By TIM CARPENTER
TOPEKA — Bars and house parties are an antidote of choice among Kansans laboring with coronavirus frustration and willing to rub shoulders with friends or strangers.
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said on the Kansas Reflector podcast these boozy environments also harbor perils of COVID-19 for anyone rejecting advice to social distance, wash hands and wear a mask.
“They just immerse in virus when they do that,” Norman said. “There’s usually music. When people speak loudly, there’s airborne droplets. And they’re very close to each other. It is absolutely a lethal brew.”
Norman said he was distressed only 15 of the state’s 105 counties embraced Gov. Laura Kelly’s recommendation of a mask mandate. The public health value of requiring people to cover their mouth and nose when in public has been undermined by government officials who discounted potential of the virus or viewed government edicts as infringement of individual liberties.
“I would love to see a mask mandate,” Norman said. “People can be outside and not have a mask on, if they’re distanced and they’re walking in a park or those kind of things. When you can’t control your environment, and you’re getting anywhere close to people, put a mask on.”
He said the state’s K-12 education system and the colleges and universities weren’t prepared to resume in-person instruction in August.
Some local school boards decided to delay opening until after Labor Day in September, but the Kansas Board of Education rejected the governor’s proposal to hold off until Sept. 9. Kelly argued school districts needed more time to prepare for an educational environment invaded by COVID-19.
“The reason for that was pretty obvious. The number of cases is going up and, quite honestly, to make a safe environment for K through 12, or for that matter, higher ed. We’re not there yet,” the secretary said.
Norman said controversial decisions by the governor to close schools to in-person teaching in March and to issue a shelter-in-place directive in April were the two factors early in the pandemic that had a beneficial influence on spread of the virus.
The governor’s phased plan for reopening the state’s economy was initiated in May but subsequently derailed by the Kansas Legislature. It was anchored in health-related metrics that took into account needs of businesses to resume operations, he said.
“I’ve been a chief medical officer at very large health systems, and I know the importance of the bottom line. It’s always been top of mind. I don’t ever make recommendations in a vacuum,” Norman said. “And that’s true with schools as well. Schools are much more than just teaching and learning. It’s about socialization, nutrition, mental health.”
So far, the virus has been confirmed as a contributing factor in the death of 380 people and hospitalization of 1,875 individuals in Kansas. There have been 30,638 positive tests and 285,874 negative tests for the virus across the state.
Here’s the top dozen counties of confirmed infections: Johnson, 5,637; Wyandotte, 4,961; Sedgwick, 4,935; Ford, 2,161; Finney, 1,706; Shawnee, 1,522; Leavenworth, 1,487, Seward, 1,144; Douglas, 717; and Lyon, 668, Riley, 438; and Crawford, 395.
Norman, who has faced criticism from elected politicians and a skeptical public, said he continued to worry that not enough Kansans took COVID-19 seriously.
“We can’t make people take it seriously. Rules help,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen is that people are going to get ground down and will either say, ‘I guess we have to take this seriously and I’m going to personally be responsible for myself and maybe my family members.’ Or, are they the other? They can just say, ‘Heck with it. Let’s just throw open the doors. I’m done.’ "
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.