COUNTY PANDEMIC DISCUSSION — Montgomery County and city officials gathered Wednesday morning in the Judicial Center, Independence, to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic with decision makers in the county and their response. County-wide communication was encouraged for the release of consistent information. Jennifer Humphres | Staff Photo
COUNTY PANDEMIC DISCUSSION — Montgomery County and city officials gathered Wednesday morning in the Judicial Center, Independence, to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic with decision makers in the county and their response. County-wide communication was encouraged for the release of consistent information. Jennifer Humphres | Staff Photo

Consistency best defense to rumors

 

Wednesday morning, city leaders from Caney, Cherryvale, Coffeyville and Independence met with Montgomery County officials in the lower level of the Judicial Center for the purpose of briefing leadership and decision makers in the county on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency Management Director Rick Whitson, Assistant Emergency Management Director Lee Miller and County Health Department Director Carolyn Muller were on hand to offer answers to any questions the leaders may have had about the current crisis and where they can go for the best and most current information.

Following individual meeting openings and introductions, Whitson began by stating the thing he wanted to reiterate was the magnitude of the event being dealt with. “This is not like any other disaster we have experienced in our lifetime. This is far more complex,” he said. “Especially in the decision-making process.” He noted the large amount of details and things to be addressed on a regular basis and where that puts decision makers.

“Decision makers are in a very difficult position right now because of the widely opposing views on how to respond to this virus,” Whitson said. “So we have some that think measures being taken are far too extreme and that we should do much less because we are destroying the economy. And we have others who think the economy is a small price to pay for life safety. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum.” Whitson said as decision makers, they will probably all be criticized for whatever decision they make and “that is something we will have to live with.” But, he added, decisions have to be made based on the current situation and look into the future on what they expect to happen.

“The reason we are all here is to collectively get a body of people that communicate with each other so that we have some consistency around the county,” Whitson explained, adding it began with the school superintendents meeting where it was decided what one district would do, the others would follow suit. “The thought pattern there was if Coffeyville closed and Independence didn’t, whatever their decision was, it would be open for criticism,” he said. “So we decided we would make collective decisions as a group and we would all share in the responsibility of that decision, whether it was good or bad.” Whitson said that type of consistency is important to the population. Law enforcement meets daily at 3 p.m., offered Sheriff Ron Wade, and now Whitson is asking city leaders to begin their collective and consistent decision making process.

Whitson went over the state’s complexity of the pandemic and where the most useful information about COVID-19 comes from. Whitson said their office has received resource requests but the process has been slow as those resources have not been easy to come by as there are no unaffected regions. “There are so many questions, so many things that are difficult to answer and the rumor mill inundated us at first,” he stated. “We got a couple more people in our office just for that reason - tech and rumor support - just trying to keep us abreast.” Whitson addressed the rumors, stating some of them are due to a mass of “seemingly credible” sources and all of them have different processes of gathering information.

Whitson noted COVID-19 case numbers from Kansas Department of Health and Environment are updated once a day. “So how does that compete with that person who just got tested who is laying in a hospital bed with their phone in their hand?” he asked. “It can’t, because they are posting on social media and they are texting their friends and that happens in seconds.”

He said when his department hears a rumor of someone testing positive, he can’t say there wasn’t one until he contacts the health department. The county process is if someone meets the criteria and needs to be tested, the system to test them, send the test off and get the results back is about 24 hours. “But the person they just tested has their phone in their hand so that stuff is going out in real time and there is no way to compete with that,” Whitson said. The county health department will be the first to find out about positive COVID-19 tests.

Whitson said the only way to slow down the rumor mill is by offering regular and consistent press releases. “Letting the community know that you are constantly doing something, you are meeting, you made this plan, you’ve considered this, you have reviewed the governor’s executive order and these are the things you are doing to address that  — constantly telling people what you are doing is paramount,” he said.

Travel seems to be a big cause of the coronavirus’ spread, as most cases in the United States have been confirmed in cities with international airports, said Whitson. He then approached why the Kansas governor is not closing things down statewide like many other states. “Because Kansas has been practicing social distancing since 1881,” he said to chuckles. “Our population density here is far different than anywhere else. That is why social distancing, hand washing and those things really are what we need to do here.” On a good note for Kansas, 95% of the state’s COVID-19 tests come back negative but the number of positive cases are going up.

Whitson noted the county has a sufficient number of test kits for those who meet the criteria but “we don’t have an abundance” so they can’t test everyone who walks through the door.

Muller said her department has a daily webinar with KDHE at 3 p.m. but the information can change hourly.

Whitson noted it is important for everyone to work together and be consistent with the information they present to citizens.

Useful links for COVID-19 information are: U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who has information for the public and health care system; Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), who is in constant communication with public health and health care agencies, providing updates, information and guidelines for health professionals; Whitson’s Montgomery County Emergency Management website at mocountyksem.wordpress.com; Montgomery County Emergency Management Facebook page at facebook.com/mocountyksem; and Gov. Kelly’s webpage at governor.kansas.gov/newsroom