- Associated Press - Friday, May 15, 2020

MISSION, Kan. (AP) - Data on COVID-19 infections that had been trending downward, leading Kansas to begin reopening its economy, is beginning to fluctuate and flatten, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday.

“It demonstrates that the disease is still spreading in our communities,” Kelly said one day after slowing the reopening of the state’s economy by ordering bars and bowling alleys to remain closed at least through the end of the month.

She said she hoped to stick with the state’s reopening plan as much as possible.

“But,” she added, “I have always said that until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, manufactured and widely distributed, our future remains subject to the whims of this virus.”

Some of the state’s biggest problems have been in meatpacking facilities, with 1,791 cases and four deaths, and in prisons, with 917 cases and five deaths, said Dr. Lee Norman, the top administrator at the state health department.

Combined, those cases account for 34% of the state’s total of 7,886 cases, a number that is believed to be low because of initial limits in testing. The state has counted 172 COVID-19 deaths, while Johns Hopkins University reported 189 for Kansas.

The highest per-person rate of cases are in three southeast Kansas counties with meatpacking plants - Ford, Finney and Seward counties. Combined they have 3,222 cases, suggesting that the packing plant cases are spreading into the surrounding community.

The victims include a food safety inspector from southwest Kansas who died Wednesday. It is not known how the inspector, who was in his 50s, contracted the coronavirus, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

“We are now at four confirmed food safety inspector deaths due to COVID-19: one each in New York, Illinois, Mississippi and now Kansas,” said a spokesperson for American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO.

Efforts are underway to quell outbreaks in the prisons, including one at a work release facility in downtown Wichita. After 38 inmates tested positive there, all the approximately 100 inmates who remained were moved Thursday to the Lansing Correctional Facility, which is battling its own outbreak of the virus, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Rebecca Witte.

“With the open dormitory set up at WWRF, that facility is not conducive to separating symptomatic from asymptomatic from negatives,” Witte said in an email to The Wichita Eagle.

Most of the infected inmates - 89% at Wichita and 86% of the 750 who are infected at Lansing - are showing no symptoms, complicating the effort to contain its spread.

Kelly’s latest reopening order, which keeps some coronavirus-inspired restrictions in place until near the end of June, has stirred strong opposition in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But Kelly defended herself.

“We have heard stories from across the world of how disease spread can quickly change the entire outlook of a community’s recovery in a moment’s notice if reopening happens too quickly or too aggressively,” Kelly said. “It has the power to undermine all the progress established by months of quarantine and sacrifice.”

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