One week after the agency began reporting the locations of COVID-19 outbreaks, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said Wednesday it would pull back from reporting the data as it searches for a clearer way to present the information.
The agency announced earlier this month that it would begin disclosing the locations of outbreaks of five or more cases. Clusters involving private businesses would be disclosed if they had 20 or more cases.
State officials defended the move as a way of giving consumers more transparency. And while KDHE maintains that is still true, the agency also noted it is searching for a clearer way to better inform the public.
"KDHE staff has taken the feedback we received and is currently assessing ways in which we can report this information in a way that reflects current COVID-19 case increases," the agency stated on its data dashboard Wednesday.
Cluster information will again be available starting next week, the agency said.
Business groups have pushed back against any disclosure, arguing the move would needlessly threaten the livelihoods of enterprises throughout the state, and entities named in the agency’s data dashboard argued the state was reporting cases in a way that misled the public.
Earlier this week, at least two entities alleged that KDHE was reporting the overall number of cases over the course of the pandemic associated with their business.
The current number of active cases at those facilities was far lower, even potentially below KDHE’s 20-case threshold for reporting.
KDHE argued, for instance, that Simmons Pet Food had an outbreak at its Emporia plant. But Julie Maus, a spokesperson for the Arkansas-based company, said that in reality fewer than 1% of its 1,200 employees currently have the virus.
"Based on KDHE’s policy criteria of 20 cases, we do not believe Simmons meets the threshold of an active cluster," she said in an email.
KDHE Secretary Lee Norman acknowledged in a news conference Wednesday that the initial presentation was confusing, saying it stemmed from the technical definition of a cluster.
He agreed that case data from April or May was not useful to consumers.
"I think it is important that people have actionable and recent information on which to base their decisions," Norman said. "It is a legitimate question."
The state reported 971 new coronavirus cases since Friday. KDHE also reports 191 active clusters, accounting for 6,744 cases.
Norman defends death statistics
Norman also pushed back against criticism from some conservatives who argue the apparent increase in deaths related to COVID-19 is misleading the public.
The state reported 52 deaths since Friday, although 37 of those have occurred in recent weeks and months and only recently were attributed to COVID-19.
Delays could come from a few sources, Norman said.
That could include delays in reconciling death information with KDHE records or lags from coroners and medical examiners.
But the secretary dismissed criticism from conservatives, who have argued that death numbers were skewed because many who died from the virus had a co-morbidity, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes.
If a patient was confirmed to have COVID-19, even if they ultimately died of something else linked to the virus, then the death would be counted in KDHE’s numbers.
The data, he argued, was sound.
"There are always going to be naysayers or conspiracy theorists," Norman said.
State braces for flu season
With fall on the way, state health officials are also bracing for the potential effects flu cases might have on the ability to manage the spread of COVID-19.
Patients will be tested for both influenza and the novel coronavirus if they see a doctor in the coming weeks.
The hope is that a well-established supply chain will help ensure that flu tests aren’t strained by any increase in demand, Norman said.
But he added there will likely be more strain on the health care system.
Whereas many patients with flu-like symptoms tend to stay home in a normal year, COVID-19 fears will likely drive many to a physician to be tested for the virus.
"I think people will be more quick to respond to going in for testing," Norman said.
To avoid this, state officials have been hammering home an overarching message: Get your flu shot.
"Everyone needs to get a flu shot so that we have less of this ’is it flu or is it COVID,’ " Norman said.