Kansas working to secure housing in four counties with large meatpacking plants that now have more than 400 cases; University of Kansas hospital doctor wary of quick restart of economic activity after working in NYC hospital full of COVID-19 patients; economic turmoil will cost Kansas more than $1.2 billion in tax revenue; death toll at 107

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TOPEKA — State and local agencies coordinating Kansas’ responding to the pandemic moved Tuesday to secure temporary housing for people isolated for observation or quarantined for two weeks as COVID-19 expanded its reach into meatpacking communities in Ford, Seward, Finney and Lyon counties.


Testing exposed the virus gathered strength among Kansas employees of Tyson, National Beef and Cargill, which collectively process about one-fourth of the U.S. beef supply in the golden triangle of the packing industry. The plants have curtailed production in response to constricted market demand and to implement processing changes to better protect workers in the facilities.


"We have had public people on the ground in all those communities and we have secured secure housing for folks who either test positive and don’t need to be hospitalized or have been part of contact tracing," Gov. Laura Kelly said. "We have some of the best folks on the ground making sure those items are in place should the need arise."


The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 187 positive cases in Ford County, 80 cases in Seward County, 41 cases in Finney County and 110 cases in Lyon County. Major packing plants are located in Dodge City, Garden City and Emporia. The state hasn’t signed any housing contracts, officials said.


The numbers in those four counties pushed the state’s total of confirmed infections over 2,000 once testing supplies were made available.


The board of trustees at Seward County Community College voted unanimously provide emergency housing for family members of Seward County residents exposed to COVID-19.


Ken Trzaska, president of the community college in Liberal, said health officials said potential exists for exponential increases of the number of infected people in those counties.


"When you consider how many people work at National Beef, and the tremendous impact it has on the local economy, we know it is important to work together as much as possible to contain the risks and protect our community," Trzaska said.


A subsidiary of Hormel Foods has been closed until May 4 after an employee at Alma Foods contracted COVID-19. The plant employs 100 people making refrigerated entrees and sauces at Alma, which is 40 miles west of Topeka.


Doctor’s warning


Critical-care physician Damien Stevens gained new appreciation for the feeling of being overwhelmed during a week at a New York City hospital where four of five patients had COVID-19 and nurses cared for eight times the typical number of intensive care patients.


"You would walk into a hospital and the front lobby of the hospital would be packed, the emergency room was packed, the ICUs were packed. It was really a city that was sort of in chaos," Stevens said.


Stevens, a pulmonary and critical-care physician at University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kan., is in the second half of a 14-day quarantine after returning from a voluntary assignment in Queens, New York. At home, he’s been conducting appointments with patients by telemedicine.


He said there were grave risks to states bowing to political pressure to reignite economy life, allow people to go back to work and rescind executive orders urging people to stay home, avoid crowds and adhere to a sanitation regime to limit spread of the virus.


"The more prematurely we open, the more patients or people will die," Stevens said. "If we think it’s worth that price to get people back to work and getting the economy moving, and we do it too early, there will be people who will die."


So far, there have been 42,000 U.S. deaths tied to the coronavirus. More than 10,000 have perished in New York City. Kansas has recorded 107 deaths.


Stevens said a hasty shift to normal commercial activity could, if infection spread wildly, make Kansas City, Kan., look more like New York City.


Nurses at the Queens hospital where Stevens was stationed were reduced to relying on an iPad to link patients approaching death with friends or relatives not allowed inside the hospital, Stevens said.


"That’s kind of the final sadness," the doctor said. "I saw some patients that were married 30 to 40 years and we would transition them to comfort measures and the only way they had to say goodbye to family members would be through an iPad."


Kansas numbers


Health officials in Kansas reported Tuesday that 107 Kansas residents had died and 2,025 had tested positive for the virus. Infection has been documented in 69 of the state’s 105 counties, KDHE said.


There are nearly 40 known virus clusters in Kansas connected to 56 deaths, 111 hospitalizations and 639 positive tests, said Lee Norman, secretary at KDHE.


He said outbreaks have been documented at 15 private companies, including meatpacking plants in southwest Kansas, and at Lansing Correctional Facility. Clusters have been identified at 14 long-term care centers, two health-care facilities and at five religious gatherings.


KDHE says the long-term residential facilities in Kansas have accounted for 45 deaths and 276 positive cases. Since April 5, two dozen people who lived at Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation center in Kansas City, Kan., have died.


"Even though we update the numbers every day, I recognize that we are talking about Kansans," Kelly said. "Someone’s mom. Someone’s husband. Someone’s friend. I don’t ever forget that these are real people, not just numbers."


The revenue crater


Revision of state government tax revenue estimates Monday put into sharper focus implications of the pandemic for Kansans. Legislators and the governor will be compelled to confront estimated loss of $1.3 billion in the current and upcoming fiscal years due to economic slowdown prompted by the virus. The financial crisis could compel widespread budget cuts and consume the$900 million that lawmakers sought to hold in reserve.


Kelly, a Democrat who twice vetoed large tax reduction bills in 2019, said an unprecedented drop in revenue underscored why she cautioned against spending down tax dollars.


"The unprecedented revenue collapse turned Kansas finances upside down overnight," she said. "It is the rainy day we feared could come. But by prioritizing a strong ending balance, fiscally responsible tax policy and proven economic boosters, like public schools and infrastructure, Kansas is better prepared to weather the economic storm."


She instructed state agencies to freeze hiring of personnel unrelated to the COVID-19 response and to identify other cost-saving steps.


House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said dramatic loss of individual and corporate income tax and revenue from sales tax collections added urgency to the governor’s need to complete a plan for rekindling the state’s economy.


"We’ve urged the governor not to wait for another federal government bailout. We need a Kansas plan. Every day we wait to plan is another day Kansans can’t work," Ryckman said.


He said the governor should set health metrics to guide reopening of closed businesses. Kansas requires a short-term strategy for resuming commercial activity and a long-term program developed in collaboration with economists, business experts and health professionals, he said.


"No one is asking the governor to reopen the state before it’s reasonably safe to do so," Ryckman said. "We do have to strike a balance that protects the long-term health of our families while also protecting the long-term outlook of our economy."


Invest in people


John Wilson, president of Kansas Action for Children in Topeka, said the pandemic created enormous disruption for children with closure of schools and rising unemployment. The revenue gap will put politicians under pressure to make harmful choices, he said.


"The fact is, while this estimate presents a challenge for Kansas lawmakers, we can work together to stabilize revenue without sacrificing vital programs that assist those in need," Wilson said. "Direct assistance to Kansas families will help restart the economy better than tax breaks for multinational corporations or giveaways to the very wealthiest Kansans."


He said Kansas officials must work in a bipartisan manner to convince Congress to make sure that the state receives federal aid to bolster local and state government finances.