There are no known cases of COVID-19 in Geary County at this time.
However, that could change at any moment. As of Wednesday, there are 438,749 confirmed cases of the virus around the globe and about 20,000 total deaths. In the United States, there are about 55,000 confirmed cases with 802 deaths. In Kansas, there are 98 confirmed cases and two deaths. The numbers of infected and dead are expected to grow, according to the Geary County Health Department.
In the midst of this pandemic, the health department is holding daily 11 a.m. Facebook Live briefings to keep the public in the know about what’s happening locally.
During that time, people will be able to ask questions and have them answered in real time.
Wednesday, Deputy Director of the health department Charles Martinez took part in the first such briefing.
There are some possible cases of COVID-19 in the community — people who have been tested and are quarantined for the standard 14 day period that accompanies COVID-19 — but no positive results have come in yet.
Screenings are taking place for COVID-19 at Geary Community Hospital, Konza Prairie Community Health Center, and the homeless shelter, according to Martinez. There are nurses doing contact tracing with people who may have been exposed to people with possible cases of COVID-19, according to Martinez.
At this time, fewer than 30 people have been tested, Martinez estimated, and fewer than 100 tests exist in the county at this time.
According to Geary County Health Department Director Tammy Von Busch, the county has received 13 negative results at this time and two people still awaiting results.
He outlined what the situation might look like if and when the virus shows up here. If people fail to follow health department orders, he said, the local healthcare system could be overwhelmed by the middle of next month.
“Without cooperation, all the modeling is looking at our hospital (being) overwhelmed by mid-April,” he said. “This is modeling based off of the best data scientists and epidemiologists in the world … If they don’t cooperate, we can expect deaths. I know that’s horrible to hear. But we need to be prepared and the public has to understand it is very important that we work together. This is not the regular flu, it has nothing to do with the flu.”
It kills a higher percentage of those infected, he said, and is more infectious than seasonal flu. There’s also no treatment for COVID-19 at the moment.
It won’t go away overnight.
Citing the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, Martinez said it could last anywhere from eight to 18 months.
“The restrictions may not be necessary for that long and we’re not looking to do that we’re looking at when it peaks,” he said. “We’ll probably drop the restrictions right after (it peaks), but we’ll do it slowly to make sure that things are safe.”
Despite the dire possibilities, Martinez said the local outlook was positive compared with some other communities.
“We saw this virus coming back in January and we started prepping,” he said.
Martinez said the health department started by assembling an unofficial EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and began discussing and planning with local partners. An official EOC would be opened later. Those involved implemented the pandemic flu plan, not because COVID-19 is a flu as such, but because it was the closest thing they had, since COVID-19 is a new virus.
“The county has consolidated all its medical supplies,” Martinez said. “Since we saw this coming in January, we were able to build up our cache before it hit other counties. So they’re trying to build it up now. But we’re ahead of the game on that.”
The health department’s decision to order local schools to extend their spring breaks was based on knowledge of the Spanish Flu pandemic that started in 1918.
Martinez made examples of St. Louis, which closed schools quickly to stave off the flu in 1918, and Philadelphia, which failed to close schools immediately.
“St. Louis had one eighth the fatalities as Philadelphia,” he said. “We were expecting this to be just like the Spanish influenza, even though it’s not the influenza virus.”
The health department has recently issued a written order banning dine-in restaurants and non-essential businesses.
Martinez warned listeners not to underestimate COVID-19.
“People say that more people die from the flu every year,” he said. “That’s true at this point, but this is the very beginning. They need to understand once we overwhelm the hospitals, people aren’t gonna be able to get treated as quickly.”
As always, people are encouraged to follow basic hygiene rules such as washing hands for at least 20 seconds and avoiding touching their faces. Social distancing is encouraged and gatherings of more than 10 people are banned.
“No one is special,” Martinez said. “You’ve got to follow the rules to protect other people.”
It’s too much to hope the virus won’t arrive here, as it has arrived in neighboring counties. It may already be here, undetected. The best thing people can do is to take measures to keep it from spreading.
All it takes is one person to spread the virus, he said.
Martinez said the health department heard daily from citizens complaining either that they’re not doing enough or that they’re doing too much.
“Everything we’re doing is based on good studies on both how to handle pandemics and everything we’ve got about COVID-19,” Martinez said. “We’ve seen the mistakes that other countries have made and we’ve learned from them. We may have to go into a situation where everything is shut down, and literally only essential personnel such as doctors and nurses, law enforcement — they’re all available, but everything else will have to be shut down. We’re not there yet.”
Right now, the focus in communities across the globe is flattening the curve — keeping the number of infected from growing so large it overwhelms the healthcare system and causes catastrophic numbers of deaths.
“At this point with everything we got in place, we’re looking at still exceeding our medical capabilities around the end of April. But its not as steep,” Martinez said. “So we’ll be able to help more people at that time.”
If the state can flatten the curve further, he said, there should be “very little deaths in Kansas.” A difficult task, according to Martinez, but not impossible, if people follow orders.
During the Facebook Live video, Martinez mentioned that an order is expected to come out from the health department some time in the near future — possibly today — further clamping down movement to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
He encouraged people not to panic. Though store shelves may be empty, there’s no shortage of food at this time.
“Don’t fight people for toilet paper,” Martinez said. “That’s uncalled for … I know food is scarce in the store sometimes. That’s not because industries are shutting down or anything. It’s because people panicked and we started hoarding food. That’s not necessary at this time.”
Martinez apologized for the health department not telling the public more quickly what was going on.
“We’re working to be more transparent,” he said. “I understand that we haven’t been working with the public as close as we should have. We’ve got a small group of people working at the health department, and we were trying to get ahead of the game. And I failed to let the public know what we were doing.”
When asked about the chance of a mandatory total lockdown in the Junction City area — something that has taken place in some other counties — Von Busch said it was “always a possibility but we have not gone to that point yet.”
She, like Martinez, encouraged people to follow the rules and flatten the curve.
“Some people are taking it seriously and others aren’t,” she said. “Our goal is to keep it out of Junction City if possible, and definitely (we) do not want to reach a state of community spread should we have a case.”
People are encouraged to call one of the local COVID-19 hotlines if they believe they may have contracted the virus.
The COVID-19 hotline numbers are 785-210-4214 and 785-210-4825 for GCH and 785-238-4711 for Konza. Even people who do not receive services at these locations are encouraged to call one of these numbers if they expect they have COVID-19.
See www.facebook.com/gearycountyhealthdept/ to watch the health department’s full video or to tune in to future Facebook Live briefings.