Kansas has asked FEMA seven times in two weeks for masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators; shortage creates ’widespread confusion’ among states; Kansas may not have enough to handle projected surge in cases; third inmate tests positive at Lansing prison; health officials report 845 infections, 25 deaths statewide

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly said Monday the state’s health care providers are nearing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, and her seven requests to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for additional supplies have gone unanswered.

Additionally, the governor said, the state received just 90% of its allotment of PPE from the Strategic National Stockpile, which was divided among states based on figures from the 2010 U.S. census.

The state is left scrambling to secure millions of masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies at inflated prices from from private markets, Kelly said, and may not have enough to meet demand as the number of COVID-19 cases surge in Kansas as projected over the next three weeks.

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"We are never going to solve this problem if states are continually forced to bid against each other and against the federal government,“ Kelly said. ”It is creating widespread confusion among all the state suppliers, and it has delayed every state's response effort, including Kansas. It's also driving up the cost of PPE tremendously."

Kansas health officials have reported 25 deaths and 845 infections from COVID-19, which first was detected in the state on March 7. Confirmed cases have increased by 12-15% daily, including a jump of 98 between Sunday and Monday.

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the state is monitoring 11 clusters in six counties of cases related to nursing homes and church gatherings. He cautioned against participating in large Easter celebrations.

"My plea, especially coming up to the religious holiday this Sunday, is to be careful to not gather in numbers that would put you in danger,“ Norman said.

He also revealed two more inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total to three. Five employees there also have tested positive.

Kelly said the state received shipments of supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile on March 26, March 30 and April 2. Federal authorities have informed the state it won’t receive the remaining 10% of its allotment.

Additional supplies are distributed by FEMA. In a series of seven requests over the past two weeks, Kansas asked FEMA for 260,000 tests, 9.1 million surgical gowns, 22.3 million gloves, 4.6 million N95 masks, 1.2 million face shields, 10.7 million surgical masks, and 500 ventilators. FEMA didn’t fulfill any request, Kelly said.

For perspective, Kelly said, one of the major hospitals in the state uses 220,000 gloves per day after taking measures to cut back on use.

The budget passed by the Legislature before adjourning in March included $15 million in funding for private market supplies. Kelly said the state is awaiting shipment of millions of supplies already ordered by the state, but some shipments have been delayed. Because of the high demand, an N95 mask that cost $1.85 a couple of weeks ago now costs more than $4.

Kelly said officials have scoured the state looking for additional resources in places like auto body shops and tattoo parlors.

"Our front line workers and first responders, especially our health care professionals, are defenseless without masks, gowns, gloves and other gear to protect them from this highly infectious virus,“ Kelly said.

Prisoners at risk

The revelation that three inmates at the state-run prison in Lansing has tested positive for the coronavirus affirms the need for action for those who warned of dire consequences for the state’s overcrowded prison population.

The Kansas Department of Corrections says it is taking additional steps to avoid further transmission of the virus, but inmate advocates say the prison setting makes consistent physical distancing virtually impossible.

Last week, three staff members at the Lansing prison were confirmed to have COVID-19, prompting calls for Kelly to release hundreds of inmates who are incarcerated for probation violations or nearing the expiration of their sentence. On Saturday, the corrections department announced the first Lansing inmate and a fourth staff member had tested positive.

“We are not asking for the doors to be flung open,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project. “We’re asking for the governor to direct KDOC to take these steps, which it was always capable of doing, but which needs her leadership to define those categories of individuals who should be released — either by commuting sentences or ordering house arrest to reduce overcrowding.”

Bushnell flagged concerns of unchecked risks to inmates in a letter to Kelly that was co-signed along with Jennifer Roth, of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Heather Cessna, executive director of Kansas Board of Indigents’ Defense Services, and Melody Brannon, federal public defender for Kansas. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and other groups also have called for the Kelly administration to use her emergency powers to protect inmates.

Corrections officials responded to the infection of a Lansing inmate by making several operational changes. Inmates now are restricted to their units but not locked down in cells.

Rebecca Witte, a spokeswoman for KDOC, said the agency is evaluating work release programs for Lansing inmates. Factors being considered include whether inmates work for essential industry, the company’s adherence to KDHE guidelines, and the possibility of contact with the public.

“When workers return to the facility, they have their temperature read and take part in our active screening process,” Witte said.

Kelly installed a statewide stay-at-home order that took effect last week to slow the spread of COVID-19. The corrections department canceled all visitation to state prisons on March 13.

“Now is one of the safest times to release people,” Bushnell said. “They have been ordered to shelter in place, reducing many of the concerns expressed about when a formerly incarcerated citizen returns home.”

The letter by Bushnell, Cessna, Roth and Brannon raised concerns about the threat of a highly contagious disease among an overcrowded prison population, where 40% of inmates are considered to be vulnerable to serious illness.

Several state prisons have populations that exceed capacity. The Lansing Correctional Facility had 1,665 inmates as of March 27, with capacity for 1,906. But the local hospital has just six intensive care units, the advocates said.

“Without prompt and decisive action, our overcapacity prisons and jails will foster the spread of COVID-19, which will overwhelm both correctional and community health care systems, many of which are in smaller towns,” they wrote in the letter to the governor. “The only moral and constitutional solution is to immediately order, under your emergency authority, the release of as many people as possible.

They called on Kelly to release medically fragile older inmates who are at high risk for infection, those who have six months or less to serve, and anyone behind bars for minor probation violations.

The ACLU of Kansas estimates between 500 and 750 people currently are in prison for technical violations of probation — nonviolent offenders who failed to pay a fee, didn’t show up for a mandatory check-in, broke curfew or failed to stay away from “disreputable” characters.

The rough estimate is based on a study of those who were in prison last year for probation violations, as well as historical data from 2014 to 2018.

“Overcrowded, confined spaces are particularly conducive to spreading COVID-19,” said Nadine Johnson, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas. “This makes our prisons, and the populations that are housed in and work there, especially vulnerable. Arresting and confining individuals for noncriminal violations of their probation conditions exacerbates an already perilous situation and puts our communities at further risk.”

Tiger sting

Dana Hawkinson, director of inpatient critical care for infectious diseases at the University of Kansas Health System, says people should be cautious about handling their pets while under quarantine with symptoms of the coronavirus.

Officials revealed Sunday that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo had tested positive for COVID-19. The animal, along with several lions and other tigers, was suffering from a dry cough.

Hawkinson said Monday the news wasn’t surprising because viruses frequently jump species. COVID-19 is believed to have originated in bats before making the leap to humans.

The concern, he said, is that the virus could interact with some other viral DNA and change in some way.

"This is more evidence that we need to be careful around other species, other animals, even possibly our home pets, but we still don't know the full impact of what that means at this point with this virus,“ Hawkinson said.

Far from over

Steven Stites, chief medical officer at KU Health Systems, expressed optimism Monday that the number of infected patients at the hospital remains at 33, the same number as Friday.

He likened the situation to a baseball game still in the first inning.

"Coronavirus may be up 2 to 1, but we're making a comeback,“ Stites said.

Kansas could be weeks away from a grand slam. Stites said COVID-19 cases in Kansas could peak in early May, which is later than projections by KDHE. Kansas is still on the flat part of the curve, Stites said, where the numbers haven’t rapidly accelerated like they have in other parts of the country.

The limited number of tests in Kansas makes it difficult to gauge the penetration of the virus, which Stites said is just starting to spread into more rural areas of the state.

Documented cases in Kansas have increased from 82 two weeks ago and 368 at the start of last week, with concentrations in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

"That whole peak in Kansas is going to look a little funny because the density is so much less out west that it's going to rise more rapidly in the urban areas, and then it's going to slowly rise out in the western counties,“ Stites said.