BY STEVE VOCKRODT AND MICHAEL WILNER – KCSTAR
MAY 12, 2020 03:54 PM
The director of the Kansas City Health Department on Tuesday expressed frustration that federal data about the coronavirus pandemic that was apparently leaked to a news network this week is not being shared with local health departments.
Rex Archer said documents obtained by NBC News and published Monday evening, which identified Kansas City as a “location to watch” because of increasing coronavirus cases, should be readily available to local health departments.
“I think the reason this is suppressed is it shows how bad things are and we need more resources and we’re not getting them,” Archer told The Star on Tuesday.
During a press briefing on Monday in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump said coronavirus cases were “way down” when asked about the emergence of about 20,000 new cases every day across the country.
“I mean, the numbers are really coming down, and very substantially,” Trump said. “And this weekend was one of the lowest we’ve had. This is — you know, the numbers are coming down very rapidly all throughout the country, by the way. There may be one exception. But all throughout the country, the numbers are coming down rapidly.“
During Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany confirmed the authenticity of the document, adding that it did not originate from the White House but rather the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She said the document showed “isolated outbreaks” in the Midwest in prisons or meatpacking facilities that, once officials become aware of it, then “we’re able to contact trace and pretty quickly resolve the situation.”
“I have to just say that this is proof that the system is working, that we’re able to identify what the president said are embers and put them out,” McEnany said. “It’s the system at work.”
FEMA’s national office did not immediately respond to a request for the documents or a comment about them. A local FEMA spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said he learned of the document from the NBC News story.
“Unfortunately, we have not heard from federal health officials and certainly not the White House,” Lucas told The Star in a Tuesday morning text message. “We always appreciate their support and perspective, so would welcome it here.”
Documents that NBC News described as originating from a White House pandemic task force listed the Kansas City core-based statistical area (CBSA) as having a 220% increase, or 1,217 new coronavirus cases during a seven-day period.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kansas City’s CBSA includes the following counties: Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn, Miami and Wyandotte in Kansas; Bates, Caldwell, Cass, Clay, Clinton, Jackson, Lafayette, Platte and Ray in Missouri.
Listed among other “locations to watch” were Charlotte, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; Montgomery, Alabama; Columbus, Ohio, and Phoenix, Arizona.
Locations identified as those with increasing cases included St. Joseph, Missouri, where an outbreak at the Triumph Foods processing plant has resulted in hundreds of new cases. About 70 cases from the Triumph Foods outbreak are people who live in Kansas City.
Leavenworth County also accounts for a spike of coronavirus cases due to the outbreak in the Lansing State Prison.
While the document does not list a time frame for its comparison, NBC News said the document is dated May 7.
Archer said “there’s no question we had the highest number of reported cases last week since this thing started.”
It’s likely that more cases are being reported as testing, which had been scarce across the United States at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, ramps up in the Kansas City area.
Archer said testing doesn’t tell public experts too much information in the absence of contact tracing, which is the process of investigating the whereabouts of people who test positive to see who else may have been exposed.
“Until you’re doing both, enough testing and checking on possible cases to see who else has been exposed, you don’t actually know what your community prevalence is,” Archer said.
Archer said there should be 30 contact tracing investigators for every 100,000 residents, which for Kansas City would mean 150. Archer said Kansas City currently has seven full-time equivalent positions for contact tracing, which is being spread across 19 health department employees who have other responsibilities.
“You can see we’re a long ways from that,” Archer said.
Additional funding would help, he said.
Archer said Kansas City so far has received no funding from the federal government to assist with payment on coronavirus expenses, the same federal government that has identified the Kansas City region as a location to watch because of increasing infection rates.
Federal CARES Act aid to pay for unexpected coronavirus response costs has filtered to Clay, Jackson, Platte and Cass counties, but so far there’s been disagreement about if and how much money those counties can pass along to Kansas City. Kansas City does not get direct federal aid because it has slightly fewer than 500,000 residents, leaving the city to attempt to work with its constituent counties.
Archer said federal health agencies are typically transparent and will share information during disease outbreaks. The documents obtained by NBC News carried a notation: “For Official Use Only.”
“They (CDC) are being muzzled and not allowed to say what needs to be said,” Archer said. “It is just unbelievable what’s going on right now. I’ve never seen anything like it.”