Johnson County officials get update on efforts to prep for possibility of coronavirus spread

The new coronavirus that has overwhelmed parts of Asia and now threatens Europe and the Middle East has not yet made an appearance in Johnson County. Even so, county, school and city officials are making plans now for how to deal with a public health threat whose outlines have been changing daily.

Johnson County commissioners got an update Thursday on how public health officials are addressing what scientists say could become a major outbreak of the flu-like disease. But because the virus is new and the threat in Johnson County is low, efforts so far have been to establish preliminary cooperation among governing bodies and health workers, and to discuss strategies for educating the public.

Nancy Tausz, health services director for the county’s Department of Health and Environment, told the commission that so far there are no county residents “under investigation,” meaning they have been tested and are awaiting results.

That could be because the bar is high as to who is eligible for a test. Up until Thursday afternoon, only people who had traveled from mainland China in the past 14 days and have symptoms would be eligible for testing. Tausz said she expects that to change soon because several other countries have now reported cases.

Travelers from China are closely monitored because of the concentration there of the coronavirus, known as Covid-19. They enter the U.S. through any of 11 designated airports and those from the hard-hit Hubei Province are placed under quarantine for 14 days even if they show no symptoms, Tausz said.

Those without symptoms coming from China outside of that province are documented by the CDC Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. That information comes to county health officials, who contact them with requirement that they stay under voluntary quarantine at home, taking temperature twice a day and watching for symptoms. If any cough, fever or flu-like symptoms occur, they’re advised to call ahead for a doctor visit so they can be separated from other patients, Tausz said.

The test kits for detecting the new Covid-19, have been in short supply, but they are sent to the state and not individual counties, she said, and more are expected in the pipeline within a week. Kansas is not one of the states that currently has kits, she said, so tests are done through the CDC from samples taken by hospitals. Results take as many as five days, she said.

There’s no vaccine available now, and probably won’t be for at least a year, although Tausz said anti viral drugs to alleviate symptoms are being tested and could be available sooner.

Tausz assured commissioners that county health officials are working closely with the cities and schools to stay on top of a rapidly changing situation. She said local hospitals already have isolation units and staff trained to use them. The hospitals also communicate with each other to share information about available resources. First responders are also being trained in procedures to protect themselves from exposure, she said.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert asked that health department officials make efforts to get information out to the public with a number to call for more information.

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said the county needs to find a way to keep a “reliable, steady supply of good information to try to tamp down – I hate to say hysteria but some of the stuff that’s out there is bizarre.”

Temporary election commissioner Connie Schmidt said she has already been thinking about the possible impact of a prolonged outbreak on the election. Schmidt, who is barely a week into her job getting the county ready for November’s presidential election, said she is developing a list of ways to make the election voter friendly, but is only in the very beginning stages of figuring it out. (Schmidt was responding to a reporter’s question and was not at the commission meeting).

Meanwhile the Shawnee Mission School District sent out a notice that it will continue to monitor the situation and will revise its pandemic response plan as needed.

The district advised families to follow the CDC recommendations for prevention, which include hand washing with soap for 20 seconds or longer, especially before meals, staying home when sick, promptly throwing away tissue after a sneeze and avoiding contact with sick people.

Masks are not recommended for healthy people, but may be used by those with symptoms to prevent the spread of disease.