Gov. Laura Kelly moving Kansas economy to phase 2 of reopening process; Kelly appoints COVID-19 task force; Kansas gets 35 cases of experimental drug from feds for patients in intensive care units and on ventilators

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TOPEKA — A drive-thru visitation and candlelight vigil Thursday will honor two corrections officers at Lansing Correctional Facility who died of COVID-19.

Corrections supervisors Fella Adebiyi and George Bernard Robare will be honored by the Kansas Department of Corrections, the City of Lansing and several area law enforcement agencies will be honoring in the west parking lot of the prison.

"This virus has shaken our state to its core," said Gov. Laura Kelly. "Our corrections personnel have been invaluable during this pandemic."

Adebiyi died May 12, while Robare passed away May 11. Four inmates at Lansing also have died from the virus.

The public drive-thru visitation service will be 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. The vigil open to correctional staff and immediate family will be 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Masks are required to be worn by all in attendance and both events will follow social distancing guidelines.

The Lansing prison has become one of the state’s hotspots in terms of coronavirus infection. The corrections department says 88 employees and 761 inmates at Lansing tested positive for the virus.

Throughout the state prison system more than 800 prisoners and in excess of 100 employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

Entering Phase 2

Gov. Laura Kelly said the Kansas economy would be allowed Friday to enter the second phase of a recovery strategy from the pandemic that includes resumption of business by casinos, theaters, bowling alleys, museums and permits return to organized sports activities.

Kelly said during a briefing at the Capitol on Tuesday that bars, nightclubs, swimming pools, venues seating more than 2,000, fairs, festivals, parades and summer camps would remain shut down. It’s possible the grip on those activities could loosen by June 8.

Under Phase 2, she said, the statewide mass gathering limit would be moved on Friday to 15 people, up from the current cap of 10. The community centers, excluding pools, can open and fitness clubs can resume in-person classes of 15 or fewer participants.

"Right now," Kelly said, "the data tell us it is time for another step forward in opening as quickly as possible but still doing it as safely as possible. I’m encouraged by our progress."

Task force named

Kelly also announced members of a task force assembled to monitor the state's economic recovery from the pandemic, including statewide distribution of $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding.

The group, known as the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce, will have a five-member executive committee and a steering committee with 15 more members appointed by the governor.

It includes representatives of the business community, economic development and the Legislature.

"The state’s recovery effort must serve urban and rural areas alike across the state, and all sectors of the economy," Kelly said. "The health and economic challenges COVID-19 inflicted on our state truly are unprecedented. We must use our collective talents to develop strategies to not only regain what we lost, but build a better, more inclusive and resilient economy."

Work is underway by the House and Senate to expand legislative oversight of federal funding for the pandemic as well as review of the governor's executive orders. The Legislature returns Thursday to Topeka for a one-day conclusion of the annual session.

Legislators on the panel include Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, House Majority Leader Dan Watkins, R-Wichita, and Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.

A treatment

Kansas officials have distributed 35 cases of an experimental drug that could help some patients recover from a COVID-19 infection.

Medical experts warn that remdesivir isn’t a game-changer or cure, but the drug provides another option for treatment of individuals who increasingly need more oxygen support.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began sending states vials of remdesivir donated by Gilead Sciences after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the drug on May 1.

In Kansas, remdesivir is being distributed to patients in intensive care units and on a ventilator, said Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The strategy is to send the drug to people who might need it, rather than distribute by population. Each case can treat five to six patients.

The state distributed 10 cases of remdesivir on Thursday and 25 on Saturday. The first batch was divided among Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka and southwest Kansas.

"Wherever the patients are is where we thought the remdesivir should go," Norman said.

Preliminary results of studies indicate the drug provides a more favorable chance of recovery for some patients, and could reduce recovery time to 11 days from 15.

Dana Hawkinson, director of infection prevention and control at the University of Kansas Health System, said remdesivir works similar to Tamiflu, which can shorten recovery for the flu.

"This is not an end-all, be-all panacea of a treatment for this infection, but certainly the results are favorable," Hawkinson said.

Norman said KDHE is tracking 15 data points to know who in Kansas is getting the drug and how they respond to it. The hope is that remdesivir can make a difference for some patients, but the approach isn’t ideal for assessing its effectiveness.

"This, quite honestly, is not what we would consider to be high science or high-quality research," Norman said. "It's not a double-blind randomized controlled trial where somebody is getting drugs, somebody else is getting placebo. But again, this is a novel time, and it's essentially a compassionate use.

"So we're pushing it out to people, and we'll follow to see how they do. Will we be a lot smarter a month from now or two months from now? I don't know if we will be or not."

Linn County order

Linn County's health department modified a May 1 order challenged on constitutional grounds that required businesses to keep track of customer names and contact information to assist with possible tracing of COVID-19 infection.

The new directive permits businesses to request a warrant or other judicial approval before business records would be shared with officials performing contact tracing, said Sam MacRoberts, an attorney for the Linn County plaintiffs.

A lawsuit was filed May 10 in U.S. District Court on behalf of Jackie Taylor, publisher of the Linn County News, and Linda Jo Hisel, owner of Nana Jo's Cafe in La Cygne.

The settlement prompted motion for dismissal of the Fourth Amendment lawsuit.

"I don’t want to put anyone’s health in jeopardy, but I’m not going to put anyone’s privacy in jeopardy either," Hisel said.

MacRoberts, an attorney with Kansas Justice Institute, said contact tracing could be effective when communities agreed to participate.

"Heavy-handed mandates and threats won't work here," he said.