Early test results show 75% of Lansing inmates have virus; county commissioners, health officers may not share view on restrictions for business, social activity; KDHE supports President Trump’s declaration of meatpacking as essential

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TOPEKA — Kansas has begun comprehensive testing of inmates at the state-run Lansing prison, where preliminary results indicate 75% have the coronavirus.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has come under scrutiny for conditions that led to an outbreak of infections at the Lansing Correctional Facility. So far, two inmates there have died from COVID-19.

RELATED: As coronavirus spreads in Lansing prison, families fear death sentence

Officials said Thursday they were placing the entire prison compound under quarantine for 14 days. Infected inmates will be transported to a hospital as symptoms progress.

More than 1,700 men are currently imprisoned in Lansing. Inmates rioted there in early April, and family members of vulnerable inmates have questioned the precautions taken by employees. Health officials have recorded positive tests for 76 inmates and 75 staff members there.

Initial testing results from a sample earlier this week of 240 men who live in a single unit at Lansing show that 75% have the coronavirus but no symptoms.

"Unfortunately, the results we received from Lansing confirm how quickly this virus spreads and the unique characteristics of being positive but not showing any signs or symptoms," said Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "Increased testing is beneficial, but it also may reveal the broader spread of the virus."

Corrections secretary Jeff Zmuda said all Lansing inmates will be tested.

"Social distancing in a prison setting is difficult," Zmuda said. "For years, correctional facilities have been built to house a large number of people in a limited amount of space. We want nothing more than for all of our residents to be healthy and safe while they are in our care, and we believe this testing will assist us in ensuring that they receive the attention that they need and deserve."

Defense attorneys and inmate advocates have called for the early release of some vulnerable prisoners to avoid consequences of serious illness. The governor has said she is assessing the situation.

Overall, Kansas health officials reported Thursday that 4,238 cases of infection had been detected through testing and that 129 people who contracted the virus had died.

Local power struggle

The anticipated transfer of pandemic oversight from state to county level opens the door for power struggles between local public health officers and the elected commissioners they serve.

Gov. Laura Kelly's statewide stay-at-home order is to expire Sunday night, giving county health officers decision-making authority about restrictions necessary to keep communities safe.

Those health officers will be able to issue countywide orders that carry the full weight of law. They could extend stay-at-home orders under guidance provided by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, lift all restrictions, or even impose more severe limits on business and social activities.

So what happens if county commissioners are more sensitive to business needs than health precautions? They could try to pass an ordinance to supersede the health officers, launching messy legal battles across the state.

"I can tell you there's a lot of debate going right now, and it's unclear," said Charles Moser, the attorney and public information officer for Greeley County.

Moser said county counselors across the state have discussed the situation through group email. There isn’t a clear answer about who has the ultimate authority.

The dynamic is similar to the one that played out between Kelly and Republican legislators who tried to curb her power. Moser said it could be a bigger problem at the local level because commissioners are elected positions and the health officer is not.

County health officers serve at the pleasure of the health board, where seats are typically filled by commissioners. So if a public health officer makes a rule the commissioners don’t like, they can fire the health officer.

Moser anticipated the possibility of friction in sparsely populated Greeley County, where there are no confirmed cases among the 1,200 residents.

"We've been the benefactor of the governor's stay-at-home order and all of the social distancing guidelines that have been put into place well in advance of us actually seeing or having any confirmed cases of the coronavirus out here," Moser said.

As a small, rural community, he said, there are very few businesses that aren’t considered essential. Even though businesses were able to conduct normal operations throughout the pandemic, he said, they were still impacted.

"I know that generally speaking, people are anxious to start seeing things open back up, but you also have people who are very concerned and very leery about whether it's too soon or not from a public health standpoint," Moser said. "It's a very delicate balance of public health vs the economy. Everybody recognizes that for the most part. And there's no crystal ball."

Shawnee County health officer Gianfranco Pezzino said he expects the removal of some social distancing measures will lead to more people being exposed to the coronavirus.

"It's a calculated risk that we take," Pezzino said. "Even I as a public health person know very well that the economic cost of this closure is unsustainable. We cannot keep our society incarcerated, so to speak, in the same situation we are in now for a longer period of time without consequences that would be hard to imagine. So it's OK. We will reopen, and there will be a few more cases."

The statewide number of positive tests is expected to rise with greater availability of testing, but hospitalizations and fatalities have been on a decline.

"I can pretty comfortably tell you that we’ve peaked out in terms of the burden of the disease," Norman said. "We’re going to continue to see a tailing off of COVID-19. There’s no question about it."

Meatpacking essential

President Donald Trump, wary of a potential meat shortage in the food supply chain, signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to declare meatpacking plants essential infrastructure required to stay in operation. The order came as dozens of U.S. plants became hot spots for COVID-19.

Skeptics of the president’s decision said the directive may inhibit local health officials from using the potential of closures to maintain health and safety guidelines.

Norman endorsed Trump’s order and praised operators of processing plants in Finney, Ford, Seward and Lyon counties for taking steps to reduce spread of the virus. Those counties account for 1,692 cases of infection. Here are the latest tallies: Ford, 675; Seward, 500; Finney, 317; and Lyon, 200.

It is essential the southwest Kansas plants providing 25% of the nation’s beef supply remain open, the KDHE secretary said.

"It was a very sensible thing to have done," Norman said of the presidential order. "I’m very comfortable with what they’ve done as corporations, what our local health departments have done in those counties by way of assisting the companies."

Managing spread of coronavirus outside plants in communities, he said, "will be a real challenge."

At least 1,869 cases of COVID-19 are concentrated in four urban counties, primarily in northeast Kansas. Those case numbers: Wyandotte, 677; Johnson, 464; Sedgwick, 372; and Leavenworth, 356.