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Shawnee County starting ‘transition to a normal, pre-pandemic level’ by adjusting COVID-19 response team



TOPEKA, Kan. – Shawnee County’s COVID-19 response is preparing to get back to normal.

Dusty Nichols has served as incident commander for Shawnee County’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery team throughout the pandemic, but he will “operationally assume” his duties as the county’s emergency management director.

Nichols first started as director of the emergency management department in Nov. 2010.

“We are just starting to begin the transition back to a normal, pre-pandemic level,” Nichols said. “We are seeing a lot more availability of resources, so it doesn’t make us as nervous as a command team.”

The COVID-19 incident command team still exists and Nichols is still in command, but the move will have the command team focusing more on recovering from the pandemic rather than responding to it.

That new focus will involve more reports, improvement planning and preparing for any potential audits. Nichols said positive trends in COVID-19 numbers have made command team meetings much calmer than they were from November to early January.

The county’s COVID-19 case counts have remained “low” for weeks, the health department’s virus indicator said. The indicator also reached its lowest score ever on April 29. As of Monday morning, 71,805 Shawnee County residents older than 16 have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Stormont Vail treated around 10 COVID-19 patients a day during April while the University of Kansas Health System St. Francis campus also had low inpatient numbers and treated fewer than five COVID-19 patients a day for weeks at a time.

Nichols said a combination of vaccinated individuals, people with some type of immunity from having the virus and people following mitigation measures have kept numbers low.

President Joe Biden said in March the United States could be “closer to normal” by July 4, which Nichols said is a good timeline to aim for. The incident command team will be in place until Aug. 1, but Nichols said that is to allow the command team to monitor for any post-holiday spike in cases.

Shawnee County commission chairman Kevin Cook said the county still has plenty of people monitoring for the virus. He said the pandemic isn’t over yet but was comfortable with the change because case counts were lower.

“If things would change with COVID-19 our response would change,” Cook said. “We are constantly undergoing re-evaluation of the deployment of resources.”

The command team has just under a dozen people from the city and county positions. Nichols said if the command team dissolves by August everyone will go back to working their normal positions, like interim director of emergency management Errin Mahan who will resume his duties as planning section chief once Nichols fully returns to his old position.

“This is a once in a hundred year event, hopefully,” Cook said. “The way they have responded has really been exceptional.”