The Kansas Department of Health and Environment once again is releasing information associated with COVID-19 outbreaks, although the data is slightly different than when it began releasing the data earlier this month.
Initially, KDHE made the names of locations tied to COVID-19 clusters available only if five or more cases tied to a given nursing home, school or other setting.
For private businesses, the bar was higher — only information about outbreaks of 20 or more cases would be released publicly.
But outbreaks would still be considered active if there was a new infection within the past 28 days and KDHE listed the overall number of cases associated with an outbreak.
This led businesses to question their inclusion on the list, believing it to be unfair that sky-high case counts were listed in the KDHE data dashboard, even when the vast majority of those cases came from April or May.
In response, KDHE said Wednesday that only outbreaks within the past 14 days would be reported.
They also lowered the threshold for reporting outbreaks associated with private businesses to five cases.
KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said last week that the agency wanted to prioritize the more recent data, saying it would be more useful to consumers.
"I think it is important that people have actionable and recent information on which to base their decisions," Norman said. "It is a legitimate question."
Only two private businesses had outbreaks associated with their locations under the new threshold. One, a National Beef meatpacking plant in Dodge City, was on the old list as having hundreds of cases since April but KDHE reported only 20 cases associated with the facility in the last 14 days.
The other business listed was Acme Foundery in Coffeyville, which had eight cases.
Only two universities — Dodge City Community College and Pittsburg State — were listed, along with outbreaks at four K-12 schools. Two correctional facilities reported outbreaks: Shawnee County Adult Detention Center and the state’s Hutchinson Correctional Facility.
The bulk of the list was comprised of long-term care facilities, of which 14 were listed.
One of those facilities, Rolling Hills Health and Rehab, is located in Shawnee County. The disclosure less than a week after the county said it would follow new federal guidance and allow visitors in long-term care centers.
Overall, the state reported 1,267 new cases of COVID-19 since Monday, as well as 21 new deaths recorded.
Aging, disability communities call for even more disclosure
Advocates for disabled and older adults cheered the return of the data, saying that it was vital for those individuals and their families to protect themselves, although they noted the state can do better on the issue.
While not every state reports cases associated with private businesses, 36 states do report the locations of cases tied to long-term care facilities, including Kansas.
And advocates say the importance of disclosure also extends to outbreaks tied to private businesses — even as business groups have pushed back that the disclosure could threaten the livelihoods of small businesses
Because people with disabilities and older residents are more likely to suffer severe complications from contracting COVID-19, the stakes are high, said Rocky Nichols, executive director for Disability Rights Kansas.
"This is a life and death issue," Nichols said.
Mitzi McFatrich, executive director for Kansas Advocates for Better Care, said that it was particularly pertinent for those with loved ones in need of a long-term care facility.
Asking families to pick such a facility during the pandemic was like asking them to "play Russian roulette" without any data, she argued.
And while the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has put out a list of nursing homes with cases, that data is not updated frequently, she said.
"How do you choose a nursing home if you don’t know anything about the COVID-19 status in a nursing home?" McFatrich said.
KDHE’s decision to resume reporting outbreaks will help, both Nichols and McFatrich agreed, but they also wanted KDHE to go further.
Other states, such as Mississippi, disclose the number of cases not just in a specific nursing home but also personal care homes and residential care facilities.
And Mississippi also discloses the outbreak data when one or more case is reported within a 14-day period, something that is important in smaller facilities which may only have upwards of a dozen residents and staff.
While Kansas’ work was better than nothing, Nichols said it was "on the fringes" of what was being done elsewhere.
"You don’t wait for five canaries to die in a coal mine," he said. "Once the first canary kicks over you get to action. That’s what we’re talking about here — being able to act on the information and being able to ensure we can save lives."
Given that KDHE changed the standards once, Nichols said, it should go back and make further revisions.
"We think now that we are at the party, Kansas should make some tweaks," he said.