Diverging from KCMO, Johnson County decides against extending stay-at-home order to May 15 — at least for now

County Chair Ed Eilert said he and Kansas City, Kan. Mayor David Alvey decided to diverge from the Kansas City, Mo. branch of the CORE 4 and hold off on extending the local stay-at-home-order to May 15 for the time being. File photo.

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Johnson County officials essentially decided not to decide Thursday whether to continue the stay-at-home order until May 15, as Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has done. Instead, Johnson County will stick with the business closure and distancing rules until May 3 before deciding if a longer extension is necessary. The May 3 date coincides with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s order.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert told commissioners meeting Thursday that he and Kansas City, Kan. Mayor David Alvey decided to diverge from the Kansas City, Mo. branch of the CORE 4, noting that the extension from the county’s previous April 23 end date would give officials time to collect data before deciding whether to continue the order another two weeks.

Some commissioners say they have been feeling pressured by residents who are in financial distress and want to see businesses reopen. Local hospitals have so far not been overwhelmed by cases as have other hard-hit areas of the country.

The May 3 date is at odds with the consensus of health directors, who met online this week to discuss the safety of reopening businesses. Joseph LeMaster, MD, MPH, Johnson County public health officer, said the health directors generally agreed that May 15 would be the earliest possible date to roll back restrictions.

That’s based on a model that puts Kansas City’s coronavirus peak at April 29, he said. An earlier peak date in Kansas reflects the fact that Kansas data includes western counties that have had far fewer cases.

Early indications show that the county’s curve of cases may be starting to flatten. Positive test results have not spiked upwards, according to the recently launched dashboard of local statistics. As of Thursday, there were 343 positive cases and 22 deaths.

Health officials warned that reopening too soon could set off a wave of new infections. They told commissioners that the county’s adherence to social distancing rules seems to be working but more data is needed to confirm it before it will be safe to allow businesses to open. Even then, the reopening should be phased.

“When we start to roll things back, we have to be ready for the possibility of infection to pick up,” said Sanmi Areola, PhD, the county public health director. He said the county will need to be relentless in collecting and following up on data in the meantime, “so that we don’t go back and lose all of the gains that we have made.”

Health officials at the meeting also pointed out that there’s a lot of commuting between Johnson County and other counties on both sides of the state line. Some 145,000 people came from outside counties to work in Johnson County, and 108,000 county residents commuted outside its borders, according to annual figures from 2018 compiled by the County Economic Research Institute.

LeMaster said he will continue to collaborate with other county health departments on public safety of reopening. The May 3 date still gives officials time to collect more data, which will be needed, along with personal protective equipment so that things can open up again as soon as safely possible, he said.

“We recognize the pain and fear people are expressing and I want to assure you and them that we are all listening to that even as we do our best to get things right from the angle of public safety,” LeMaster said.

The commissioners discussed setting up a steering committee made up of health experts, business, government and non-profit representatives to explore how the stay-at-home order may eventually be lifted.

Meanwhile the county is proceeding with its increased testing. The second round of invitation-only drive-through testing is scheduled for today [Friday] at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School. Health officials hope to test 250 more people, with an emphasis on essential workers such as grocery store clerks, daycare providers and others whose essential jobs include contact with the public.