Kansas tax revenue holds steady in March despite onslaught of COVID-19, three workers at Lansing Correctional Facility test positive, number of infected Kansans surpasses 490, ad hoc group at KU develops open-source design for plastic shield worn by health workers.

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TOPEKA — The calm-before-the-storm state revenue report for March revealed a narrow uptick in income and sales tax collections.


In one month, the April report from the Kansas Department of Revenue is expected to reflect economic damage of a massive business slowdown and the influence of a decision by Gov. Laura Kelly to extend the deadline for filing state income tax returns until July 15.


"As consumer spending patterns change, retail sales tax and compensating use tax collections could experience a major decline in the months to come," said Mark Burghart, secretary of the state’s revenue department. "We expect the uncertain business and employment landscape to negatively affect withholding and estimated income taxes."


State and county officials in Kansas have reported 494 positive cases of the coronavirus in 41 of the 105 counties. There have been 12 fatalities linked to COVID-19 by county health officials. The infected range from infants to people in their mid-90s, with a median age of 55.


On Wednesday, Burghart said the state government took in $523 million in taxes during March. That was $1.4 million, or 0.3%, more than in March 2019.


Kansas closed March with $247 million in income tax revenue, which was $4.3 million above the official estimate and $7.1 million higher than one year ago. Retail sales tax revenue flowing to the state in March was $179 million, or $3.4 million above the projection and $2.9 million higher than March 2019.


Corporate income tax collections were $18.4 million, an amount $8.6 million below the monthly estimate and 24% under last year’s March total.


"While seeing a slight increase in total tax collection revenues compared to last fiscal year, we must continue to be cautious as we evaluate the financial impact of COVID-19," Kelly said. "Later this month, we should see a clearer picture moving forward."


But the delay in state income tax filings, the governor said, meant the state would "take a huge hit" in April.


On April 20, the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group, comprised of state revenue and budget analysts and three university economists, will develop a revised state revenue forecast. Adjustments to projections issued last year will take into account the influence of the coronavirus on the state’s economy. That report will be used by the Kansas Legislature and the governor to guide spending.


The Kansas Department of Commerce launched a new jobs website to connect job seekers with essential Kansas businesses hiring to fill urgent needs during the pandemic.


The site, kansasworks.com/coronavirus, allows employers at no cost to post critical positions that need to be filled. It enables those looking for work to search for companies hiring for COVID-19-related positions and access company hiring portals.


"While the COVID-19 crisis has led to many Kansans losing their jobs, it’s also driven demand and opportunity for some functions in critical industries such as food and grocery, shipping and logistics and health care," said David Toland, secretary of the commerce department.


Prison staff positive


Three employees at Lansing Correctional Facility became the first Kansas prison staff to test positive for the coronavirus and brought into focus the challenge of operating an overcrowded state prison system during a pandemic.


Jeff Zmuda, secretary at the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the individuals testing positive were a man in his 20s and two women over the age of 40. No other information about the employees was released in an effort to conceal their identity.


"With a virus that moves and changes as quickly as the coronavirus we anticipated that this day may come," Zmuda said.


There is a movement in Kansas and other states to reduce populations in jails because the facilities weren’t built for social distancing. Inmates share cells and are grouped in confined spaces. In March, about one-fifth of the Shawnee County Jail population was released.


In Louisiana, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said the first federal inmate to die from the coronavirus was Patrick Jones, 49, serving a 27-year sentence.


"A prison sentence should not become a death sentence," said Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s justice division. "The conditions and reality of incarceration make prisons and jails tinderboxes for the spread of disease."


The state Department of Health and Environment will coordinate the medical inquiry to determine which staff and residents were in close contact with infected employees. It will look at contact among prison staff and vendors.


Prison officials plan to notify people who were in contact with anyone confirmed to have been infected. Those individuals are to be placed in medical isolation to be monitored for symptoms of the virus.


"With the support and guidance of KDHE and Governor Kelly, and the hard work of our staff members, we are ready to care for our residents and those we serve in the community," Zmuda said.


It isn’t clear whether the individuals were correctional officers or held other positions at Lansing.


The Lansing Correctional Facility is the oldest and largest state correctional facility in Kansas. Serving only men, the facility currently has 1,660 offenders and a rated capacity of 1,906. The population would be larger, but some Kansas inmates are being held in other states because of crowding.


Currently, Kansas has a total prison capacity of 9,017. As of Monday, the Department of Corrections reported the state prison system had responsibility for 9,812 inmates. Facilities in Hutchinson, El Dorado, Topeka, Ellsworth and Winfield were over the listed capacity.



KU face shields


Greg Thomas, a University of Kansas professor of design, collaborated with companies in the Kansas City area to increase the supply of face shields worn by health workers caring for patients during the pandemic.


The unusual project was in response to a call March 21 to Thomas from an anesthesiologist at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., concerned about the shortage of plastic masks.


"It was one of these urgent pleas," he said. "What ideas do you have to help us? I worked with a couple of docs in anesthesiology, who are standing right over the patients, intubating them, and some from family medicine."


Thomas, who directs the KU Center for Design Research, said he collaborated with KU alumnus Tucker Trotter, of Dimensional Innovations in Overland Park, on a modified version of the mask initially developed for food-service use by Randy Edge of In-Store Design and Display in North Kansas City, Mo.


It is comprised of two interlocking pieces of semi-rigid plastic. One is used to make the curved shield. The other is the adjustable headband.


Anyone with a computer-aided router and a common type of plastic sheeting can produce them.


"The real innovation we brought to the table was to make it open-source," Trotter said. "Even if you’ve only got 10 sheets of plastic, you can make a decent number of these masks and get them out to where they are needed."


The design has been freely downloaded around the world more than 4,500 times. About 10,000 of the shields were made by Lenexa-based Gill Studios for caregivers in the KU Health System.