This is part I of a two part series on the Dickinson County Health Department and COVID-19 pandemic.
Opening schools could be a difficult task to deal with if the COVID-19 virus continues to spread next month, said John Hultgren, director of the Dickinson County Health Department.
The department is responsible for the reporting and prevention of diseases in the county.
“They can’t properly social distance and still maintain class because there is not enough space in the classrooms to do that,” Hultgren said.
Wearing a mask will help. Information has been ever-changing.
“When it first came out, it was grades five and under weren’t going to have to have masks,” he said.
That came from the Association of Pediatrics.
That could change again.
“Schools are a month away from opening and there are still all these unknowns,” Hultgren said.
Nationally, statewide and locally, information about the COVID-19 pandemic changes daily.
That has been challenging for the health department, Hultgren said.
“Keeping up with stuff because it is changing on a daily basis,” he said. “We aren’t wanting to keep any information, but we are wanting to make sure it is good information.”
Hultgren said people wanted to know where in the county the people resided who tested positive for COVID-19 which was information the department could not give out.
“There are reasons why we do what we do,” he said.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, cases in Dickinson County became the lowest in the area.
“We were at 8 for a long time,” he said.
On Wednesday, the health department reported 34 positive cases.
“We are not unique to that (spread),” he said. “That’s across the state, across the counties. You look at the Texas numbers, the Florida numbers, the Oklahoma numbers. It’s every state.”
He said there has been a lot of speculation why.
“Probably most of it is correlated to the fact that things opened back up and we are not social distancing anymore,” he said. “Summer happened.”
“There were no mass gathering restrictions,” said Brenda Weaver, RN and deputy director of the health department.
“People started hanging out together because they could,” she said. “Close contact is a contributor to the spread.”
“Nobody wants to go back to things closing down,” Hultgren said. “Masks will help. That is the last thing anybody wants, is for businesses to have to lock back down and people have to stay home again.”
He said masks have been proven that they are effective.
Dickinson County was one of only 12 of the 105 counties that followed the order given by Gov. Laura Kelly mandating masks be worn when social distancing was not possible.
“Many have come back around since then, when their numbers rose,” Hultgren said.
Hultgren said the health department is apolitical. It closed the schools before the governor’s order.
“We do what we feel is what is best for the citizens of the county,” he said.
He said one-way masks provide some protection.
“But, obviously, if both of you have a mask on, it’s greater,” he said. “Distancing, if you can’t have a mask, is effective as well.”
Weaver said good hygiene is also important, including handwashing and wiping stuff down.
Good handwashing depends on where one has been and what someone has done.
“We’re not talking about doing it differently than we have already done,” Weaver said. “It has always been a staple during influenza season. COVID just brought it back to the forefront. We should always be practicing good hand hygiene: after using the restroom, before eating, after being outside.”
Hultgren said masks are not fun to wear.
“It’s inconvenient. It’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people. You have to break it down to what we are doing; protecting ourselves and protecting others,” he said. “It does do that. It lessens the spread so I think they work.”
“The masks have proven to be effective,” he said.
He said someone could bring arguments both ways.
“You can get on a computer and you can find articles of so-called professionals who spout data that says they are not effective,” Hultgren said. “On the other hand, you will find probably more that say they are effective. I am convinced they do work and I think I am on the right side of science on that but there is going to be an argument either way.”
“Who knows? We learn everyday through the state office, through webinars the state has multiple times a week,” Hultgren said.
“The next big tackle is schools. That is going to be a big tackle for us,” he added.
Athletic activities are still in limbo.
“There has been talk about flipping the seasons for sports, putting the more contact sports in the spring and putting more individual sports, golf and those types, in the fall,” he said. “We don’t know the recommendations.”
“If somebody does test positive, we try to find out their contacts,” Hultgren said.
The health department is notified in a number of ways, Weaver said.
“We are notified by doctors’ offices, labs, other health departments; multiple ways. Once that case has been identified, the priority becomes making contact with the case. We have to identify what is their status. We try to establish a timeline to when their symptoms began,” Weaver said.
Part of the process is establishing who their close contacts were 48 hours before testing.
“We are also trying to identify where was their exposure,” Weaver said.
A close contact is defined as a person who has had prolonged exposure (10 minutes or longer) at a distance of 6 feet or less. Other considerations can be made based on circumstances, such as drink sharing, direct contact with secretions, etc.
Someone that has been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person must quarantine for 14 days, even if they test negative as that could happen, because that is the incubation period.
Weaver said there is one exposure that dominates the spread of the virus.
“Some of the exposures that we feel are important are those in household/congregate-type settings, or a workplace type setting.”
“Any group setting,” Hultgren said. “It is impossible to tell where someone picked it up from.”
Cases are reported of someone that is a permanent resident in the county. They may work in another county but reside in Dickinson County. If a person works in Dickinson County but resides in another county, that positive case is not reported in this county.
“Even if the person is not here but their permanent residence is here, then we count it and we have to follow up the same way. They could be out of state but they live in our county,” Hultgren said. “The net becomes a pretty wide swath.”
He said there are lot of county residents that go back and forth to Salina or Junction City.
Contact Tim Horan at firstname.lastname@example.org.