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'People are dying right now': JCDHE leaders issue dire warning about local out-of-control COVID spread

“It does not take being an expert in public health to know that things are pretty bad."

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With COVID-19 spread spiraling out of control in Johnson County, health officials warn that things could only get worse. 

'EXCEEDING ALL CAPACITY AT ALL LEVELS' 

On Friday, in a morning COVID-19 update webinar for area mayors and the community at-large, Johnson County Department of Health and Environment officials sounded the alarm on the current local situation. Director of epidemiology Elizabeth Holzschuh said the ongoing surge is worse than anything the county had anticipated. 

“Quite frankly, the number of cases we're getting is just exceeding all capacity at all levels,” she said. 

JCDHE director Sanmi Areola had a similar message. 

“It does not take being an expert in public health to know that things are pretty bad,” he said. 

Locally, the rate of positive tests has risen to almost 31%, the highest it’s ever been and twice the rate recorded in previous surges Holzschuh said were once considered to be the worst case scenario. The incidence rate, which measures the number of cases per 100,000 residents, has almost quadrupled the level recorded in previous surges, clocking in at almost 2,000. For reference, the winter surge in late 2020 and early 2021 topped out at 450. 

Areola warned the situation is only going to get worse and promising projections about quick ends to the omicron surge from other communities doesn’t apply here. That’s because other areas, like New York, took quick and assertive steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and tightened up measures when omicron popped up. Johnson County has not taken those same measures, opting not to establish a county-wide mask mandate, but to lean more into guidance and ramping up testing. 

“Our job is to see ‘Can we take enough consequential steps now to ensure that this doesn't spread,’” he said. “Our job at all our times is to create conditions where our resident — every single one of them — have optimal opportunity to be at the best health that they can be. That job is even more important now given what we're facing.” 

IMPACT ON EDUCATION AND COMMUNITIES 

These health department warnings come as local municipalities declare their own mask requirements within their jurisdictions in the northeast portion of the county and some area school districts close due to crippling staff absence rates. The Olathe school district, unlike DeSoto and Eudora, was able to keep its doors open to close out the week, but just barely, superintendent Brent Yeager told the Board of Education Thursday evening. 

“We're just trying to put one foot in front of the other right now with the massive numbers that we're talking about,” he said. “We all know the best place for our kids to be is right in our schools, we'll continue to work hard to make that the case.” 

But, Yeager warns that’s a difficult task. 

“I hope that doesn't happen but for parents that are tuning in, it may be worth it to start thinking about a plan B, you know, just in case we would end up having to cancel school one day,” he said. “The reality is that we're very close to that not being manageable.”

Areola said it’s “disheartening” to be on the brink of system collapse after devoting all these efforts to keeping kids in schools simply because the community has allowed omicron to spread almost completely unchecked. 

“One of the most frustrating things for us is our schools, keeping them open has be one of our top priorities,” he said. “Our schools are shutting down and closing and we expect more. Even at the heart of 2020 when we didn't have options for vaccination and those [things], we were able to keep schools open because of the masking.” 

‘PEOPLE ARE DYING RIGHT NOW’ 

For now, Areola says the message is simple — take steps to protect yourself and your community, whether or not they’re required. Taking part in the mitigation effort will certainly “save lives.” 

“People are dying right now,” he said. “We’re just trying to minimize those impacts.” 

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