Despite rising cases, Reno County Commission rejects recommendations on COVID-19 alerts

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As reported in the Hutchinson News. Reno County’s health director warned on Tuesday that the active COVID-19 case rate in the county – a single digit at the beginning of the month – is projected to hit 168 active cases within two weeks.

By Sept. 1, Karla Nichols advised the Reno County Commission, it’s on track to eclipse 250.

Nichols on Tuesday presented the county commission with modified “alert levels” she is proposing the county adopt, based on modified guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

While containing no mask mandates, the guidelines would recommend limits to gathering sizes and reductions in attendance at large venues based on the 14-day positive case rate and incidence numbers.

The Commission balked at the recommendations, however, eventually deciding it would draft its own.

More than case counts?

Commissioner Daniel Friesen suggested the numbers determining alerts should include hospitalization rates and data on whether any of the people hospitalized for the virus had been vaccinated.

“I’m really concerned there’s no consideration for hospital capacity,” Friesen said. “There’s too much focus on case counts. People that have the vaccine who are getting COVID-19 again seem like they’re handling it well and have not been in the hospital.”

“It seems like the government has created the right opportunity for people to protect themselves, so I’m not sure we should be involved in other restrictions,” he said. “People can keep themselves out of the hospital by simply getting vaccinated.”

Friesen then suggested the county commission, as the board of health, should approve any alert level policy, and he asked that the issue be placed on the next commission agenda.

He was backed by Commissioner Ron Sellers, who agreed the burden should be on the population to protect itself.

“I almost totally agree,” Sellers said. “People have been given the opportunity to care for themselves and their families. I’m not sure I want to burden those of us doing the right thing because of those who chose not to.”

Escalations

The first time the county reached 250 active COVID-19 cases was in early October 2020, and it marked the start of an escalation of infections – and hospitalizations – in the community that didn’t begin to drop until December.

Less than a week after eclipsing 200 active cases back then, double-digit hospitalizations began.

It took until February to drop back below that line after vaccines became widely available to the local elderly population.

“Nationally, cases are doubling every three weeks,” Nichols said. “It’s moving even faster in Reno County because we’re below the national average (for vaccinations) and 6 points behind the state average.”

That’s why case rates are projected to rise so rapidly, particularly with the new, much more highly contagious Delta variant accounting for the majority of new cases statewide.

In Reno County Tuesday, nearly 3,600 residents over age 65, or 27% of the population often considered most vulnerable and with the highest rate of deaths, remained unvaccinated, Nichols said.

However, slightly more than 38% of the county’s total population are fully vaccinated, while slightly less than 42% have received at least one dose.

Hutchinson Regional and most other hospitals, meanwhile, continue to see high numbers of non-COVID patients because of conditions exacerbated by people not seeking care for chronic conditions due to the pandemic, she said.

At the same time, Nichols said, hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages because many nurses have left the profession, leading to limited capacity for new admissions.

So it’s even more important that hospitalizations from the disease not rise.

It’s on them

The commission asked Nichols how many of those hospitalized with COVID-19 had been vaccinated. She said it was just under 1%.

Friesen said that information, for hospitalizations and deaths, should be tracked and published by Reno County, which Nichols said would likely be a violation of HIPAA, a federal law that prohibits the release of certain personal medical data. Friesen challenged the contention.

“I understand the reason we did what we did a year ago,” Friesen said. “We had no other choice a year ago to protect people. Now we have a vaccine. I’m just not understanding why we’d create a restrictive policy. I understand the reality is more people will die because they’re not vaccinated, but we can’t force them to get vaccinated. So, I think right now our focus should be on monitoring the hospital and making sure it has the right resources it needs.”

“I share your thoughts,” Sellers said. “We’ve got a way to take care of ourselves. If people don’t want to, that’s not for the rest of society to decide. The difficult fact is some will not take care of themselves.”

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