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COVID confusion eased at Health Board meeting
County, school, officials discuss health plan options
A crowd, made up mostly of Barton County health and school officials, attends the Board of Health meeting Friday morning at the Baton County Courthouse. - photo by BY DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

Although the Barton County Commission, gathered as the Board of Health at the Barton County Courthouse Friday morning, took no action, commissioners said their meeting helped dispel misunderstandings surrounding COVID-19 and the impact on county schools.

“We’ve had a little bit of confusion in the general public over some of the happenings over the last week or two,” Health Director Karen Winkelman said. This involves the guidelines for school districts, quarantines, and recommendations from state and federal health officials. 

She felt it was important for the Board of Health to meet and clear the air. Present were school administrators from across the county, along with county health and public safety officials.

“I don’t think any of us has been through a pandemic before,” she said. The response has been “totally adaptive, which means we’ve had to change constantly.”

Winkelman said her responsibility is the overall health of county residents and she can make recommendations, but it falls to the Health Board to make the ultimate decisions.

When it comes to schools, that falls to the school boards. However, if school districts want state funding for COVID-battling supplies and support, they have to have a plan approved by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

She and County Counselor Patrick Hoffman met with district superintendents via telephone on Aug. 12 to go over KDHE guidelines. The goal was to provide options for the schools to receive state funding.

There are 105 counties and over 300 school districts in Kansas, Hoffman said, adding KDHE has several COVID plan options available. This all muddies the water.

“We answered questions, and we went over the proposed plans and the strategies to keep the kids in school, because that’s our bottom line, keep them in school,” Winkelman said. This comes as the number of those 12 and younger coming down with COVID is on the rise.

As context, school districts must have a KDHE-approved plan in place in order to receive financial assistance.

To this end, Winkelman said there are three strategies. These are: Test to know – having rapid testing supplies available to test anyone not feeling well, and if positive, the must go home; test to stay and learn – testing close contacts of those COVID-positive daily for the 14-day quarantine, and if negative, they can stay in school; and test to stay, play and participate – extracurricular participants would be tested weekly or before events, and have to be negative to take part in activities.

Other recommendations include vaccinating as many as possible in the school system, having a robust testing strategy, practicing universal masking for the teachers and all the students, striving to keep 3-foot physical distance between the students, and other things such as good personal hygiene.

She said there are two school districts that have submitted plans and one is getting ready to.

Highlighting this confusion was a situation in Hoisington involving a day care facility and an after-school program at Roosevelt Elementary School, both regulated by the KDHE, and the school itself, governed by the USD 431 School Board. A COVID cluster at the day care engulfed the school program.

The Board of Health oversees the entire county, but can only offer recommendations for the USDs, Winkelman said.

Hoisington’s USD 431 Superintendent Patrick Crowdis said his district doesn’t have an approved plan in place yet, and was using a 10-day quarantine with students able to return after three days with a negative test. He came to the meeting frustrated by mixed messages, but left saying he’d learned a great deal.

There will be a plan taken to the Hoisington School Board in the near future. They meet Monday night.

Great Bend’s Unified School District Superintendent Khris Thexton said their plan has been submitted to the state utilizing the “stay to learn” model and it will be before his board this Monday night. It is based on plans in school districts like Maize that have already been approved. 

Looking at the county as a whole, due to the transmissibility and severity of the delta variant, Winkelman said she has opted to use the 14-day quarantine “across the board” in Barton County. The “variant of  concern” has caused state and local health officials to rethink how they approach COVID recommendations, tilting to the more stringent option. 

These sentiments were echoed by Dr. Jonathan Pike, the Health Board’s medical consultant. They try to err on the side of caution without catering to fear, balancing public opinion and public health.

Health Board members offered their unwavering support for Winkelman and her department’s efforts. They were in day 561 of the pandemic.

They also discussed the difference between the more accurate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and the rapid antigen test. The PCR results are available in 24 to 72 hours, while the antigen results take about 20 minutes.

KDHE officials said the PCR tests have been using the nasal swab method many find uncomfortable. However, a new PCR method using a mouth rinse has been authorized and is just as accurate. 

New COVID-19 cases found in Golden Belt

As of 9 a.m. Friday, Kansas has had 387,152 COVID-19 cases, resulting in 13,163 hospitalizations and 5,766 statewide deaths to date. There were 4,302 new cases, 100 new hospitalizations and 73 new deaths reported since Wednesday, Sept. 8.

Here are the totals to date of positive and probable cases for area counties, followed by any change since Wednesday.

• Barton 3,143 (+64)

• Ellsworth 1,295 (+8)

• Pawnee 1,226 (+8)

• Rice 1,256 (+22)

• Rush 477 (+3)

• Russell 963 (+11)

• Stafford 439 (+22)

No new area deaths were reported.

Barton County has reported 102 COVID-19 related hospitalizations to date and Pawnee County has reported 55. 

This is an increase of one hospitalization in Pawnee County since last Wednesday.