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Meatpacking plants have highest number of active COVID cases

Sep 11, 2020  | Ep4604

LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — Meatpacking plants and correctional facilities continue to be the main sites of active COVID-19 clusters in Kansas, with each reporting thousands of cases, according to data released  Wednesday by the state health department.

It was the first time the Kansas Department of Health and environment publicized specific active COVID-19 clusters. The state identified 117 active clusters, involving 5,099 cases, 192 hospitalizations and 63 deaths.

The information was released hours after several large Kansas business groups released a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly asking her not to identify specific clusters, saying it could harm businesses as they try to recover from the pandemic.

"We are unsure what the benefit of this disclosure offers, other than a public shaming of businesses where an outbreak occurs," Kansas Chamber President and CEO Alan Cobb said in the letter.

The letter was signed by the Chamber, Associated General Contractors of Kansas, Kansas Livestock Association, Kansas Bankers Association, National Federation of Independent Businesses, The Builders Association and Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.

State health department director Dr. Lee Norman said the state decided to release specific active cluster cases in response to continuing requests from citizens who want to make informed decisions and to assess their personal risk and reduce the virus spread.

"We want (businesses) to be successful and have safe environments for people to go," he said. "Whether it's working or shopping or eating, we want people to be safe."

Seven active clusters were identified at meatpacking plants, with 2,159 cases leading to 76 hospitalizations and 12 deaths. The largest outbreaks were in Dodge City, with 647 cases at a National Beef plant and 594 cases at a Cargill plant there.

The cases have rippled through Dodge City, where the city hall had 13 active cases and the school district has 27 active cases, according to the state data.

But Ernestor De La Rosa, assistant city manager for Dodge City, said Wednesday the city currently has only two employees with active cases, who are now in quarantine. And a school spokeswoman said the district believes it has eight students and two staff members with current active cases.

Asked whether he knew how the city employees were infected, De La Rosa replied "It is all over the place, I believe. Obviously, we are exposed everywhere in our community."

Correctional facilities reported seven active clusters with 1,179 cases, six hospitalizations but no deaths. The Sedgwick County Jail in Wichita had 491 of the active cases, with Hutchinson Correctional Center reporting 403 active cases.

The most deaths from active cases — 49 — were recorded at long-term care facilities, where 57 clusters resulted in 623 active cases and 79 hospitalizations.

Both the Kansas State and Kansas football teams were named as active clusters, and 26 active clusters with 425 cases reported at eight universities and colleges, and at seven Kansas State fraternities or sororities.

Kansas reported 47,410 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 495 deaths on Wednesday, an increase of 494 cases and 10 deaths since Monday.

On another controversial front, Kelly said earlier this week she planned to seek renewal of a state COVID-19 emergency declaration, which is set to expire next week. Under a compromise with the Legislature reached in June the mostly Republican State Finance Council must approve such extensions.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett told members of the council this week that thousands of prisoners might have to be released and charges in violent crimes might be dismissed if the declaration is not extended.

Bennett, a Republican, said court restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic make it impossible to follow a state law that requires a case be brought to trial no later than 150 days after a suspect is arraigned, The Wichita Eagle reported.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert has allowed local courts to extend the 150-day deadline. If the emergency declaration expires, the courts would continue to have a 150-day extension but it would then also expire, said Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the state court system.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, did not respond to requests for comment.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said he will vote to extend the declaration but he's unsure how Republicans on the council will vote.

"Early on in this process, it seemed like everybody was working together pretty well to deal with COVID, and the initial executive orders went out easily. But more lately it seems like it's been a lot tougher and a lot more politics is being played," Sawyer said.

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