County to join regional COVID effort

Jeff Fox

Jackson County legislators are expected to vote Monday on a plan to expand testing and contact tracing and to support other efforts across the metro area to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s been the result of several months of conversations,” County Administrator Troy Schulte told legislators this week.

The county would contribute $1 million from the $122.7 million it got under the CARES Act, which Congress passed in the spring to help state and local governments deal with the unfolding crisis. Johnson County, Kansas, also is contributing $1 million, and private sources such as Health Forward, the Kauffman Foundation and the REACH foundation are adding $3 million, for a total of $5 million to get the initiative started.

Some of the money would go for a “regional coordination hub” to better gather and post disease data, some would pay for a campaign to remind people to do such things as wear masks and socially distance, and some would go to stockpile personal protective equipment.

But the biggest share of the $5 million would be to supplement local public health agencies’ capacity for COVID testing and contract tracing, particularly when those agencies face a surge.

“One of the issues that we’ve come upon locally,” Schulte said, “is we can do the test but it’s up to 14 days to receive the results, so we have a significant shortage of lab capacity in the metropolitan area, so this group would be tasked with standing up additional laboratory capacity.”

Health agencies have used contact tracing to fight communicable diseases for years. When a person is diagnosed with such a disease, agencies reach out to everyone with whom that patient has had recent contact. Those recent contacts might be told to quarantine and track any symptoms, and the agencies stay in touch for a period of time.

It’s more targeted than broad policies such as stay-at-home orders, and it’s considered essential in eventually getting COVID-19 under control.

Jackson County Health Director Bridgette Shaffer and her department are spending CARES Act money to significantly expand the county’s own contact tracing ability, but that means hiring and training people, which takes time. The $1 million the county would give to the new initiative is on top of money allocated for Health Department contact tracing and for Truman Medical Centers.

“Bridgette and her team are doing a nice job of staffing up a total of 50 people,” Schulte said, “but they are only at this point less than halfway through that process, so we will need to have surge capacity just to deal with it, to provide additional contact tracers if we need to,”

Schulte said the Mid-America Regional Council, which would host the regional hub, has gotten local health directors to sit down and discuss the best ways to supplement their efforts locally.

He said it's possible that other counties – he mentioned Clay, Platte and Wyandotte – might be asked to contribute but said Jackson and Johnson, the two largest in the area, are being asked to kick things off because they were large enough to get CARES money directly from the federal government rather than through their state.

Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, said it would be good to pursue asking those counties to kick in.

“I recognize that the regional approach is necessary,” she said. “I mean, whatever happens in Clay and Platte is going to affect us and our constituents, so I’m supportive of this. It just continues to piss me off that very often they don’t come to the table with money.”

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