COVID-19 is increasingly spreading in the state’s rural areas, Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman said Wednesday, urging residents statewide to remain vigilant against the virus.


Two weeks ago, the weekly reports which are distributed to states by the White House Coronavirus Taskforce noted that 55 percent of the state’s cases were in Wyandotte, Johnson and Sedgwick counties, the most densely populated parts of the state.


This week that number was only 35%.


"It means [COVID-19 infections] are happening someplace else and they are happening in more rural areas — Dickinson County, Butler County," Norman said at a statehouse news conference.


That is unsurprising, he said, given that the virus had previously been less prevalent in those areas, meaning that schools and businesses have more fully re-opened and high school sports and other activities have resumed.


Many of those counties have also opted out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask mandate.


Kansas as a whole saw 1,121 new cases reported since Monday, KDHE reported.


Ford County, home of Dodge City, saw 36 new cases, for instance, and is home to a smattering of clusters at the local community college, school district and National Beef packing plant.


In the most recent White House task force report all counties listed as being in the red zone are in rural areas, including Ford, Reno and Saline counties.


The state also reported 41 deaths since Monday, although 21 occurred earlier in the pandemic and were recently included as KDHE verifies death records.


Some have said the state’s death reporting is misleading because only a small fraction of deaths reported can be directly attributable to COVID-19, something Norman roundly dismissed.


Pointing to a replica of a death certificate, he noted that while an immediate cause of death might be listed as another condition, it is generally straightforward for doctors to ascertain when COVID-19 was the underlying cause.


In most cases, doctors are underscoring that the ultimate cause of death would not have been realized if they had not contracted the virus. And doctors, not KDHE, Norman noted, were the ones responsible for the certificates.


"It has never made a lot of sense to me, to discount that, because the same physicians that are taking care of you when you’re alive are the same ones that are certifying death and positive death when we die," he said. "If you trust a physician to take care of you in life, you should trust a physician to fill out the paperwork."


The state was still in the first wave of coronavirus cases, he said, pointing to the recent uptick in infections and noting that they would eventually level off.


But a second surge was still eminently possible and could bring the number of new cases up to 700 or 800 per day.


He also refuted claims that the pandemic was no worse than the flu season, pointing to data that the number of deaths from COVID-19 dwarfed the most recent flu seasons combined.


With a vaccine some ways off, Norman said the potential for the virus to worsen still in the state underscored the need for residents to wear a mask and social distance.


"The hallmark still is, until you get a vaccine and better anti viral medication is going to continue to be those anti-mitigation strategies that are shown to work," he said.