Kansas set records again Wednesday for new coronavirus cases and COVID-19-related hospitalizations as some local officials reported having trouble getting people to cooperate in finding those who may have been exposed.
Several counties reported that some people won’t provide complete — or any — information about their close contacts, making it more difficult to trace the spread of the virus. A state privacy law enacted in June allows people to refuse to do so.
“Our case investigation is only as good as what the people give us,” said Jenette Schuette, administrator of the four-person health department in Hodgeman County in southwest Kansas, which had one of the nation’s highest per capita increases in cases over the past two weeks.
The state Department of Health and Environment said Wednesday that Hodgeman County, with fewer than 1,800 residents, had 100 total cases for the pandemic, with 66 of them reported during the past two weeks.
Schuette, who has been doubling as the county health officer since the last one resigned in September, said roughly half of the people who are exposed to the coronavirus won’t name all of their close contacts, listing only household members or even telling the department that they have seen no one.
In Shawnee County, home to Topeka, at least 10% of the exposed people contacted refuse to talk to investigators seeking information about their close contacts, said Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, the county health officer.
“There is not a lot of incentive for people to be honest and transparent,” Pezzino said. “They’re just too afraid to put their friends in trouble and to cause more disruption to their lives.”
Pezzino said some people may hesitate to cooperate because they worry about having to take two weeks off work to quarantine.
Butler County, in south-central Kansas, has seen 621 new cases in the past two weeks, according to the state health department.
“It’s rough on our citizens who are being quarantined, who need to figure out how to put food on their plate when they’ve run out of resources for leave with their employers,” Butler County Administrator Will Johnson said.
The local health department would need another 10 employees for proper disease tracking but it can’t hire staff partly because public ridicule toward its workers is “at the highest ever,” Johnson said.
The state health department on Wednesday added another 5,672 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since Monday to the state’s tally for the pandemic, increasing it by 5.5% to 109,225. The state saw a record average of 2,430 new cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, 18.7% higher than the previous record average of 2,047 for the seven days ending Monday.
Kansas saw a record of 38 new hospitalizations a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. The state health department reported 114 new hospitalizations since Monday, bringing the total to 4,252 since the pandemic reached Kansas in early March.
Hospitals are increasingly stressed. The Kansas Hospital Association on Wednesday surveyed 143 Kansas hospitals, and 45 of them, or 31%, expected critical staffing shortages within a week. Only 9% of the staffed intensive care unit beds for adults were available Wednesday in the Kansas City area and in south-central Kansas, home to Wichita, the state’s largest city.
Kansas also reported another 34 COVID-19-related deaths to bring the pandemic total to 1,215, with an average of 18 reported deaths a day for the seven days ending Wednesday.
Pezzino said Shawnee County has seen a handful of cases in which infected people refuse to quarantine, though it typically resolves the issue by having a law enforcement officer go to their homes with a signed order.
In Hodgeman County, Sheriff Jared Walker said he had only “a couple” of reports of people refusing to quarantine there.
“We just had one the other day,” Walker said. “One of my deputies approached him and told him: ‘You know what? You’ve been exposed. You’ve been told to quarantine. Go home.’” And he has.”