This guest column is in response to a letter to the editor written by Pat Proctor that appeared in the March 27, 2020, edition of the Leavenworth Times.
Let me begin by stating that I don’t believe that “fear and panic” has gripped the majority of our county residents. I am, however, willing to assume that a large number of people were not prepared for a pandemic or any other disaster. That’s something that has been encouraged by our emergency preparedness department for many years.
I applaud Mr. Proctor’s call for residents to support one another, to avoid large crowds, to support our local businesses owners, to stay home when sick and to wash their hands. However, his taking the opportunity to attack our Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and question the judgment and authority of our public health officials in his letter, although within his rights to do so, leaves me compelled to respond.
Our BOCC is charged, by the Kansas Legislature, with a responsibility to ensure local public safety and welfare. I take that responsibility very seriously. I also realize that I must depend on others, a lot smarter than me, to assist me with making sound and responsible decisions. Part of that responsibility includes hiring a qualified public health officer. This individual is responsible for educating, updating and making recommendations to the BOCC and is granted statutory authority by the state of Kansas to be “empowered and authorized to prohibit public gatherings when necessary for the control of any and all infectious or contagious disease” (KS- 65-19). In my opinion, leaders know when to step back and allow the experienced to do their job.
Make no mistake, our public health officer, as did I, carefully weighed all the potential consequences of both making or not making the decision to declare a public health emergency on March 10, 2020. Individuals in our county had already presented with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and were awaiting test results. Our county was in a position to mitigate community spread, by taking decisive measures before our county found itself unable to reduce opportunity for exposure. Included in this decision making process was the fact that our local hospitals lack the capacity to provide critical care to individuals in need of a respirator. Our county must depend on other health care systems to provide that level of care.
In the week that followed, positive test results had come in and additional people were presenting for testing. Two individuals who tested positive had not traveled out of county or outside our local region, none of these individuals had, to their knowledge, been in contact with each other and neighboring counties were showing signs of accelerating community spread. Following consultation with KDHE, other public health professionals and medical professionals, our public health officer made the decision to expand the scope of the order to include non-essential businesses beginning April 23. I fully support that decision.
I would also like to share the following additional information that I considered while making my decision to support the March 10 resolution, which is based on prior personal knowledge. About 14.5% of our local population is over 65. Additionally, according to KDHE, 14% of our general population is considered to be in poor health, 10% are treated for diabetes, 4% live with some form of respiratory illness and 18% smoke. All of the aforementioned statistics contribute to risk factors identified by the CDC as creating an elevated risk for adverse outcomes should they become infected.
This new virus is a moving target with no vaccine in our tool box to help slow its spread. All we have to offer our citizens is social distancing and the ability to mitigate exposure, which is exactly what has been done.
Fortunately, public health officials don’t make critical decisions based on what is or isn’t popular with the public or elected officials. That is exactly the reason public health emergency decisions should be left up to the individuals with the objectivity, qualifications and expertise to make sound decisions. That is the reason our BOCC supported our public health officer’s recommendation and signed a resolution granting him the authority to fulfill his responsibilities and duties.
Do I care that there are individuals and businesses negatively impacted by this temporary stay-at-home order and requiring non-essential businesses to close? Of course I do. Did I consider that as decisions were made? Of course I did, as did our public health officer. I have friends and family members who are directly impacted and he does too. Regardless of what Mr. Proctor (and others) might believe, ignoring the potential for widespread community acquired infection would be far more “violent” to our local economy were the COVID-19 virus to gain a foothold in our county.
Were we to roll the dice and hope that everyone entering non-essential businesses and eating inside restaurants weren’t infected, we would be contributing to the potential for community spread and placing vulnerable members of our county residents at risk for contracting a disease they might not recover from. Additionally, I considered the fact that many of our local businesses can continue to operate utilizing the internet to conduct business. Unfortunately, there are businesses that are unable to operate and I hope they will be able to take advantage of programs that have been put in place to assist them.
In closing, I want to thank everyone who has come forward to help others during this stressful and unprecedented time, all of our residents who have done their part to flatten the curve and ask that we all be thankful that we have a public health officer, medical director and other health professionals willing to put the health and well-being of county residents first. As I write this guest column, 15 county residents have tested positive for COVID-19. Many more have symptoms of the virus, but don’t meet criteria to be tested. And four individuals in two adjoining counties have died. I am committed to making every effort to flatten the curve and reduce exposure.
Only time will tell whether or not decisions made by our public health experts and the BOCC in advance of potential for wide ranging community spread were effective. I pray each day that will be the case as we navigate these uncharted waters. Please take time for self care, to check on friends and family and reach out to others should you begin to experience mental health issues. We will get through this if we all work together.
Vicky Kaaz is a member of the Leavenworth County Commission. She represents the 2nd District.