KDHE secretary rejects idea of relying on natural ’herd immunity’ rather than the Kansas policy of limiting spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine surfaces; northeast Kansas farmer shares generous spirit with mask donation to New York governor; criminals exploiting fear to rip off people; state logs 117th fatality and infections top 3,000
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TOPEKA — Family physician Doug Iliff says Kansas’ strategy of flattening the COVID-19 infection curve in anticipation of developing a vaccine ignored opportunity for an alternative that might have avoided economic mayhem and a historic spike in unemployment.
Iliff, a Topeka physician and a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said the state chose to lock down commercial, social and religious activity to moderate spread of coronavirus and avoid overrunning hospitals. The Kansas model calls for gradual lifting of restrictions and adoption of a quarantine whack-a-mole program while researchers work on treatments to immunize people, he said.
"The problem is that it took seven years to develop an Ebola vaccine. We don't know about COVID-19," Iliff said.
In Topeka and other U.S. cities, the doctor said, the infection curve was compressed so much hospitals hemorrhaged cash, nurses were furloughed and surgeons were left to twiddle their thumbs. Across Kansas, thousands of business were temporarily shuttered and 160,000 people filed jobless claims in the past month.
Iliff said the state should have concentrated on isolating the sick, elderly and unemployed and permitted spread of the virus through the rest of the population to encourage "herd immunity." The idea is not without risk for vulnerable people, he said.
"This is a chance for my fellow boomers to make a small sacrifice for the public good," Iliff said. "Granted, it would be nothing like the one in 300 American members of the ’Greatest Generation’ who gave their lives in World War II, but it would be a real gift to our children and grandchildren."
Lee Norman, secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said notions shared by Iliff and others were "a really bad idea."
Hundreds of people showed up at the Capitol in Topeka on Thursday to protest against Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order that limited commercial activity to essential businesses. Many of the protesters, who didn’t follow recommended social distancing concepts, said Kelly’s orders closing schools and businesses and limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people were an overreach by state government.
Iliff said a natural approach to herd immunity wouldn’t depend on scientists identifying a vaccine. It would have enabled the state’s economy to percolate pretty much as usual, he said.
"Not to mention, of course, that we still would have had March Madness and Opening Day to amuse ourselves as we practiced modest social isolation to flatten the curve of hospital admissions," Iliff said.
On Saturday, state health officials reported an increase in the number of deaths related to COVID-19 to 117, up six from Friday. Testing revealed the virus had infected 3,056 people in 76 of the state’s 105 counties.
More than 1,300 known to be infected reside in Johnson, Wyandotte and Sedgwick counties. More than 1,000 were in Ford, Seward, Finney and Lyon counties where large meatpacking plants operate.
’Get back to living’
Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis raised the prospect of pivoting to the herd immunity approach in response to the outbreak.
Likewise, Manhattan City Commissioner Mark Hatesohl said government officials exaggerated the threat and undermined the economy by clamping down too hard on business activity.
"I’m almost to the point where it’s like, let’s everybody get ... it over with so that we have the immunity, so we can get back to living," Hatesohl said.
Norman, a physician who leads the state health department, said he disagreed with critics of Kelly’s emergency directives and that unleashing this form of coronavirus in hope of fostering herd immunity prior to acquiring a vaccine would be a mistake.
"I think it’s a really bad idea," he said. "It would be a good idea if it were a minor illness that didn’t have a lot of deaths associated with it."
So far, an estimated 200,000 people worldwide have died of COVID-19. The number of deaths associated with the virus in the United States has topped 53,000.
Norman said the concept of quickly generating population immunity could kill hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.
"A very small percentage of 340 million people is a lot of people," the KDHE secretary said. "Push as many cases into the future as possible and then we’ll have a vaccine, then we’ll get herd immunity through the vaccine."
Researchers assume it could take 12 months or more for a vaccine to be approved for general use.
Norman said promising trends in Kansas were leveling of the fatality rate and improving hospitalization rates among infected people.
"The trend line is very favorable," Norman said. "I think we’ve reached our peak in hospitalization and deaths."
A farmer’s letter
The handwritten one-page letter from a retired northeast Kansas farmer to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave voice of people on the other side of the equation, who represent the opposite of fraudsters profiteering off vulnerable people in the pandemic.
Cuomo shared the farmer’s communique, which praised the New York governor for "telling the truth — something that has been sorely lacking of late."
Dennis Ruhnke, of Troy, wrote that he and his wife, Sharon, were in their 70s and hunkered down at home. He expressed apprehension in the letter about spread of the deadly respiratory virus because his wife had only one lung and was a diabetic.
"Frankly, I am afraid for her," Dennis Ruhnke wrote. "Enclosed find a solitary N95 mask left over from my farming days. If you could, would you please give the mask to a nurse or doctor in your city?"
"You want to talk about a snapshot of humanity?" said Cuomo, who posted an image of the letter to Twitter.
The governor of Kansas said she left a telephone message for Ruhnke.
"Who better than a Kansan to do something like that," Kelly said. "I thought that was priceless and precious. It was kind. It makes Kansas look good, doesn’t it?"
Slick criminal entrepreneurs rely on robocalls, social media and door-to-door opportunities to capitalize on fear of COVID-19.
The health-care con artist’s sickness of greed spreads like a virus as they pitch instant tests, immunity oils or herbal vaccines as well as coronavirus insurance and bulk sales of personal protective gear.
Their business model relies on relieving customers of cash or gaining access to Social Security numbers and credit card information to rip them off later, said Bridget Patton, spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Kansas City, Mo.
"With the outbreak of COVID-19, scammers have found a platform that preys on people's fears and could make them more likely to be victimized," Patton said. "These fraudsters are using the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 to further their efforts."
She said charity fraudsters were soliciting people on crowd-funding platforms, with email campaigns and through cold calls by telephone.
The FBI has received hundreds of complaints about simple fraud, including bogus requests for donations to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.
Stephen McAllister, the U.S. Attorney for Kansas, said Kansans ought to be alert for criminals attempting to use federal approval of COVID-19 economic impact payments to draw out personal information or money.
There are reports of criminals sending out fake government checks followed by requests for confirmation of information online or by telephone, said Karl Stiften, special agent in charge at the Internal Revenue Services office in St. Louis.
"The existence of a deadly national pandemic will not stop criminals seeking to capitalize on the fears and difficulties faced by the public as they try to line their own pockets," he said.