The nation must act — and act quickly — to get back to a new sense of normalcy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran.
Moran held a video conference Monday with a group of area leaders concerning how the virus has impacted local lives.
The 90-minute, round-table discussion covered a plethora of areas, from the healthcare field to local governments and businesses.
Moran kickstarted the meeting with general comments about the pandemic and the subsequent economic shutdown.
The federal government has responded quickly to help sustain businesses and citizens through the shutdown, Moran said. But the model is unsustainable.
“We can’t continue to be in the position we’re in,” the senator said. “We do not have the money.” Because researchers are still several months — if not years — from developing a standard COVID-19 vaccine, the best course of action is through increased testing and isolating those afflicted with the coronavirus.
Therein lies the problem, he admitted.
”Testing is the thing that’s been so absent,” Moran said, which means everyone has been isolated to some extent. “The country was not prepared for this.”
From there, Moran let the locals do much of the talking.
Brief summations of their comments follow:
Patty McGuffin, chief nursing officer at Allen County Regional Hospital, said Allen County remains one of the dwindling number of counties in the state without a confirmed positive COVID-19 case.
“We’re all knocking on wood,” she said.
With Gov. Laura Kelly slowly reopening portions of the state for business, many are still leery about getting out into the public.
The number of confirmed cases in Kansas had increased to 5,245 as of Monday morning, up from 3,328 a week prior, an increase of 58%.
McGuffin noted ACRH was able to resume offering elective surgical procedures Monday, but only about half the customers with appointments showed up “for fear of wanting to come into a hospital.”
In confirming Moran’s earlier comment, McGuffin noted the hospital also is struggling to obtain testing kits.
“We order testing supplies and hear they’re coming in, but right before they’re supposed to arrive, we’re notified they’re on back order.”
Other challenges include the scarcity of N-95 masks, the type preferred by healthcare officials to protect residents from spreading germs.
Larry Peterson, the hospital’s chief financial officer and interim chief executive officer, spoke about the federal aid the hospital has received, which has helped make up for lost revenue.
He reported ACRH’s revenues have dropped about 40%.
Moran wondered if the lack of COVID-19 patients in Allen County means the hospital is on a lower priority than other places.
Still, “your hospital is an example of a place we can open up to elective procedures,” the senator said. “But it takes testing, and it takes PPE (personal protective equipment.)”
County Health Officer Rebecca Johnson spoke briefly about testing as well, noting county health departments have decided against testing on their premises. “We simply don’t have enough staff to do that,” she said. “If a nurse was exposed, she’d be gone for several weeks.”
Still, she’s eager to see additional testing available. “We don’t want to have people fall through the cracks,” Johnson said.
ALLEN COMMUNITY College President John Masterson and USD 257 Superintendent of Schools Stacey Fager discussed how the pandemic has affected education.
Masterson noted the ACC campus will remain closed to the public through the summer, although no decisions have been made for fall classes.
“We are fortunate because of our strong online presence,” Masterson said, noting more than half of Allen’s students take online classes already.
“I’d love nothing more than to open back up and have residence halls filled, and sports events resume,” Masterson said, “but only if our students and faculty and community can remain safe.”
Fager, meanwhile, said offering classes online is more problematic for younger students — and for some instructors.
“Nothing replaces having a teacher in the classroom for these students,” Fager said. “We’re coping right now, trying to finish this school year. It’s not ideal by any stretch of the imagination.”
Like at Allen, the big question for USD 257 will be what happens in the fall, Fager said. “We are very hopeful that something takes place between now and August, to have some semblance of normalcy.”
“As a K-12 person, I’m very fearful for the economy in the state,” Fager said. “We’d made huge gains in the state for funding for K-12 education,” adding that 50 percent of the state’s budget is for public schooling. “I’m fearful if we see cuts, what it’ll do for education in the state.”
Shilo Eggers of Landmark National Bank and Jim Gilpin of Community National Bank lauded the Payroll Protection Program provided by the federal government, and its use to keep businesses afloat.
Eggers said she has received calls from business owners concerned about the economy, and the governor’s phased approach to reopening.
“Why are liquor stores so essential compared to other businesses” such as hair salons, she asked.
“It seems like winners are being picked,” Eggers said. “I’m very fearful we’re going to run out of funds, both for our county and our city. … I’m beginning to hear a lot of frustration and unrest.”
There have been varying opinions, she continued.
“One person who does my hair is glad the governor is doing stuff to keep us safe,” Eggers continued, while others are frustrated.
Gilpin was more upbeat with his assessment
“The PPP program is definitely doing good work,” Gilpin said. “This will pass, as long as we can continue to make progress with testing and equipment. … We’re hoping it’s just a bump in the road.”
Moran addressed how farmers should respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
Many typically sell cattle in the spring, but have withheld so far this year for fear of taking losses.
Moran noted some disaster programs for farmers are in the next round of federal aid. He hopes to have answers by the end of the week.
Moran also noted the danger of closing meat packing plants, which have some of the highest concentrations of COVID-19 infection rates in the state.
“This has huge consequences,” Moran said. “If we lose our packing capacity, there is no place for livestock to go. We saw this with oil and gas. … We’re doing what we can to make sure packer employees feel safe and are safe, or this problem just gets exponentially worse.”
Iola Mayor Jon Wells and Humboldt City Administrator Cole Herder spoke briefly about how local businesses are being adversely affected.
Wells said he worried about the spiraling effects of economic inactivity.
Parents who aren’t working are no longer sending their kids to daycare, he noted. Fewer are spending dollars elsewhere.
“We’re ready to get back open, but still be cautious at the same time,” Wells said.
Herder said Humboldt is bracing for as much as a 40% drop in sales tax revenue, which equates to about $113,000, or more than 8% of the city’s general fund.
“We’re looking at what that’ll do,” Herder said.
Herder arrived in Humboldt about five years ago, and has since then worked annually to build a sufficient cash reserve.
“This would wipe out half of it.”
Herder also noted Humboldt is missing out on an opportunity to capitalize on local business growth without a grocery store and butcher facility.
Efforts to do just that have stalled because of funding.
“I read the articles about how people are going to their hometown grocery stores,” Herder said. “It’s killing me that we’re not able to process local beef here.”
“I don’t know where we’re going to end up on assistance to cities and counties,” Moran replied. “It’s going to be a difficult one.”
Lisse Regehr, chief executive officer of Thrive Allen County, noted the pandemic response has begun to reopen a chasm between metropolitan and rural areas of the state, when it comes to emergency funding and grant opportunities.
“One of the biggest issues I’ve seen is for self-employed residents to get access to unemployment,” Regehr said. “They still can’t access that funding.”
Regehr said rural communities also have struggled to get access to telehealth services, which have grown in leaps and bounds during the pandemic.
Jill Hartman, executive director of the Iola Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed that rural areas should not be discounted when it comes to the state’s recovery work.
“I’ve been fielding phone call after phone call from businesses that are scared,” Hartman said.
Former Iola City Administrator Judy Brigham asked about the extra $600 unemployment recipients are receiving weekly from the federal government, which may prove to be a disincentive to get many to return to the workforce.
Moran noted he voted against the $600 benefit.
“I have this Norman Rockwellian view of Kansas, and that Kansans will always choose work,” Moran said. “How do you turn that down if you’re trying to take care of kids or get tuition paid?”
While noting unemployment is a state issue, Moran pointed out unemployment recipients are required to take jobs if they’re available. “If they refuse to take it, they don’t get unemployment, but I don’t know how it’ll work in a practical world.”
State Sen. Caryn Tyson spoke about an ongoing bottleneck in the Kansas Department of Labor, noting some unemployed remain without benefits.
“It has nothing to do with what the feds did,” she said. “It’s nothing on your plate. It is on ours.”
MORAN closed the 90-minute session with a bit of advice he once received when asked by Tyson about how to decipher multiple sources of information.
“Who do you believe?” Moran asked rhetorically, before closing with a bit of advice to lawmakers here and elsewhere: “In times of crisis, tell the truth. In times of crisis, have a plan. In times of crisis, give hope.”