JoCo health officer recommends putting off reopening of non-essential businesses until May 11

Joseph LeMaster, Johnson County's chief public health officer, said coronavirus response has been effective enough here that the county can move to phase two of the Kansas reopening plans with the rest of the state when the time comes. File image.

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Johnson County should put off reopening non-essential businesses for a week to protect the county from a possible wave of new infections caused by people traveling from other metro counties with continuing outbreaks, county health officer Joseph LeMaster, MD, MPH, said today.

LeMaster told county commissioners Wednesday that although the county has shown a downward trend in cases and hospitals are not overwhelmed, the commission should consider delaying a phased reopening until May 11. That would bring it closer to the May 15 date Kansas City, Mo., has planned.

LeMaster said that although Johnson County has had good results in containing Covid-19, other contiguous counties continue to deal with new cases. Businesses like hair salons reopening in Johnson County could draw customers from other areas where they are still closed, he said, and result in more spread.

“If we were on our own on an island in the middle of Kansas, I would say let’s go ahead,” he said. “But we’re not. And therefore my recommendation is that we coordinate with the neighboring counties and move together as much as possible.”

The county has been poised to begin its reopening plan as soon as Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide order expires May 3. For the past week, a special committee has been writing the proposed rules and timing for businesses like restaurants, hair salons and sports courts that are now closed.

Commissioners discussed the recommendation Wednesday but will not make a decision until later this week.

The recommendation was met with immediate pushback by Commissioners Steve Klika and Mike Brown. Both complained that the later deadline represents a sort of mission creep about what the objectives are for the stay-at-home order. Klika said he was led to believe that the order is designed to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. County hospitals have so far not come close to reaching capacity, as was feared earlier.

Brown noted that stay-at-home orders are being lifted earlier in some of the collar counties around the metro, and wondered whether there have been outbreaks associated with that. LeMaster said he didn’t have data at hand with that level of detail. But there have been some outbreaks at construction sites in other counties where workers come from different areas, he said.

The original focus on hospital and intensive care use has now shifted, Brown said. “That has mission creeped into keeping us quote unquote safe. I can’t get anybody who’s a professional who has a Dr. in front of their name to tell me what the definition of safe is.”

Commissioner Becky Fast said movement between counties is a big issue for her district in the northeast part of the county. The five zip codes around her northern border in Wyandotte County accounted for 72 percent of new cases in the metro. And the northeast cities get 40 to 60 percent of their sales tax comes in from outside the county, she said. She stressed more testing to track the origins and spread of new cases.

LeMaster said ideally the metro counties would all be on roughly the same reopening schedule. He didn’t recommend Kansas City, Missouri’s May 15 date, though, because it’s on a Friday and LeMaster said it would make more sense to begin the phasing on a weekday.

Traveling virus spread was not the only reason he recommended waiting. Putting things off an extra week would also give businesses in the first phase the time they need to find personal protective equipment and get their distancing plan in place, he said.

Klika has repeatedly stressed hospital occupancy and capacity as the data the county should be concerned with when deciding whether it’s safe for business to reopen. He said the worst outcomes have been concentrated among older people. “The majority of the population that is affected by Covid-19 is able to cope with it with certain level of medical care which has not overwhelmed our whole medical system,” Klika said.

LeMaster said that while more people over 60 die or are hospitalized from Covid-19, people shouldn’t assume that their lack of mobility would keep hospitals from overflowing at some point. The virus is new and scientists are beginning to find effects on younger people with organ failure and clotting disorders related to Covid, he said. Between 52 and 57 percent of the cases are in people younger than 60, he said.

That could just as easily result in another wave to hospitals, he said.

“I’m not really sure what the point is to say that it is only happening in the older population,” he said. Hospitalization follows the distribution of the cases and, “we’re seeing death and severe complications happening across the spectrum,” he said.

Commissioner Janee Hanzlick said, “I feel I promised the people to do everything we can to protect public health.” As far as the age breakdown, “You can’t only quarantine the senior population and expect that’s going to keep the virus in check.”

Commissioners did not make a decision on the recommendation Wednesday. What they ultimately do will depend on what the governor says in a press conference scheduled for Thursday evening. If she extends the stay-at-home order, the county will have to follow it and any restrictions on businesses.

The commission planned a special meeting Friday to make those decisions.

Commissioner Jim Allen said he’s been mostly quiet the past few meetings so he could take in the arguments. But Wednesday he said he is comfortable with LeMaster’s proposal.

“I would rather err on the side of the medical professionals,” he said. “If they’re comfortable with that date, I’m very comfortable with what they’re proposing.”