

“Things are improving in Ellis County, have continued to improve in Ellis County, since our peak,” Kennedy said Monday evening at the regular meeting of the Ellis County Commission.

“We are on that downhill slope, or have been for quite a while,” Kennedy said in his latest report to the commissioners on the virus in the county. “That’s good as we’re looking at moving back into school, things like that.”

There have been big drops on two significant fronts, Kennedy said, citing the seven-day average case growth and seven-day average percent of positives.

Compared to its peers, Ellis County is doing better than other counties its size.

“We’re still significantly lower than most of the counties based on population density,” he said. “The last time we talked we were about the 25th, and we’re like the 15th biggest county as far as population density.”

Further west, some counties are still seeing case growth, Kennedy said, and he fully expects that to happen again in Ellis County.

“Viruses travel in vectors. If you have vectors in your county, you’re going to see an acceleration phase around it until it can either mitigate itself out, or the measures that you take can mitigate that risk,” Kennedy said. “So we’ll continue to see waves of the virus, it’s still in our county, it’s not gone from our county.”

That’s the case as people travel and gather in groups, he said, prompting new waves.

“COVID will not go away. We will not see a time where COVID is no more, at least not in my lifetime,” Kennedy said. “Even with a vaccine, a vaccine is not an on-off switch. So COVID is here. How we deal and how we react to COVID is what will determine what our future looks like.”

The county had five new cases over the weekend, including some on Friday, with 12 active cases now and two hospitalizations. There was one death in July.

That brings the county total as of Monday to 146. Kennedy said the county has more cases than positive tests, because of probable cases.

But he cautioned against a strict comparison day-to-day of his department’s count of the cases with that of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“Sometimes our data is a few off from KDHE’s data, but that’s because everything’s manually input at the KDHE and for us,” he said. “So if their reporting time frame is a few hours different than hours then our cases can so, but we’re always a few cases within KDHE.”

Ellis County is now getting back to, at, or slightly below, the numbers back on July 8, when Ellis County started increasing, he said.

Trending down

The number of cases peaked July 17-19, Kennedy said, and began declining July 19-22, before any mitigating measures were in place. The decline began four to eight days before the city of Hays began requiring masks, which started July 27, he said.

The Hays mask ordinance expires Monday, Aug. 31. The county commissioners earlier in July opted not to require masks countywide.

“I imagine we’re going to discuss masks,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths, noting the city ordinance ends right before the Labor Day Holiday weekend, and that the county’s last uptick was the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

“Obviously 22,000 of our 28,000 people and their mask mandate makes a big affect on how we decide on mitigating measures as a county board of health,” Roths said. “I would say that’s just my concern, is we pull off a mask mandate and then everybody goes for Labor Day activities and then there’s some sort of claim that the masks were the reason that we were keeping the numbers low.”

“We’re still within the first latency period, the first 14 days,” Kennedy said. “As you go with mitigating measures, generally, your hope is that they compound and continue to make bigger increases. But you also can’t really look at the data until you’re looking back.”

Doctors decide

As of Monday, the county had tested 2,780 people.

“Jason do you try to test everyone that has been named as a contact?” asked commission chair Butch Schlyer.

Kennedy said not for the general public, unless a person is extremely high risk, or been in extremely prolonged close contact with a positive case.

“KDHE is actually still not recommending asymptomatic testing,” Kennedy said.

At this point it’s done for first responders who have been exposed, as well as long-term care residents, which happened in Ellis County, leading to testing of all the staff and patients, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend asymptomatic testing either, he said, but the decision is up to a person’s primary care physician.

“What will happen when the cold and flu season starts and everyone has symptoms?” Schlyer asked.

“Everything is really up to the primary care physician to determine. That is their job as a doctor. And the best thing we can do is let doctors be doctors,” Kennedy said. “In Ellis County our doctors have done a phenomenal job of really going through kind of a pre-programmed algorithm of looking at your symptoms, seeing what they need to test you for, whether they test you for flu, whether they test you for strep, whether they test you for COVID. Generally they will test in an order of what is the most likely diagnosis.”

With Hays Medical Center a hospital serving a big swath of western Kansas, Roths asked, “Any issues with stressing our medical system?”

“No, not right now,” Kennedy said.

Testing turnaround

As far as testing, Kennedy told the commissioners at their regular Aug. 3 meeting there’s about a 48-hour return on tests locally. Most of the Ellis County tests go through Quest labs.

That’s in contrast to some testing platforms across the nation, however, which are taking from seven to 10 days for results, he told the commissioners.

“We did get notice today from Quest labs that they got a huge dump on Sunday and they’re not sure they’re going to be able to dig out for about seven days, somewhere around there,” Kennedy said. “So there is starting to be some issues with return time on testing.”

Schlyer noted that slow test results hamper contact tracing. Kennedy agreed.

“There is no surveillance at that point. If you get a test result back 10 days later, the person is already out of their isolation period,” Kennedy said. “At that point, their contact tracing really is a futile effort.”

Schlyer asked about testing accuracy.

Kennedy said the PCR nasal swab test has a small percentage of false negatives, less than 5%.

“They are highly specific for COVID-19. So if you’re positive for a PCR test, you have COVID-19 viral material,” he said. “What they don’t show is active or inactive virus. So you could have conceivably had it 30 days ago, you’re actually no impact to society anymore, you aren’t contagious, you can’t infect anybody. But you still test positive on a PCR test. You can do that for up to 90 days following infection.”

That’s when symptoms come into play, he said. For isolating a positive case, it’s 10 days after onset of symptoms, 10 days post-test, or 72 hours post fever, whichever is longer. For contact tracing, it’s 48 hours prior to onset or test.

Rapid testing

While some entities nationally are able to get the rapid testing, with results in an hour, it’s not possible locally for routine surveillance, Kennedy said.

“We have enough grant money, that we could set up our own lab. The problem is, we can’t get the reagents,” he said. “We could buy the machines, we can have people run them, but we can’t get the actual material that’s needed to actually take the sample and place it in the machine. We have the machines right here in town, but I’m not sure how Major League Baseball can get them, but we can’t get them. We have tried, we have called labs, we’ve tried partnering with HaysMed, we’ve tried partnering with First Care Clinic. The money is there from the federal grants. ... We can’t get the material to make it happen.”

Locally, rapid tests are reserved for emergency cases, such as people needing emergency surgery, or the extremely symptomatic when needed to drive their medical care.

See the doctor

The big problem now is that COVID-19 has kept people away from their normal doctor visits. Immunizations are down at the health department, he said, despite the start of school nearing.

Kennedy urged healthy lifestyle choices, seeing the doctor and getting needed shots.

“People are afraid to go out and get care,” he said. “We need people to go in, see their doctors.”

As he’s said before, Kennedy urged people not to gather in big groups, and ”mask mandate or no mask mandate, whatever your county, city whatever mandates, doesn’t mean that should necessarily change your decision to make good choices.”