TOPEKA, Kan.— Kansas health officials on Wednesday sought to determine whether a coronavirus variant might be fueling a new outbreak at a minimum-security state prison where inmates regularly work in surrounding communities.
The state Department of Health and Environment has been watching for variants of the coronavirus for weeks, as the state has seen an overall drop in its average number of new cases and deaths. The department has been under increasing scrutiny from the Legislature over how COVID-19 vaccines were being distributed and administered.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said during a Zoom call Wednesday with top leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature that there had been no COVID-19 cases at the Winfield Correctional Facility in the two weeks leading up to the current outbreak, which has sickened dozens. She said the state is doing genomic testing to determine whether the outbreak was caused by recent variants of the virus that were first detected in Great Britain and South Africa.
“All of a sudden there was this rapid spread,” Kelly said.
Dr. Lee Norman, the state health department’s head, said during a Tuesday online briefing with University of Kansas Health System officials that his agency is watching for outbreaks that appear to spread differently than what Kansas typically has seen. He also said it is watching for cases in which someone who’s been vaccinated nevertheless gets infected, though there’s only been one so far.
Norman told reporters during a Statehouse news conference that they suspect a coronavirus variant because dozens of people were sickened at the Winfield prison within days, much more quickly than is typical. But the state hasn’t yet confirmed the variant strains elsewhere, and prisons are particularly at risk for outbreaks that spread quickly, with more than 5,600 cases in inmates and nearly 1,200 in staff in Kansas.
Kansas’ COVID-19 numbers have improved significantly in recent weeks.
The state averaged 2,251 new confirmed or probable cases per day for November and December, peaking at 2,767 for the seven days that ended Nov. 18, according to state health department data. The state saw an average of 1,301 new cases per day for the seven days ending Wednesday.
Kansas averaged 28 new deaths per day for November and December, and the average peaked at 53 per day for the seven days that ended Jan. 1. But the state averaged 20 additional deaths per day for the seven days that ended Wednesday.
The state health department added 3,262 cases since Monday, increasing its pandemic total to 272,517, or one case for every 11 of the state’s 2.9 million residents. It also reported 96 more COVID-19 deaths, pushing the state’s death toll to 3,718.
The state Department of Corrections reported that as of Monday, the prison in Winfield had eight active cases among staff and 69 among its population of about 450 inmates. The website for the prison, about 50 miles south of Wichita says its inmates “provide thousands of hours of community service work each year to non-profit entities.”
Kelly announced last week that Kansas was starting its second phase of COVID-19 inoculations, making prison inmates eligible along with others in group living situations, essential workers and people over the age of 65.
The Democratic governor continues to face strong criticism from GOP lawmakers over vaccinations for inmates. The Kansas Republican Party tweeted earlier this month: “Prioritize law-abiding Kansans first!”
But Norman called the Winfield outbreak “another a great example of why correctional facilities are congregate settings that need to be immunized.” He said food service workers brought the virus into the prison, then took it “back out into the community.”
“The jail is not an island,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republican legislators suggest that mistakes by Kelly’s administration have made it more difficult for older Kansans to get vaccinated. Norman has pushed back, arguing in Tuesday’s briefing that the effort is going well.
Kansas had been reporting that it had administered nearly 62% of the vaccine doses it had received from the federal government. However, state health department data showed Wednesday that the percentage had dropped to 45%, largely because of the shipment of nearly 93,000 doses to pharmacy chains for nursing home residents and workers.
The state reported that 177,350 vaccine doses have been administered, out of 392,675 doses shipped. About 149,000 people, or 5.1 percent of the population, have received the two required vaccine shots.
Norman said between 60% and 65% of nursing home residents and between 40% and 45% of their staff have been vaccinated, but he expects everyone who wants a vaccine to get them “within the next week or two.”