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Pawnee Co. parents voice frustrations over quarantines
Pawnee County Commission eases COVID-19 quarantine restrictions
pawwnee commission
This screenshot of a Facebook livestream shows Pawnee County commissioners discussing quarantine orders Monday afternoon, Oct. 12. From left: Deborah Lewis, Bob Rein Jr. and Philip Hammeke.

LARNED — The Pawnee County Commission voted 2-1 Monday to ease guidelines that have resulted in quarantine orders, especially for students at Fort Larned USD 495.

Commissioner Philip Hammeke made the motion, seconded by chairman Bob Rein Jr., that individuals who have “close contact” with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 will no longer be issued an order to quarantine for 14 days if both were wearing two-ply masks during the contact. The motion was retroactive, so some Larned students who were on a 14-day suspension may now be free to return to school and school activities.

Commissioner Deborah Lewis voted against the motion, saying she wanted more time to study the issue.

“We shouldn’t make a quick decision today,” she said. She wanted input from stakeholders such as medical professionals, school officials and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The commissioners indicated they will address the issue again at next Monday’s regular meeting.

They held the quarantine discussion at 2 p.m. Monday, with several community members attending in person. Others watched the meeting live on the Pawnee County Facebook page and the recording of that meeting is still on the page. One person monitoring the page said 200-250 people were watching the two-hour meeting online at times.

Taking it to court

Pawnee County Attorney Douglas McNett normally represents the commission as the county counselor but he stepped out of that role temporarily last week to fight for his teenage daughter’s right to play at the Regional Tennis meet.

He explained in a post last Saturday on Facebook:

“Some of you are aware, my daughter, like so many other children was notified by the school nurse after school on Wednesday (Oct. 7) she was considered a ‘close contact’ of another student that had tested positive and as such she could not return to school for two weeks. ... (That) would have prevented her from competing today at the Regional Tennis meeting (i.e., lose her opportunity at a chance to go to State). My daughter was distraught as she had a goal (and the ability) of going to State all four years of high school.”

McNett took the fight to court, saying, “my role of dad superseded my role as county counselor.”

On Thursday morning he filed an action in Pawnee County District Court requesting a temporary restraining order against the school district, health department and local health officer Cheryl Hoberecht. A hearing was held at 4 p.m. that day at McNett’s request.

“The court dismissed the health department and local health officer from the proceeding at that time due the fact my daughter was not ‘officially’ under quarantine at that moment for the sole fact we had never been served the quarantine order (by the sheriff’s office),” McNett wrote. Even so, the judge ruled that the school has the authority and duty to “exclude” persons with an infectious disease, he said.

“Obviously from our perspective our daughter does not have an infectious disease, but rather has merely been in contact with one,” he said. “However, based on the protocol established by the health department and provided to the school ‘that contacts are to be considered infectious until otherwise proven healthy,’ the school acted reasonably, the school acted within its rights and duties. As a result we were denied injunctive relief.”

There was still a chance his daughter could play in the tournament if the family received approval from the Kansas State High School Activity Association, so Saturday morning the McNett family headed to the event in Scott City.

“Alas this tale does not have a happy ending,” McNett posted. “At 10:30 a.m. KSHSAA ruled my daughter was ineligible. We weren’t given an official reason why, but think it had to do with the fact the school was required to notify them that she had possibly been exposed.”

Already an issue

McNett wasn’t the only parent to complain about quarantine orders. When the commission met Monday to discuss the matter, Rein said he’d intended to hold that discussion even before “the events of last week,” which “brought this to the forefront of the community.” 

He said it hasn’t been clear whether Kansas Department of Health and Environment guidelines are rules or recommendations that the county can augment. “I still am unclear whether we have the legal authority to do that,” he said. However, by the end of the meeting he said he would be willing to vote that day if either of the other commissioners offered a motion, which he would second.

“I’m willing to change the quarantine guidelines today,” he said. “I believe we are making the cure worse than the disease,” he concluded.

Because the crowd at the meeting was a “manageable” size, Rein said he would allow people to speak for about 2 minutes each. “Everyone who wants can speak their piece.”

Residents expressed frustration but said they understood that Hoberecht and other county officials have a tough job. Deputy Eli Makings commented that he served 197 quarantine orders last month.

A woman said her family was notified Sunday that her 17-year-old was quarantined.

“He was exposed last Monday and it wasn’t until Sunday we got the call,” she said. (“The students are) doing what they’re supposed to be doing and they’re having things taken away from them. I worry if that happens too many times to these kids we’ll have bigger problems.”

Another woman said the rules don’t make sense.

“Mental health is much more important than the virus,” she said.

A man who said he was an 18-year-old senior at Larned High School said students are missing out on things for no good reason.

“If these masks are so effective, why is everybody being quarantined?” he asked.

Mark Slattery, a Larned pastor, said his son was home from school and under quarantine for the second time.

“I’m not a doctor, just a dad,” Slattery said. “It doesn’t seem like I’m getting the answers that I feel like I should be getting.”

Kara Kraus-Lawrence, EMS director for Pawnee County, said her son was also quarantined for the second time since school started.

“I don’t want to downplay the virus by any means,” she said. “On a personal side, I share this group’s frustration.”

Hoberecht acknowledged that the virus has created hardships.

“It’s messing with everybody’s lives,” she said. “Wearing masks means less transmission. I’ve been waiting for KDHE to say if you had two masked people it’s not an exposure. As the health officer I have to respond in the way that is known to mitigate the threat.”

Jason Zink from the Larned EMS questioned the information people receive.

“Why do we count cases from months ago?” he asked. “You can only go on ‘This is the Apocalypse’ for so long.”

McNett also spoke at the meeting.

“I’m not saying the USD did anything wrong,” he said of the quarantine, which was based on the local board of health guidelines (that is, by the county commission). “I should be able to have due process,” he said. “If you get certified from a doctor (you are not contagious) you should be reinstated. A blanket order of 14 days is unreasonable when applied to our children.”

Kraus-Lawrence said the action taken by the commission gives students an incentive to comply with mask rules to avoid possible quarantine.

“My kid is saying, ‘I’ll keep that mask on if I don’t have to change my life.’” she said. As far as she knows, zero of the quarantined students have actually contracted COVID-19 during their quarantines.

A dilemma for schools

Larned school board member Charles “Buddy” Tabler also made comments and said the board would be discussing the commission’s decision when it met Monday evening.

“Two or three more cases, we’ll be declared a cluster in the state,” Tabler said. “We don’t have classes at the school when that happens.” However, he agreed that the commission’s action might have benefits. “It will encourage kids to wear masks.”

McNett contacted the Great Bend Tribune Monday night after he attended the 495 Board of Education meeting.

“Based on this modification as to who is considered a close contact for quarantine purposes, we anticipate the majority of the students currently in quarantine will be allowed to return to school upon notification from the school,” he said. 

I believe we are making the cure worse than the disease.
Pawnee County Commissioner Bob Rein Jr.

Here is the wording of the motion approved Monday by the Pawnee County Commission:

“I hereby move to require quarantine of household members of individuals with a positive COVID-19 test, and those identified through contact tracing that were within 6 feet for more than 10 minutes of the person that tests positive following written guidance from KDHE, except no person shall be quarantined by virtue of contact tracing where both parties had on a mask with at least two layers on throughout the contact in question. Said motion shall be retroactively applied.”

You can only go on ‘This is the Apocalypse’ for so long.
Jason Zink, Pawnee County resident frustrated with restrictions created to mitigate COVID-19