Ahead of Labor Day weekend, health and school leaders urge Johnson Countians to remain ‘vigilant’ against COVID-19 spread

Health leaders from both sides of State Line spoke Wednesday about the latest COVID-19 trends around the Kansas City region. Photo credit screen shot of Greater KC Chamber of Commerce Zoom call.

For those who think the COVID-19 pandemic around Kansas City is over, Dr. Larry Botts, chief medical officer for AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, has a clear message: it’s not.

In fact, at the 500-bed hospital in Overland Park that he oversees, Botts says the past six weeks have seen the greatest number of COVID-19 patients of any period since the pandemic began.

“It’s been a very emotional and stressful period for our front-line workers,” Botts said earlier this week during a virtual discussion of health care leaders from across the metro, hosted by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

They said that the Kansas City region is entering a critical and potentially dangerous new phase of the pandemic, with schools set to reopen and the annual cold-and-flu season on the horizon. That, even as current COVID-19 trends remain worrisome.

Botts says AdventHealth Shawnee Mission currently has the capacity to deal with the COVID-19 patients who come in, but he worries that if there is a renewed surge in the pandemic, his and other hospitals around the region will be overwhelmed with trying to deal with the combination of COVID-19 cases and other patients suffering from typical seasonal ailments.

“It’s our biggest concern, our greatest source of anxiety…that we’ll be unable to care for our patients,” Botts said. “This reinforces the need to be vigilant and have everyone in the community continue to follow good prevention practices, like mask-wearing and social distancing.”

Pleas for residents to be responsible over holiday weekend

Other health and education leaders in Johnson County are making similar pleas ahead of the three-day Labor Day weekend.

Johnson County health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., says new cases of COVID-19 have totaled 800 or more each week for the last six weeks. Photo credit screen shot SMSD YouTube channel.

Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, noted in a virtual town hall hosted by Shawnee Mission Schools this week, that cases spiked at the end of May and early June following Memorial Day. He also said graduation parties in Johnson County may have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 over the summer.

He encouraged Johnson County residents to avoid large gatherings over the long holiday weekend, noting that Tuesday, Sept. 8, is the scheduled start of classes — both in-person and remote — for several public school districts in Johnson County.

“I would personally like to see those parents who want their kids to participate in extracurricular activities, who want schools to be reopened, to be wearing masks, to avoid parties, ensure that we don’t get worse,” he said. “This is a chance for you to help contain community spread.”

Kenny Southwick, the former interim Superintendent for Shawnee Mission Schools who now leads the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, says schools will not be able to contain the spread of COVID-19 on their own. Southwick was one of the panelists who spoke during the virtual event put on by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce this week.

“COVID is not a school problem, but it is a problem that has been thrust on our school districts,” he said. “If we want to keep our schools open, our businesses open and our economy thriving, we have got to to have a higher level of community responsibility.”

Many health experts during that same event reiterated the steps that people should continue to take to tamp down the spread of COVID-19: mask-wearing, staying socially distanced, avoiding gatherings of 10 or more people and frequent hand-washing.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has guidelines for hosting gatherings and cook-outs, encouraging people to hold such events outdoors, if feasible, and to limit physical interactions and remain six feet apart as much a possible.

Fight against “COVID weariness syndrome”

Steven Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said people have to fight against what he calls “COVID weariness syndrome.”

“We’re tired of wearing masks, we’re tired of social distancing. I know many people who think it’s just not that bad, or that they’re not going to get it,” he said. “But COVID is real. It’s real for young people, it’s real for older people, it’s real for healthy people.”

According to JCHDE’s online COVID-19 dashboard, the county remains in the “red zone” for school reopening. The latest 14-day average for percent-positive tests stands at 11.4%. New cases have also been trending up and stand at roughly 123 per 100,000 residents, as of Thursday, Sept. 3.

Last month, the Kansas City area was one of 10 cities listed as potential COVID hot spots by a White House task force. Around the Kansas City region overall, average new daily cases have dropped recently, according to data tracked by the Mid-America Regional Council, but new hospitalizations and the average daily number of inpatients with COVID-19 have leveled off and not declined.

Stites said the hospitalization rates could be a problem heading into the fall, typically the “hardest part of the year” for hospitals dealing with influenza.

“We have not been New York,” he said. “But don’t think we have not been stressed at the hospital level by COVID right now and what that will do to us if we have a big rise as schools and universities reopen and people start relaxing too soon.”