As JoCo Health urges schools to cancel winter sports, some ask why county Parks and Rec is still offering activities

While the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment has recommended schools cancel indoor sports and activities the county's park district has continued to offer sports programming. Above, the New Century Fieldhouse, a Johnson County Parks and Recreation District indoor sports facility. Photo via Johnson County Appraiser's Office. 

The current rash of COVID-19 cases and ensuing hospitalizations has prompted Johnson County commissioners to take a hard look at whether county operations are following their own health department’s advice.

That focus has been trained in recent days on the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District, which is currently set to offer winter activities even as county health officials have urged public schools to cancel their winter sports in order to decrease transmission of the coronavirus.

The Board of County Commissioners will hold a special meeting at 1 p.m. Friday to look at, among other things, whether the county park district should continue to offer indoor sports like basketball, volleyball and soccer this winter. The commission will also consider next steps in stemming the spread that has recently threatened hospital capacity.

The agenda posted Thursday said the commission will look at reports and recommendations and “proposed actions,” which have not yet been specified.

The meeting follows several days of increasingly worrying news on coronavirus cases in the county and criticism from Shawnee Mission School Superintendent Mike Fulton earlier this week as the board considered the county recommendation on indoor sports.

‘We have to do something’

Johnson County continues to surpass its previous worst weeks on infection, and the number of cases has shot up in the past fourteen days, which has also resulted in more crowded hospitals, health officials said.

In his most recent coronavirus update, county Public Health Director Dr. Sanmi Areola said the number of cases is sharply up again for the week of Oct. 11, at 260 per day. The previous week was 179 per day. The percent of cases that are positive also is spiking, with 14.5 percent the latest number compared to 5.8 percent three weeks ago, he said.

The exponential rise in cases is in danger of overwhelming contact tracers and investigators in their efforts to warn people who are exposed to stay home, he said.

“We have to do something and do something now,” Areola said.

The virus is spreading freely throughout the community, with much of the transmission among younger people and the elderly bearing the brunt of the deaths. Areola and county epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh presented figures showing that 82 percent of the positive cases but only 5 percent of the deaths were among those 59 or younger, while people 70 or older made up only 9 percent of new infections but 85 percent of the deaths. Those in the 59 and below age range also accounted for 38 percent of hospitalizations and 28 percent of intensive care beds.

Most of the infections have been in gatherings, Holzschuh said. An October 16 wedding accounted for 10 confirmed cases, and another on Oct. 17 for five. More clusters were found from a going-away party and in food service distribution, possibly from a food truck.

The health officials also said two school classrooms – a second grade class and a fourth-grade class – were quarantining because of multiple cases. A private school in the area shut down for two weeks because of transmission attributed to social events like Halloween party, a charity dinner and a happy hour.

In addition three daycares are closed and 17 positive cases were associated with day care staff and attendees on Monday alone. That’s up sharply from two weeks ago, when only a few a week would have been normal, according to the health department’s presentation to commissioners.

A positive case was also linked to the Election Night party hosted by county Republicans.

Health department officials have declined to name any of the schools, daycares or private businesses where clusters occurred, citing privacy concerns.

Superintendent says county leagues put unfair burden on schools

The bad COVID-19 report Thursday followed a special meeting of the Shawnee Mission School boarg Tuesday in which Superintendent Mike Fulton expressed frustration at the county for discouraging winter school sports while offering county leagues for indoor basketball, volleyball and soccer.

That puts an unfair burden on schools, he said, because kids whose parents can afford it will still play at park programs or ball clubs where they can contract the virus.

On Thursday, county Commissioner Becky Fast noted Fulton’s comments and said she’d like to hear from all the county departments about whether they’re following best practices.

“I walk by Meadowbrook (Park) seven nights a week and there’s always some party that’s going on with no masking,” she said. “This is a crisis. We have a fire and we need to start with our own organization.”

Commissioner Janee Hanzlick agreed.

“We’ve heard a lot about self responsibility. Well that’s not working. We need to protect our children, we need to protect business and we need to protect hospitals,” she said. “None of us wants to get into a car wreck and not be able to get into a hospital,” she said.

County Park and Recreation Director Jeff Stewart said the park district has taken pains to limit spectators at the sports but that it does not have policing authority to force anyone to wear a mask. Because of the limits on attendance at games, the parks department’s situation is different from that of schools, he said.

So far the park district has not received any recommendations directed at its programs, but stands ready to make changes if that happens, Stewart said.

The park district offers sports year round, but now is the beginning of the heavier basketball league season, he said.

“We also recognize that we’re still in a very fluid environment and sometimes those plans have to change depending on where we’re at in the community as it relates to the pandemic,” he said.

The district will continue to review its programs with the health department, he said, and changes would be made with the health department’s guidance. “We recognize the value, the importance of having safe places for people to go to recreate, to exercise etcetera. If it’s determined by our health officials that we need to suspend that because we’ve had an extreme spike in cases, then we’ll be in alignment with that.”