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As the number of Johnson County COVID-19 cases climbs, county officials have removed an exemption for weddings, funerals and religious activities from the attendance limit of up to ten people. Meanwhile the county’s top public health officer urged residents to limit their public exposure.
“We recognize that it’s quite difficult for people to maintain,” said Dr. Joseph LeMaster, chief public health officer. “We’re hoping, praying that we will not have to go to more draconian measures such as sheltering in place.”
“I will not promise you that we will not come back to you and make that sort of order even as early as next week. So I want to really encourage people to do their very best to stick with this,” he said during an update to the county commission Thursday.
The county, cities and school districts have closed down many person-to-person operations as the number of cases has climbed. Johnson County had 16 positive cases as of Thursday, which accounted for a little less than half of the state total. Public health officials said the county has now crossed a threshold into the world of community transmission, where travelers are no longer the main way the virus enters the area.
Commissioners discussed wide-ranging changes in county operations intended to stem the spread of the illness:
- Religious activities, weddings and funerals, which had been exempt from the public health order, will now have the same attendance as other public gatherings. Those services can still take place, but they’ll fall under the attendance limit. That order is effective until April 2, when it will be re-evaluated. Easter falls on Sunday, April 12 this year.
- Bus fare in Johnson County will be free until the end of March. Chairman Ed Eilert said he gave the okay after being asked by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. Bus service in Kansas City, Mo., Wyandotte and Jackson Counties is already free. But since traveling by city bus could put more than 10 people together for more than 10 minutes, transit officials are also working on a way to still somehow provide service, said Joe Connor, assistant county manager.
- The appraiser’s office and elections office are both urging people to handle their questions by phone or online.
- All but emergency courtroom operations will stop because of an order by the Kansas Supreme Court. Deputy County Manager Maury Thompson said the order covers all district and appellate court cases and lasts for two weeks until further review. The order allows any jury trials already in progress to finish, but no other jury trials can start until further order. It would, however, allow hearings for probable cause for arrest, first appearances, bonds, warrants, juvenile detention, protection from abuse and stalking and child in need of care, as well as some other criminal matters.
- County officials also are discussing a hiring freeze and changes to the timeline in writing next year’s budget, said County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson.
New rules for testing driven by shortage of kits
During his update Thursday, LeMaster described new rules for testing for the virus that will be driven in part by shortages of testing materials.
“We continue to hear that more test kits are coming and we’re trying to obtain those,” he said.
Going forward, only sicker people will be tested for the virus so doctors can better guide their treatment, he said. People with symptoms should contact their health care provider for advice on whether they should be tested, rather than going to the emergency room or doctor’s office in person.
For those mildly ill, LeMaster advised isolation for seven days after the onset of symptoms or 72 hours after the symptoms go away, whichever is longer.
There was additional advice for travelers. Anyone returning home from a Center for Disease Control Level 3 area was advised to stay home and practice social distancing for 14 days from the time they departed for home.
The new rules are as much to regulate the workflow at the labs as to conserve the testing supplies, he said. “If we test too many people it takes a while to run the test. So then there becomes a tremendous backlog of tests and an inability to get them all processed,” LeMaster said. “So people are just waiting longer and longer to get the answer. We want to be careful and judicious about who gets the test.”
The changes are meant to protect the capacity of the health care system so that severely ill patients can get the care they need, he said. Instead of spending resources investigating contacts of positive cases, LeMaster said the county would focus on protecting health care workers, first responders and the most vulnerable of the population.
However there was one bit of positive news. LeMaster said the county currently has enough protective equipment for health care workers and first responders. The county has about a month’s supply and is working diligently to see that it continues to come in, he said.