Sedgwick County to draft stay-at-home order as top doctor says it isn’t yet necessary

Sedgwick County government staffers are drafting an order for people in the largest city in Kansas to stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, even though the county’s top public health official says it is not necessary now.

County commissioners met in a special meeting — sitting at least 6 feet apart — Sunday afternoon to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner asked county staff to draft a stay-at-home ordinance by Wednesday’s scheduled meeting.

County Manager Tom Stolz said he hopes county staff will have a draft ready earlier and asked commissioners to consider calling a special meeting once a draft is prepared.

“It’s not that I don’t think we won’t have to get more restrictive, we probably will,” physician Garold Minns told reporters after the meeting. “But we got a little time to get more information and see how we can do this in the best way that’s the least painful to our county.”

Minns is the dean of the Wichita campus of the University of Kansas School of Medicine and the public health officer for Sedgwick County.

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Meitzner said a stay-at-home order could be issued this week, despite the doctor’s statements against one.

“Obviously he’s the doctor and he (Minns) is comfortable kind of with where we’re at,” Meitzner said after the meeting. “The rest of us are a little more cautious about it. I think there’s a desire among most of us that we want to do a little (more).”

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Lacey Cruse was the only commissioner to explicitly say at the meeting that she supports passing an ordinance now.

Minns told commissioners during the meeting that he thought economic concerns were not outweighed by public health concerns at this time.

“If I had my preference, we would isolate everyone totally and shut the city down and then wait for a vaccine to appear in a year and a half,” Minns said. “But I realize the consequences of doing that would be incredibly worse than the disease. The economic and political and social consequences of doing that would be worse than just letting everyone get the disease.”

Cruse asked Minns what the threshold should be for implementing a stay-at-home ordinance.

“That’s a good question,” Minns said. “And I think we have to reevaluate this every day. ... And if we start seeing what Johnson County’s seeing, I would say that we’re getting close. But we have to have a policy that is feasible. We can’t have 20 exclusions that all makes it ridiculous —that almost anybody could go out.”

As of Sunday afternoon, there were 65 cases of COVID-19 in Kansas. The Kansas City metro area has been hit the hardest, with Johnson, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties reporting 46 cases combined. The Wichita area has only seven confirmed cases, with two each in Sedgwick and Reno counties and three in Butler County.

Two deaths in Kansas have been reported. The patients were in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

Sedgwick County officials indicated 145 calls had been received by people asking about coronavirus testing. Only seven people in the county have been tested so far, and three more people will be offered testing.

Health officials have advised that there is a shortage of test kits, and county officials said Sunday that the state’s laboratory is running low on a reagent used in the tests, leading to more restrictive rules on who can be tested.

Over the weekend, several Kansas City area municipalities implemented stay-at-home orders as the outbreak worsens.

“At least in Sedgwick County, we haven’t seen that upstroke in the curve yet,” Minns said. “Hopefully it will stay flat ... but again, we cannot stop this. ... All we can do is slow its increments so we don’t overwhelm our hospitals.”

Minns said one hospital executive told him it is “very quiet” because they have shut down elective surgeries and have yet to see any cases of COVID-19.

“My point is they have shut down things now, so they’re ready,” Minns said.

“I just don’t think we should wait until they’re overrun to make a decision,” Cruse said.

“When the hospitals start seeing a number of patients being admitted to the ICUs — and they have increased the capacity, so we’re a long ways from overrunning them now — but when we start seeing a number of patients in the ICUs on the ventilators, that’s when we know it’s coming,” Minns said. “And that’s when we would probably have to start looking at other measures.”

After the meeting, Minns told reporters that he does not have a number for how many patients would need to be hospitalized with COVID-19 before he would recommend a stay-at-home order. He said “a lot of admissions” to intensive care units is “probably when we’re going to have to tighten down,” but added that “this virus doesn’t treat most people too badly.”

“I just don’t want to get to the point where all of our ICU beds are full,” Cruse said during the meeting. “And at what point do we say, is it 50% of our ICU beds? What is the threshold? ... We could have a surge, and that’s what we want to avoid.”

“We’re not taking people’s freedoms away,” she said of a stay-at-home order. “... This is trying to protect our community and trying to give our health workers the best chance that we can.”

During the meeting, Minns lauded business owners who have taken action on their own, specifically complimenting restaurants that have transitioned to drive-through only.

“In my opinion, Americans are much more compliant when they feel like they’ve been informed and they’ve had a chance to make a decision voluntarily,” he said.

Meitzner said after the meeting that many people and employers are already working from home, but a stay-at-home order “would just formalize it to say that this is what we want and this is our essential services to provide.” Though it will be drafted, the commission may not vote to pass it immediately.

Meitzner said other actions could be considered, specifically mentioning a curfew and an order to close restaurants and bars. Minns said during the meeting that he had no opposition to dropping the limit on people at a public gathering to 10.

“If we leave bars open, people are going to go to bars,” Cruse said. “That’s just the reality of our situation.”

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