Private company taps cellphone data to show movement patterns — but rural areas complicate picture; health care provider for 10,000 Kansas prison inmates claims transitioning to new contractor is dangerous; parent company of Coffey County nursing center faces sanctions

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.

TOPEKA — A promotional flyer last week beckoned Norton-area residents to "get out of the house" and cruise the town’s main drag "like we used to do," a welcome respite from increasing pressure by health experts to avoid transmission of the coronavirus by sheltering at home.

About 300 showed up for Friday Night Lights in the small western Kansas town near the Nebraska border, where revelers stayed in their car and practiced social distancing before, during and after the event.

Norton County’s rating for social distancing dropped from an A to a F in a trendy scorecard promoted by Unacast, a private company that collects and sells GPS data from cellphones. The company has deployed a free online graphic that grades counties and states by overall reduction in movement reflected in the GPS data.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman said this week the state was looking at Unacast data to gauge the willingness of people to abide by a statewide order to stay at home except for essential functions. The order by Gov. Laura Kelly took effect Monday.

If Kansans reduce movement by 45%, by KDHE calculations, hospitals will be overwhelmed when COVID-19 infections peak in late April. If movement drops by 55%, altering the rate at which the virus spreads, hospitals could handle the crisis.

Unacast gives Kansas an overall C-, which reflects a 40-55% reduction in distance traveled.

"It's so critical, and we're not doing well," Norman said. "We have slid."

Unacast data shows a complex view of compliance across the state. Swaths of rural areas are performing poorly, but densely populated Johnson County scored an A.

Health officials have documented 14 deaths and 552 infections related to COVID-19 in Kansas, including four deaths and 164 cases in Johnson County.

In Norton County, there are no known cases. With a population of just 5,500 — and an unknown number of cellphone users being tracked — last week’s cruise night could put a dent in the overall score.

Like a lot of rural communities, residents have further to go for essential services, said Tara Vance, executive director of the Norton County Community Foundation. The nearest Walmart is an hour away, she said.

The economies in rural places also are more dependent on agriculture. Crops and animals continue to need attention.

"We're doing things as well as anybody," Vance said. "We just have to travel further."

Unacast gathers data with software installed in the background of "free" games, social media and weather apps installed on smartphones. The collection and distribution of data is authorized through seldom-read user agreements.

The company keeps tabs on where you are, what direction and speed you are going, the kind of places you attend, how much battery you have, and even your Wi-Fi network and router address. That information is then sold to advertising and marketing clients and turned over to public authorities when legally required.

Publishing the social distancing map online has raised the company's profile as public health officials plead with residents to stay at home whenever they can.

Verlin Conkle, public information officer for the Lyon County Public Health Department, questioned the value of Unacast data. The county is among those that received an F for social distancing, but Conkle described Emporia as a ghost town where everybody is honoring the stay-at-home order. The county has confirmed 16 infections.

"Based on what we're witnessing, folks are complying," Conkle said. "I'd like to dig into this GPS tracking and understand why we are rated as low as we are."

Taxes, labor

Gov. Laura Kelly said the state would issue a directive waiving penalties and interest on estimated first-quarter payments of income tax made between April 15 and July 15.

The adjustment won’t be an executive order, she said, but would be accomplished with a notice published by the Kansas Department of Revenue.

Delia Garcia, secretary of the Kansas Department of Labor, said 79,350 Kansans had filed initial claims for unemployment in the past two weeks. The volume of phone calls about jobless benefits has overloaded the agency’s call centers despite adding staff, she said.

"You will receive the funds," she said. "People are anxious and scared. Rightfully so. We will get through this together."

Prison plea

The company holding the health care contract for the Kansas Department of Corrections’ facilities warned Thursday of "catastrophic consequences" if state officials selected a new provider for the 10,000 inmates and started that service transition during the pandemic.

Corizon Health CEO James Hyman said the Kelly administration was on the verge of deciding whether to retain Corizon or select a new provider for the prison system, which reported Tuesday three employees at Lansing Correctional Facility tested positive for the coronavirus.

"Changing in the middle of this situation, we think, is a really dangerous thing to do," Hyman said in an interview. "It’s stressful for everyone."

State officials said an unspecified number of prison inmates were placed in medical isolation but haven’t exhibited symptoms of infection. A letter sent by the corrections department to families of inmates said none of the state’s facilities had been placed in lockdown, but that step was a possibility.

Hyman sent a letter to the governor requesting a one-year extension of the current $70 million contract with Corizon, which is based in Brentwood, Tenn., and has held the Kansas contract since 2013. The existing deal with KDOC expires in June. The company also provides health services at the Shawnee County Jail.

"All inmates are in an extremely vulnerable situation as one infected patient can affect the whole facility," Hyman said. "Given the uncertainty of pandemic, we feel that it is in the best interest of the inmate population to not change vendors through a procurement process at this time."

He said disruption caused by transition to a replacement vendor as the coronavirus spread "could create catastrophic outcomes."

Meanwhile, a coalition of Kansas attorneys urged the governor to consider releasing medically fragile and elderly inmates, individuals with less than six months remaining on a sentence and people incarcerated for technical parole violations

Jennifer Roth, a Topeka attorney with the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the standard approach against COVID-19 involved good hygiene and distance from others. Both are nearly impossible to do consistently in most jails and correctional facilities, she said.

"When limited prison and jail medical resources run out or prove to be otherwise insufficient for the severity of an inmates’ condition, then inmates would have to be hospitalized in local community hospitals, using the communities’ already scarce hospital beds and medical resources," Roth said.

Life Care link

Federal authorities have notified the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., of heavy sanctions for the nursing home's handling of a coronavirus outbreak.

At least 37 deaths have been connected to the facility, which is owned by the same company that operates a nursing home in Burlington, Kan., where an outbreak was reported this week.

According to the Washington Post, federal investigators found the Kirkland nursing home failed to report respiratory illnesses within two weeks, as required by law, gave inadequate care to residents suffering from COVID-19, and didn’t provide 24-hour emergency medical services. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sent the Life Care Center a letter saying it faces a fine of more than $611,000 and could lose federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid.

Norman, the KDHE secretary, said Wednesday the Life Care Center in Burlington is connected to one death and 14 individuals who have tested positive for the virus.

The same company also owns a nursing home in Wyandotte County that recorded the state’s first death from COVID-19 in Kansas.

Abortion politics

Anti-abortion politicians and lobbyists are urging the governor and health officials to follow the Sedgwick County Commission’s advice by labeling abortion an elective procedure that ought to be suspended during the pandemic.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to send a letter to the Democratic governor, the KDHE secretary and the Sedgwick County health officer appealing for emergency action against the Trust Women Wichita clinic.

Kelly said she didn’t view health care facilities as non-essential and had no intention of carving out an exception aimed at abortion clinics.

"Women’s reproductive health is considered an essential need and all health care clinics will fall under that category," the governor said.

Jeanne Gawdun, spokeswoman for the Kansans for Life, said the Trust Women clinic was "potentially exposing countless individuals to COVID-19."

Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, a former Republican state senator, said the request wasn’t about his opposition to abortion. It reflects apprehension out-of-state patients or doctors will carry more coronavirus to Wichita, he said.

Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, said denying people access to abortion would put people in harm’s way.

"Women must already navigate the already existing barriers and obstacles to abortion access, such as transportation, child care and family obligations. Let’s not say to people that their lives do not matter," Burkhart said.

Tracking down crooks

Get-rich-quick entrepreneurs are eager to charge businesses astronomical amounts to supply face masks and hand cleaner. Elsewhere, shady operators are trying to victimize charitable people by soliciting donations to help with response to the coronavirus disaster.

"It’s a distinct minority," said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. "Most people are doing good-hearted things. Then you’ve got the few who see dollar signs and opportunity."

Schmidt and U.S. Attorney for Kansas Stephen McAllister agreed to a state-federal partnership to investigate and prosecute scammers attempting to prey on Kansans during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The two offices plan to share information and staff to more rapidly investigate allegations and bring charges against scammers, fraudsters and price gougers who violate the laws on profiteering in the crisis. The attorney general’s consumer protection division will work on cases with two federal prosecutors.