With the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Brown County, Hiawatha Community Hospital officials are saying it’s more important now than ever to wear masks and social distance.
Brown County added 89 cases just last week, said John Broberg, CEO of Hiawatha Hospital. This week is looking to be more of the same as the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is reporting 397 cases as of Wednesday. Other local counties are blowing up as well as Nemaha hit 670 with over 200 active and 6 deaths and Doniphan 287 with 2 deaths and Atchison County with 645 with 7 deaths — as of Wednesday’s numbers.
Overall, the state added 10,000 cases just last week and as of Nov. 11 was recording 109,225 with 1,215 deaths.
Broberg said they also have another concern — there is limited availability to transfer patients out to a higher level of care at larger hospitals as COVID numbers are spiking in St. Joseph, Mo., Kansas City and Topeka as well and those beds are filling up.
Hospital officials discussed these concerns with the city and county commissions at recent meetings as they also issued yet another plea for those commissions to issue a mask mandate in the city and county in an effort to keep the Coronavirus from spreading further.
“So far, they have not changed their mind on this,” Broberg said.
However, due to increasing positive cases, two other counties — Jefferson and Lyon — just this week reversed earlier decisions and are now issuing mask mandates. On Thursday, Nemaha County also reversed it’s earlier decision in July and will be requiring masks in public.
Within the hospital, masks have been required, but as of Nov. 2, due to the high level of community spread, the hospital is mandating level 3 masks for all employees. Broberg said they have had some employees test positive for the Coronavirus, but they are all from outside exposures. He said there has not been any spread of the virus within the hospital.
Hiawatha Hospital has transferred some patients who require hospitalization to a higher level of care rather than keep them here at HCH. Broberg said those choices are becoming limited and HCH will have to start keeping patients here.
This could stretch hospital staffing thin and force the hospital to limit other services — such as surgery, Broberg said, noting that the COVID clinic has been very busy in recent weeks.
He worries that the overall community situation with COVID is much worse than it was in March when the state shut down. Because of this the economy could suffer again and some businesses, organizations, churches and government offices may start shutting down or limiting customers.
Kansas is in the pink with a concerning increase in numbers, according to the John Hopkins Institute site, which offers detailed information about the COVID-19 Coronavirus and the spread. Broberg also noted that, according to the John Hopkins site, it shows that many other countries have “flattened the curve” and the spread of the virus is not as big of a concern.
For whatever reason, the situation in the United States has worsened, he noted.
In fact one of the questions on the John Hopkins Institute website is “America is reopening, but have we flattened the curve?”
The answer to that is no, according to data.
In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly said in her press conference Tuesday she was planning to present detailed information next week on how Kansans can slow the spread of this disease. She also commended Jefferson and Lyon counties for issuing a mask mandate.
Broberg emphasized again how critical masks are — and for people to be cautious with holidays coming up. He said health officials recommend staying within the core family groups if getting together with others to eat or celebrate. This means spreading seating areas out and also wearing a mask.
“Masks are really critical and are what have been shown to be the most effective,” Broberg said. “It’s not political anymore — the election is over. But the disease continues to spread.”
As of Nov. 11, there have been 51,926,961 cases and 1,280,599 deaths globally. In the U.S., there have been 10,361,918 confirmed cases and 240,782 deaths.
The following is a link to a story about a young woman who contracted COVID-19. While not from Brown County, she does have local family connections and hospital officials wanted to share her story — about a young, healthy woman who had adverse reactions to the virus and is struggling back to a healthy lifestyle after several months.
The Brown County Health Department has reported the recent spike in cases is more than it’s staff can handle and that the state will be stepping in to help monitor new cases.
In a statement on the Health Department’s Facebook Monday, the Brown County Health Department reported a total of 352 cases that day — reporting 26 new positive cases since Friday. There have been 6 COVID-related deaths reported. By Wednesday, the state COVID site on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment was reporting Brown County had 397 positive cases.
“Our current active case count in Brown County is more than our team can manage. We are now turning cases over to KDHE (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) for investigation,” according to the statement on the Health Department’s Facebook. “What does this mean from our residents? You may not get a call from KDHE same day. Please be patient.”
The Brown County Health Department office is answering calls about quarantine/isolation orders, issuing release letters and county health officials say they are doing their “very best to keep up with the demands of our existing workload.”
If someone is unable to reach the office by phone, it is like staff is on the other lines so county health officials ask callers to leave a message or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a message feature on the Health Department’s Facebook page.
Cases continue to climb across the nation and in Kansas leading some schools to transition to remote or hybrid learning and some counties to require masks in public.
As of Wednesday’s numbers on the KDHE COVID site, there has been 109,225 positive cases in the state, 1,215 deaths and 4,252 hospitalizations. In neighboring counties, Nemaha is currently reporting 622 cases, Doniphan 287, Jackson 450, Atchison 645.
The Hiawatha School Board met in special session Thursday evening and made the decision to transition the district into remote learning until Dec. 3.
Students will attend school on Friday the 13th to pack up materials and remote learning is expected to start Monday, Nov. 16 with a projected return to school date of Dec. 3, depending upon the health climate of students, staff and the county.
Earlier in the day, Superintendent Lonnie Moser issued a patron letter through the district’s Facebook site about multiple COVID cases the district became aware of that morning that affected staff and students.
This added to numerous staff and student absenteeisms due to COVID-related issues such as positive cases and quarantines from exposures. This put the district in a position where classrooms could not be covered due to low staff and worry about the continuous rise of COVID-19 in the district.
According to Brown County Health Department numbers, COVID cases had hit nearly 400 by mid-week and the hospital said it’s COVID clinic is very busy with testing daily.
Board members heard from school and hospital health officials at Thursday night’s meeting as well concerning county and school numbers. According to data provided by district school nurses, there were 16 positive cases on Thursday throughout all three schools and a total of 246 students out for COVID-related reasons and 27 staff and teachers out. Based on the gaiting criteria the board had adopted, all three schools were either in or leaning toward the red zone.
All three principals told board members the situations at each school was becoming dire and teachers were getting burned out — struggling to teach multiple students online while they were still managing a classroom. In addition, classes were having to be combined at the older levels and it was a strain to find staff to cover as so many staff members are out.
“What we are doing is not sustainable,” said HHS Principal Lori Fordyce, noting that teachers are tired, worried and stressed about not only work but the health and safety of their own families at home.
Board President Tom Simmer, who had told other board members Monday he was in favor of remote learning at that time but was met with resistance as the majority of the board wanted to stay with on-site learning, said now was the time to act.
“We have a problem and we need to act on it,” he said.
Local health officials agreed. Hiawatha provider Danielle Jagels told board members that she recommended remote learning until after Christmas break.
“There is not enough staff to function and conduct the best learning environment,” she said.
Jagels said she wanted to advocate for the teachers — many who have contacted her with concern about rising COVID numbers and the situation within the schools. She said many teachers feel their voices are not being heard and that the board does not care about the safety of teachers and students.
“The teaching staff is not OK,” she said, noting they are exhausted and stretched thin.
She recommended remote learning and said other members on the health committee also felt this way. She proposed returning to school the second week of January to allow time following holidays before students returned to school.
Board members were not in favor of going remote for that extended period of time. Board member John Wright suggested a “soft start” on Dec. 3 with high school basketball practices beginning at that time. They all agreed they would re-evaluate the decision if the need arose to possibly extend the remote learning phase.
Board members also encouraged students to continue to practice good safety measures by wearing masks in public and around other students they may come in contact to during remote learning.
“Don’t just throw the masks away,” said board member Keith Erdley.
Some local counties have reversed decisions made this summer and have implemented mask mandates. This includes Nemaha and Jefferson counties, who just this week issued mask mandates. So far, Brown County has not implemented a mask mandate.
(Editor’s Note: Superintendent Lonnie Moser issued a letter to patrons on Thursday concerning multiple positive cases of COVID-19 among staff and students. School officials contacted close contacts for quarantine. The School Board set a special meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday. See adjacent story for details.)
The Hiawatha School Board made a decision to “hold tight” on on-site learning for now after hearing concerns from school nurses on absenteeism and quarantines at Monday night’s meeting.
The School Board also heard from Hiawatha Community Hospital providers Jodi Twombly and Danielle Jagels on increasing cases in the county.
The School Board discussed concerning absenteeism related to COVID-19 in all three school facilities with a primary concern about nearly 90 out that day at the middle school — with 79 due to COVID-related issues including quarantine. There were a little over two dozen from each the seventh and eighth grade classes out due to quarantines. In addition, the middle school had seven staff members out that day.
The other two school facilities also had concerning numbers, but not as high as the high school, according to district head nurse Erin Wenger. She said the high school had 35 students out due to COVID reasons and 42 overall and the elementary had 45 students out due to COVID related reasons and 65 overall. HHS had two teachers out and HES had 10 staff members out.
Wenger and McCauley said there had not been any confirmed student to student transmissions at the school.
Based on the recently adopted gaiting criteria, the health officials said this would put Hiawatha in the red in many categories, which would lead to considering remote learning. Some areas were still in yellow and green. The increase in cases in recent weeks put the county in the red and Twombly said there is no denying that the Coronavirus is now community spread. She said there are several cluster sites that are being monitored including a church setting and a business.
Some board members felt that it was time to consider remote learning. Board President Tom Simmer said that considering the community climate of rising cases, excessive numbers of quarantined students and teachers and with holidays on the horizon, maybe the district should transition to remote learning as a safety measure.
“It’s a time bomb ready to go off,” Simmer said.
Board member Keith Erdley disagreed, stating he felt that by keeping the kids in school that made the situation safer — they are in the schools wearing masks and being monitored in a controlled environment. He said if younger kids were sent to remote learning, then many stayed with sitters and grandparents and that could in fact expose more people.
Wenger said she would recommend hybrid before remote as it allowed students to space out more, effectively cutting down the number of students in the building at one time. She also discussed concerns that staff members have shared with her about being in on-site learning and exposure.
There was some discussion about transitioning seventh and eighth graders to hybrid learning, as those grades were where most of the quarantines were for this week. However, the board discussed the matter and decided that many were already on remote learning currently due to their quarantines, so they held off making any decisions relating to a change in learning for the time being.
Superintendent Lonnie Moser reminded board members that a special meeting could be called at any time in order to make a decision on transitioning learning from one phase to another. He also said the matter could be placed on the agenda for Friday morning’s special meeting — called for the purpose of meeting with officials from Beynon, the track company, concerning warranty issues.
He also noted that hybrid helped with student absenteeism, but not with staff being gone. He said that has been an issue at the Elementary as of late, due to quarantines, and the district does not have enough substitutes.
The board also heard from Robyn Downard, County Health Officer, about modifying quarantine protocol to a less strict one that wouldn’t affect as many people if they were exposed to COVID. Downard said some other counties had adopted a modified quarantine protocol — including Nemaha and Jefferson, but Jackson decided against it due to a spike in cases. Downard said the modified quarantine proposal does have to be approved by the county commission and she plans to present it to them at next Monday’s meeting. She said the basis of the modified quarantine protocol is to prevent entire classrooms from being quarantined if everyone has masks, but instead focus on higher-risk situations such as sports, band, choir and lunch where participants are not wearing masks.
She said if the county commission adopted it, then the protocol would come before the school board to adopt as well and if all goes as planned it could go into effect within a couple of weeks.
Highland Community College extended what was originally a three-day period of remote learning to the end of the semester, according to an announcement late Tuesday by the Doniphan County school.
According to school officials, HCC has seen an increase in numbers being tested and positive cases in the county and area communities and announced that instead of classes resuming on Thursday that students were free to leave for the semester and all classes were now online.
“We have been fortunate our positive cases this fall have been few and all have recovered. However, positive cases in the communities around us are continuing to increase at a rapid and alarming rate,” according to a statement by the college. “The college felt this was the best decision to keep students, faculty and staff safe.”
Campus offices, library, housing, Wellness Center, cafeteria and all campus services will remain open for students needing assistance. The college will continue to provide technology for remote learning, academic support and student services.
Students may choose to leave and return home, but can also stay until noon on Nov. 25. Technical students residing on campus will continue as previously arranged.
As of Wednesday’s report on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s COVID-19 site, Doniphan County reported 287 positive cases and 2 deaths; Brown 397 and 6 deaths; Atchison 645 and Jackson 450.
Go to www.highlandcc.edu/pages/covid-19 for information on the college’s COVID-19 protocol.