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Thomas County leader responds to harassment, threats aimed at health department

Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 12:02 AM CDT
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COLBY, Kan. (KWCH) - Tension is building between local health authorities and some community members in rural Kansas. A leader in Thomas County is calling for civility after he said, recent attacks went too far.

The scene Monday in Colby at the Thomas County Commission meeting turned ugly with concerns about a required quarantine after a Colby High School student-athlete tested positive for COVID-19.

“Concerns about the quarantine and the closeness and proximity of ones that had to the quarantined and apparently, under the KDHE regulations and the epidemiologists, one student on a team is positive or tested positive, then everybody else that’s had any chance of having it, a droplet form that person has to be quarantined. It’s my understanding that Colby had about 130 students out because of this proximity issue and people were not happy,” said Thomas County Commission Chairman Mike Baughn.

Parents and students filled into that meeting, the county’s public health department the target.

“Some of the comments that were made were just completely out of line,” said Baughn.

The comments prompted Baughn to post on Facebook, sharing his support for the Thomas County Health Department while also telling those who’ve made threats to or harassed the department to stop.

“There were some comments made through social media, phone calls and at the meeting that were very derogatory of our county health people and I just felt I should show some degree of support because they’re just trying to do their job for the people of Thomas County and trying to keep them as healthy as possible,” Baughn said.

When it comes to public health orders like quarantine, Baughn pointed out the county health department is just following what the Kansas Department of Health and Environment requires.

“The public was kind of misunderstanding when the Legislature gave us an out to exempt masking from the governor’s executive order, we took advantage of that. That was an executive order which legislatively we could go around,” he said. “But the public health issues are statutory and regulatory through the KDHE and the state epidemiologist. So, we don’t really have any authority as a county commission to bypass any of those regulations. The proximity issue seemed to be the big concern of everyone. We sympathize. We empathize. We’d love to do something, but as a county commission, we just can’t find that we have that ability.”

The Kansas Association of Local Health Department said since Kansas is a decentralized public health system, local health departments are the ones who need to implement the state’s orders.

“Given the scope of the pandemic, a lot of the things related to COVID-19 are coming down from the state level. So, for many instances, a lot of what the health officers are doing that the public is being so frustrated with are actually instructions or orders that are issued from the state, and the health officials are trying to implement those instructions to protect the public’s health.” Kansas Association of Local Health Departments Executive Director Dennis Kriesel said, “Obviously, it’s very trying for everyone. No one enjoys living in a world of COVID-19. There’s a great deal of stress because the workload just due to the number of cases is tremendous.”

The attacks, he said, are coming at a cost.

“Our public health officer resigned. He had been doing an excellent job,” Baughn said. “We lost an RN from the Thomas County Health Department because of all the stress and negativity.”

He added, “When it forces good public servants to abandon their profession and abandon a job within their profession they’ve been doing a good job at, then I think it’s a sad chapter in our history when that is occurring.”

Thomas County is not alone in this issue.

“As of the end of August, we had already lost 10 local health department administrators,” Kriesel said. “These would be people who are running the day-to-day operations.”

Kriesel added, “Some of them are dual-role and also serving as the local health officers. The local health officer is the position powered by statute to give an order on isolation and quarantine. But in addition to those 10, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 just since the start of the pandemic of health officers and health administrators that combined, and since then, we’ve lost a few more. I’ve heard about two more today, in fact.”

The Kansas Association of Local Health Departments said it’s not just department heads leaving. They’re seeing higher-than-normal turnover in many public health positions since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“I’ve heard multiple reports from health department administrators and also through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, that they had, in turn, heard reports from health department administrators and local health officers of varying degrees of threats and harassment to local health officials for trying to do their jobs during the pandemic. This has ranged from fairly minor incidents like yelling, confrontations in public, accusations of fascism, all the things in that nature, extending all the way up to things like death threats,” said Kriesel.

Kriesel said some of the actions they’ve seen are people damaging public health equipment and doxing, which is the releasing of personal information like cell phone numbers to the public.

Dealing with these kinds of attacks is something very unfamiliar to this field.

“It’s highly unusual. Public health, typically, if it has a problem with public perception, it’s that the public doesn’t perceive that it exists at all,” Kriesel said.

For Kriesel, the issue of school and youth sports, he feels, has elevated the attacks to a new level.

“Schools are now back in session, so we’ve got a whole group that wasn’t mixing nearly as much amongst each other in really close contact situations, you’re just running into scenarios where the guidance says quarantining needs to be done, and that’s upsetting people because it’s just impacting more people now.” Kriesel said, “I think it will get worse as the humidity drops, and as we move into fall because I think the disease spread will increase.”

Kriesel said what’s needed most right now from the public is some decorum because while the public is frustrated, so are those in public health.

“All I can say is that local health officials are very upset and frustrated too. They are trying to understand the same things. It’s challenging for them that the guidance nationally continues to change but it’s a novel virus. We’re learning things about it as time goes by,” said Kriesel. “They’re just trying to trust the scientists and trust the research and trust the data and also go and execute on what the requirements are from the State Department of Health and Environment.”

“I think it’s disappointing for Thomas County. I expect people living in a rural western county are used to adversity, and I would expect them to handle adversity a little better. Kind of cool their jets when dealing with other people.” Baughn said, “I’m sure this is the situation in other counties. I’ve seen other counties that are facing the same kinds of concerns about the incivility of their citizens at a time. And a majority of the people are great, but like everything else, it’s always the undercurrent of the minority who seem to be stirring up the pot, and that seems to broil the whole bowl.”

It leaves Baughn with a simple message: Be kind and let health officials do their job.

“I was a sheriff before I was a county commissioner, and I was mayor for 33 years. My philosophy was you treat others like you’d want to be respected.” Baughn said, “Follow the golden rule, and if you don’t have that degree of respect, then you aren’t really qualified to receive respect back, even though the public officials are best to maintain that equilibrium and show that respect.”

Eyewitness News also spoke with the Thomas County Health Department. The director said nearly all of their resources are being dedicated to the county’s COVID-19 response. KDHE is also providing the county with contract tracers to help alleviate some of that burden.

Copyright 2020 KWCH. All rights reserved.

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