County news

Dickinson County had 1,000 COVID-19 kits available last Saturday, but only 109 people showed up to take advantage of the free mass testing opportunity held outside the National Guard Armory in Abilene.

“Things went well. We had never done a three-lane drive-through before,” Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman told county commissioners Thursday.

“We didn’t get as many people as we anticipated or we hoped, but it went well and we’re prepared to do it again if need be,” he added.

Results already have come back for the majority of those tested, showing about a seven percent positive rate, which is “pleasantly lower than what we were afraid it was going to be,” Homman said.

“We were running about 12 percent the last couple weeks countywide,” he added.

Homman said the seven percent rate might be skewed since the county was encouraging people who had symptoms or been exposed to someone with symptoms to be tested.

“But we didn’t turn anybody away. There were some who had symptoms that were tested and there were some that did not,” he said.

The mass drive-through testing was available for any Dickinson County resident or individual who works in Dickinson County but lives elsewhere.

Lots of correspondence

Chairman Lynn Peterson said commissioners had received a number of emails and letters in regard to the county’s mask policy and issues facing Abilene Public Schools which moved to remote learning last week after several students and staff tested positive and about 100 people were quarantined.

“I know there’s a lot of people concerned because our schools have not been able to operate in the same manner as before. That’s kind of ongoing and we continue to gather information on that,” Peterson said, holding up a stack of paper. “A good portion of these have to do with people that express they feel it’s a little too restrictive and they’d like to see things open up.

“Having said that, I also have received letters and comments from people stating appreciation that they feel the county’s taking it very serious and they want the county to take it serious,” Peterson added.

Letters have been pouring in since a “perfect storm” occurred last week in the county: COVID-19 positive rates in the county spiked; face-to-face learning at Abilene schools was put on hold for two weeks because of the positive cases and quarantines; Chapman High and Middle School moved to remote learning for similar reasons; and finally, a proposed Abilene City ordinance that would have required facemasks and fines caused an outcry among city residents who opposed it. That proposed ordinance failed when it died due to lack of a second during a special Abilene City Commission meeting on Sept. 23.

Sept 24 county meeting

During Dickinson County’s Sept. 24 meeting and work session, several people showed up to ask questions about the health department and county health officer.

Rev. Justin Panzer of Abilene, a former Abilene pastor who now serves as district president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, said he and other Abilene parents were frustrated with the county health department for quarantining their children that were transported on a school bus with a COVID-positive person, particularly since everyone was taking the precautions that had been set by health officials.

“Why the quarantine on the bus? Why immediately refer to the state epidemiologist and not the county orders we’re following? I think that’s what’s confusing. The schools were doing the best job possible then a final order with no appeal process…From my standpoint that’s upsetting a lot of people,” Panzer said.

Peterson replied that some procedures likely will come under review. He understands that parents would have liked to hear about the quarantine in a “more direct” manner and/or wanted to have a chance to respond or make a rebuttal.

Frustration abounds

Homman said the entire process involving the buses was “very frustrating” and explained that county officials have relied on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment — which is relying on the federal government — for guidance, but the rules and procedures keep changing.

He knows citizens believe the local health department is changing the rules but staff is doing what they’re being told to do, Homman said.

“Dr. Holmes said a professor at KU (University of Kansas) compared this to building a plane while we’re flying on it,” Homman said. “We’ve seen the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) change a lot of things back and forth; KDHE changed a lot of things back and forth as we go through this thing. It makes the public think we don’t have a clue. It’s very frustrating.”

Panzer told commissioners that as a pastor and public figure he’s very aware of how people need to be “careful with what you say,” especially when it’s stated in an email or on social media and talked about a couple incidents.

He went on to tell commissioners that the health officer had lost “the public trust” and said they need to “rein him in a little bit.”

Earlier in the week, on Sept. 20 the commission expressed its support for health staff in a press release that noted the spike in COVID-19 cases had caused tremendous public concern and many comments and rumors to circulate. It stated the commission “fully supports the work and staff of the Dickinson County Health Department and the Dickinson County Health Officer.”

The press release was issued following a special meeting on Friday, Sept. 18. The 1 hour and 10 minute meeting consisted of three executive sessions called for non-elected personnel and attorney/client privilege.

No formal action was taken upon returning to regular session.

Why a medical

doctor?

During the Sept. 24 work session, county resident Kevin Harris asked the commission to explain why Health Department and EMS Director John Hultgren was not serving as the county’s health officer.

Commissioner Craig Chamberlin and Homman both said the county is required to have a health officer by law, but that person does not have to be a medical doctor. Peterson explained that Dr. Holmes had been serving as the county’s health officer prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Harris asked if an agricultural business could be shut down if it had a “cluster” of COVID cases, noting that the governor’s orders earlier in the year had exempted ag businesses from shutdown.

Homman said that even an exempt business could be shut down if it had a cluster. When asked how many sick employees constitute a cluster, Homman said he did not know the exact ratio, but commented if several employees and several customers tested positive, the business could be shut down for a time because it would be a threat to public health.

Contact Kathy Hageman at reporter@abilene-rc.com.

Contact Tim Horan at editor@abilene-rc.com.

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