County trying to get more COVID-19 testing

Margaret Allen
Jenifer Kraus, of Hays, was among the dozen or so protesters outside city hall Thursday evening. "I hope there's a good outcome," she said. "If it's God's will that it's going to happen, then it's going to happen."

Ellis County’s percent of positive COVID-19 cases is about 18 times higher than it was a few short weeks ago, according to Ellis County Health Services director Jason Kennedy, indicating more community spread of the virus.

That’s not an indicator that more people are being tested, he said.

“So when percent of positive increases, that doesn’t show an increase in testing,” Kennedy told the Hays City Commission in a report at their Thursday meeting on the steep rise in cases in the county.

“It shows an increase in spread. If you keep the same percent of positive and you increase your tests, obviously you’re going to find more cases, but your percent of positive stays the same,” he said. “If the percent of positive increases, it shows you have additional community spread, additional infections on top of just your increase in testing.”

At its lowest point a few weeks ago, the county’s average daily case growth was 1.3. Now it’s more than 18, he said.

Kennedy made his comments in advance of citizens at the meeting who showed up to speak against extending the city’s mandatory mask ordinance.

The ordinance went into effect July 27 and expires Aug. 31, for people 8 and up.

The commissioners ended up voting 3-2 to extend the mandate until Oct. 5.

In a two-hour meeting marked by some tears and an outburst from one disgruntled person in the audience, the commissioners gave their reasons for how they voted.

Komoss Creamer, one of those who spoke during the public comment section against the mandate, was escorted by Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler from the meeting. Creamer had jumped from her seat and interrupted commission discussion after Commissioner Sandy Jacobs made a procedural motion to extend the ordinance to Dec. 31 so as to formally open the commission’s discussion of the mandate.

Referencing herd immunity, Creamer refused repeated orders from Mayor Shaun Musil to stop.

“No I’m not going to stop,” Creamer said. “It’s not right.”

“Ok, Chief,” Musil said, “take her out, please.”

Earlier in the meeting, Creamer and other citizens against the mandate were orderly in their three-minute deliveries of their opinions to the commission. Their comments followed Kennedy’s presentation on the state of the virus in the county.

Showing a chart with steep peaks and plateaus of Ellis County cases, Kennedy said the wave will continue to look like that, because the virus is not going away.

“It will be here as long as I’m here,” Kennedy said.

While the nation is about six months into the pandemic, Ellis County is only two or three months.

Kennedy said a medical vaccine is about four to five months away.

“It won’t be an on and an off,” Kennedy said of a possible vaccine. “Hopefully we can get enough doses.”

Asked by Jacobs if the surge of cases now is the result of FHSU students at bars and house parties, Kennedy said sure, but qualified his comment.

“That really doesn’t matter, it still leads to case growth,” he said. “We need everyone that is currently in Ellis County, including visitors, residents, including John’s cousin who shows up for the weekend. We need everyone for this to work.”

Kennedy said that 77% of the county’s cases as of Thursday were 18- to 24-year-olds, and not all of them are from the campus community.

There are also 50-year-olds, 60-year-olds, 80-year-olds, he said, with cases across the entire population.

Commissioner Ron Mellick asked how many people in Ellis County are quarantined.

“That has to do with how many people are unable to go to work, if they are quarantined,” Mellick said. “Businesses have been closed because of that.”

Kennedy said he doesn’t have that number, particularly after a large dump earlier this week of 72 cases on the health department by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Mellick asked what the correlation is between cases and quarantines.

“What you are speaking of is the R naught,” Kennedy said. “The R naught of a virus is the number of people that can get infected. The R naught of measles and TB is around 16. For every one positive, 16 other people might be infected. The R naught of COVID-19 is 1.4, as of the last time I saw it. It might actually be higher now, because we’ve seen such massive spikes across the nation.”

Kennedy said that means that for every one person that has COVID-19, they will infect 1.4 other people.

Mass gatherings

Musil asked Kennedy about his recommendation a few weeks ago to the Ellis County Commission to shut down mass gatherings at the county’s large party rental buildings, which are popular for wedding receptions and big meetings. Faced with tremendous public pressure, the county commissioners decided to let events go ahead.

“The county says they’re following his plan,” Musil said, “and then they don’t.”

“That wasn’t on my plan,” Kennedy said. “But I saw it coming. My plan actually doesn’t include canceling mass gatherings with the rate of spread that we have. But I knew in November, December, we were likely going to have problems, because that’s what the projections said. And I know it takes months to cancel, redo a wedding, whatever you need to do for your special day. My plan was to get ahead of that, give people notification and time …. It’s the one time I’ve deviated from that plan.”

Canceling mass gatherings is not included until Phase 2, he said.

“We’re actually about 22 cases away from Phase 1,” Kennedy said. “And that’s just with daily case rates. Our percent of positive is there, but our percent of positive actually right now, because of the mask fight, our percent of positive actually isn’t addressed in there. Because our percent of positive says we’re above 20 percent.”

The health department reported Friday on its web dashboard that the number of cases on Friday was up 47 since Wednesday, with 159 of those active, and two hospitalizations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Ellis County is not testing enough, Kennedy told the commission Thursday, although all the medical partners in the community are testing as much as they can. He’s requested the state’s help for a mass testing trailer, to get rapid testing for the population that isn’t staying put, he said.

Tired of mandates

Case growth is because people are tired of mandates, and tired of the virus, Kennedy said. He urged the City of Hays to develop a COVID-19 response plan, similar to the one the county has, that looks out to the next year.

“If we don’t plan this, the public will continue to get less and less involved in mitigation measures,” Kennedy said, which foils widespread adoption, and destroys confidence in the measure.

“Right now, there’s a large group of people that don’t believe in either one of those,” he said.

“I’m asking tonight for time, and to trust that the plan that you guys put together will be based on fact, science and carries through so we can continue to make decent, educated decisions as we go through the next year, two years, three years, however long this goes,” said Kennedy. “If we continue to make individual decisions, based on point of references in time, we’ll continue to lose public sentiment.”

Berges votes no

While City Commissioner Michael Berges was the first commissioner to push hard for wearing masks at previous meetings, he voted Thursday against extending the ordinance.

Berges questioned whether the mask order has worked, saying although he doesn’t want to point fingers, the spike came after Fort Hays State University’s 4,000 students started classes. The spike, he said, was much worse than he expected.

“To me, the mask order was working,” he said, “up to a point though.”

Getting beyond that point takes more, he said, including among other things, not gathering in groups, isolation for those who are sick and social distancing.

He questioned the masks working “if we’re not going to take the next step beyond just wearing the mask, of putting capacity orders in, telling our bars and restaurants that you can only do half capacity, if we’re not going to actually write the tickets,” Berges said. “The city of Manhattan with its mask order has gone ahead and shut down a couple bars.

“It kind of comes down to that point. Do we have the stomach to do that?” he asked. “Obviously, for me personally, I don’t think I have the stomach.”

The city’s efforts at education have helped up to a point, he said.

“We have to go beyond educating at this point,” Berges said. “We have to make sure we’re mitigating groups.”


A supporter of the mask mandate, Musil, who teared up a few times as he spoke, said he can only go along with extending the ordinance if the city will enforce it.

“I will not vote for this mandate if we do not enforce it,” Musil said. “I believe 80 percent of the people in this town are doing the right thing. But we have to enforce this. I dread it for the police department. Our job is to make sure they are funded so they can do their job.”

The owner of Paisley Pear Wine Bar & Bistro, Musil said it’s his goal to keep businesses and schools open, and to keep his employees and customers safe.

“We’ve had people that took the test today,” Musil said of his employees. “Days from now I may be closed. It’s out of my control.”

With the recent steep spread, businesses in town are closing, he noted. He said he was shocked by the exploding numbers.

“This is just the start of it. It’s true what Jason is saying, it’s going to get even worse,” Musil said. “That scares the hell out of me.”

Social media

All the commissioners noted they’ve received feedback from residents, some respectful, and many others not. While the commissioners to a one said they appreciate hearing from people, they condemned the bad manners they’ve seen in emails and on social media.

“I am just appalled by the way people have acted this week,” said Mellick, who voted to extend the ordinance. “We’re going to tear this community apart.”

Musil echoed that.

“We’re a great community, but like you said Ron, we are tearing our community apart,” said Musil. “This crap that we’re all doing to each other on Facebook and everything else, is unbelievable.”

While many of the demonstrators outside city hall before the meeting carried signs against school children wearing masks, Jacobs made a point of noting that the city doesn’t govern the policies of USD 489. She said threatening comments are not intimidating her.

“There needs to be an understanding among us though tonight, that I’m not intimidated in any way,” Jacobs said, noting friends shared social media posts from this past week. One of them, she said, paraphrasing, said “ ‘Let’s show up en masse to intimidate them.’ Some of the names we were called in print were abhorrent. Where does this kind of thing come from?”

Despite what she’s been accused of, Jacobs said she has no political agenda, but wants to keep the city’s businesses open. While she’s listened to both sides of the issue, she’s following the advice of the town’s medical professionals, including those at Hays Med.

“The vulgar language, the name calling, the pure hate of those who do not agree with you is so far beyond me,” Jacobs said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Mellick said that while he feels sorry for the children, he believes they will adapt, and noted that the American Academy of Family Physicians is recommending kids mask. Likewise, private businesses also have their own mask policies.

“This week I’ve been sad, I’ve been angry, I’ve been horrified. But mostly disappointed,” Mellick said. “We have people on both sides of this issue that have been vicious, intimidating, threatening and even downright nasty. Not all of them have been this way. But a lot have, and a lot more than I ever thought would.”

Even people he sees in church on Sunday have abandoned civility, Mellick said. While people on both sides of the issue have the best intentions, the problem is people who are asymptomatic and don’t know they are sick, who compromise others.

“We’re going to tear this whole community apart, because people can’t compromise. It’s my way or the highway. Everybody has their own experts,” Mellick said. “But we are here to take care of the citizens of Hays, whether you want to be protected or you don’t want to be protected, we have to make that decision.”

One death too many

In his comments, Berges rejected the argument from some who spoke that any number of deaths are acceptable. He also asked that people who are anti-mask not email him their thank you’s for voting against the ordinance.

“I could not be further away from their reasoning for why not to extend it,” Berges said. “I do actually believe very much that we need the mandate. But we have to enforce it … I stand with enforcing it.”