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Finney County Moves into Phase 1.5, Despite Quickly Accelerating Increase in Covid-19 Cases

Finney County, as of Monday, ranked second behind Ford County for the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Kansas.  (Photo by Angie Haflich, High Plains Public Radio)

Finney County Moves into Phase 1.5, Despite Quickly Accelerating Increase in Covid-19 Cases
By Angie Haflich, High Plains Public Radio and Kansas News Service 

Finney County residents are now able to get a haircut and work-out in a gym, despite a rapidly accelerating increase in the rate of COVID-19 cases.

On Monday, the Finney County Commission — acting as the county’s board of public health — decided to follow the state’s reopening plan, which allows hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors to open for pre-scheduled appointments. Gyms and fitness centers are also allowed to reopen, but without access to locker rooms or group classes.

Phase 1.5, as Gov. Laura Kelly referred to it last week, continues to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people and takes effect on Tuesday. Phase 1 allowed previously nonessential retailers to open.  

The rate of COVID-19 cases continued its fast rate of ascent in Finney County over the past week. As of Monday, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, there were 1,281 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Finney County, up from 861 cases 10 days ago.

That put Finney County at the No. 2 spot behind Ford County, which reported 1,403 cases Monday, for the highest number of cases in the state.   

Dr. Rachael Svaty, a physician at Plaza Medical Center, was one of three local medical providers to speak before the commission Monday. She said Finney County’s rapid COVID-19 growth rate landed it in the top 10 emerging COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S. last week.

“That’s not a top 10 list that any of us wanted to be on. But I think it speaks to the fact that we need to be doing what we can to continue to slow this rate of increase so that we can continue to handle these cases as a medical community,” Svaty said.

Colleen Drees, Finney County Health Department Director and Public Health Officer, said 48% of the tests conducted during the week of May 11 to May 15 came back positive. 

In a written statement, Medical Director Dr. Lindsey Byrnes called that rate “incredibly high, indicating significant ongoing disease transmission in our community,” and said a positivity rate of 15% to 20% is more indicative of a controlled outbreak.

Drees said that the health department was still awaiting results of some tests. As of 5:30 p.m. Monday, there were 158 pending cases, seven hospitalizations and six deaths on the Finney County Health Department’s website.

Byrnes’ statement also said hospitalization of more serious COVID-19 patients typically doesn’t occur until five to seven days after symptoms begin, so deaths being reported now likely reflect infections from three to four weeks ago.

“If our goal, as I believe it should be, is to lessen transmission thereby limiting morbidity and mortality in our community, it does not make sense to proceed with reopening at the same pace as other counties that have much less transmission,” her statement read.

She also recommended strict adherence to social distancing guidelines and wearing masks.

“Physical distancing is difficult and goes against our human nature, yet each individual must act to protect their family, their friends and their neighbors,” the statement read.

Drees recommended the county continue to operate under Phase 1 for two more weeks, then evaluate the COVID-19 data before reopening any further.

“We have one of the — if not the highest — positivity rates in the state. This should not be dismissed,” she said, adding that Finney County should be evaluated separately from other counties. “We are seeing a drastically different trend here than the rest of the state.”

She said KDHE Secretary Lee Norman recommended last week that the county remain in Phase 1 until it sees a decrease in the case positivity rate.  

Merilyn Douglass, nurse practitioner at Grow Well Clinic, has been acting as the medical provider at one of the county’s shelters for COVID-19 patients, the Sleep Inn.  

She called COVID-19 unpredictable, covert and cryptic in describing some of her experiences treating people with the disease, including an elderly woman who she said was in an intensive care unit at St. Catherine Hospital on Monday.

Douglass said prior to the woman’s hospitalization, her oxygen-saturation level was 51, well below the normal range of 94 to 100. But Douglass said neither the woman nor her husband understood the seriousness of the illness.

“It fools you. It fooled me,” Douglass said. “So I ask for your respect and support as we work on the health of our communities in Finney County and make it the top priority.”

Commissioner Bill Clifford, an eye surgeon who is also running for the 1st Congressional District seat, said he is in favor of reopening because he had spoken to a number of barbers and hair stylists who demonstrated they intend to wear masks and to keep people separated. But he also encouraged Finney County residents to do the same.

“But I do think that the public needs to be responsible and realize that we are literally swimming in this virus and if you don’t want to get it, you need to keep yourself safe,” he said.

Commissioner Dave Jones said Finney County was forced to shut down prior to there being any cases being reported, which has made it difficult for local businesses to survive.

“Certainly lives are important, but also there’s some importance that we need to assign to keeping our economy going,” he said.

He also asked Drees if she expects to see a jump in cases with the county’s move to Phase 1.5.

“I believe that there’s going to be increased exposure, yes, and so I would expect that we could see an increase in positive cases,” she said.

The motion to move into Phase 1.5 was ultimately passed by 4-1 vote; Clifford voted against it. Phase 1.5 remains in effect until midnight May 31. 

Commissioners will meet again May 29 to re-evaluate the latest COVID-19 data and determine whether to proceed with reopening. 

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Angie Haflich reports for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @AngieHaflich.

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