By KIRBY ROSS
Phillips County Review
Since a second wave of coronavirus struck Phillips County in mid-August, the Phillips County Review has worked diligently to keep a close watch on the disease and report on local developments so our readers can make informed decisions regarding their families’ health and safety.
As part of our reporting, we have also been keeping an eye on our immediate surrounding area since problems with a contagious pandemic in the outlying region can easily move into Phillips County and become a threat here.
Up until very recently, since August the local northwest Kansas Coronavirus problem areas outside Ellis County had been limited to Rooks County and Phillips County.
Since the Pandemic virus started spreading across the nation in March, up until the end of September Norton County had only had 33 total confirmed cases of COVID. In fact, in the final full week of September there were just two new cases diagnosed in all of Norton County during that seven-day period. That compares to 24 new cases in Phillips County and 34 in Rooks the same week.
Things in Norton started looking a little unusual the first few days of October — cases there bumped up to 13 that week. It was nothing to be alarmed about, but it was maybe something of which to take notice.
Then came the week of Oct. 4. With the new outbreak seemingly being brought under control in Phillips County where there were just 12 cases, and in Rooks County which had 11 cases, Norton County went on a completely opposite trajectory with 55 newly-diagnosed COVID cases. (That number for the week of Oct. 4 was updated to 60 by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shortly after we went to press with that lower number last week).
This development out of Norton resulted in a comment in a story in last week’s issue of the Review that COVID there had evolved into a “mess,” with their numbers amounting to being the worst one-week total ever reported in rural northwest Kansas.
So that was the week of Oct. 4 — 60 new cases in Norton County.
Which next brought us to a new counting period, the week of Oct. 11. When we looked at those numbers this weekend it became apparent something major was going on when we saw Norton County had as many COVID diagnoses for the timeframe as much larger Ellis County -- 72.
In fact, that week of Oct. 11 Norton County had about as many total cases of Coronavirus COVID-19 as Saline (Salina) and Barton (Great Bend) counties combined.
Suspecting the Norton County problem might lie in a major outbreak at the prison there, we searched through press releases which had been regularly coming from the Kansas Department of Corrections since the beginning of the Pandemic last spring.
Those press releases provide transparency on Kansas outbreaks — whether they be large or small outbreaks — at various incarceration facilities around the state. By saying “large or small,” we mean the KDOC notifications would range from mention of a single guard or inmate being diagnosed, on up to groups of around 100 prisoners. Those types of reports were issued throughout the summer.
However, finding no KDOC report regarding an outbreak at the Norton Prison in recent weeks, we then went directly to the KDOC website.
Notably, on Oct. 7 the Kansas Department of Corrections started running a COVID statistical chart online. KDOC commentary accompanying that chart said the data on it would be updated every Wednesday.
So — the next update was due Oct. 14.
Regarding that first chart — the Oct. 7 chart — KDOC reported that at Norton Correctional there were 15 current inmate cases, and one staff case. The chart also indicated that since the beginning of the Pandemic there had been 18 total inmate cases, and three staff cases.
Attempting to determine whether there were more cases at Norton after Oct. 7 we went to review the updated KDOC chart for Oct. 14. We couldn’t find it.
Not being able to locate it, we have sent a message to KDOC asking for the updated chart, as well as any press releases issued regarding an outbreak at Norton.
The next step towards our research regarding what was going on at Norton was to go to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Through that agency we were able to dig up a report stating that as of Oct. 10 there had been a total of 108 COVID-19 cases at Norton Correctional Facility over the course of the previous 14 days. Elsewhere we discovered another 25 were diagnosed the end of last week, bringing the seven-day total to 133 in the prison.
[In addition, a downtown Norton business had an outbreak of 10 cases last week. In our research we also observe that as of Oct. 12 Hutchinson Correctional Facility had 105 COVID diagnoses the previous 14 days, indicating a possible broader COVID problem within the Department of Corrections.]
With the Norton Correctional data in hand but not being broken down relating to staff and inmates, we have learned that out of the Norton prison cases, 11 are staff members.
Staff members having the disease are now quarantining at home as widespread testing is underway throughout the entire facility.
In an attempt at preventing the spread of the disease, within the wire all cell blocks and pods are locked down and prisoner movement is being highly restricted. Instead of communal meals, food is brought individually to the prisoners. Prisoners needing medical care have a physician brought to them, rather than having them move through the facility.
We’ll be providing updates as additional information becomes available.