‘These aren’t game pieces on a board. These are lives.’
Mary Jo Vernon, director of the Platte County Health Department, is curious about some of the criticism her department’s reopening plan is receiving in certain circles.
At a meeting of the 24-person Platte County COVID-19 Advisory Group last Tuesday, Vernon mentioned that “if you’ve heard our plan is much stricter than in other counties, that’s not so. Our plan is very similar to the Missouri governor’s plan.”
“If you’ve heard our plan is much stricter than in other counties, that’s not so. Our plan is very similar to the Missouri governor’s plan.”
A copy of the local health department’s updated plan is posted on the department’s web site at plattecountyhealthdept.com. Also posted there, for easy comparison, are President Trump’s plan and the Missouri Plan as formulated by Republican Gov. Mike Parson.
“So if we (Platte County) had no plan, the citizens of Platte County would be under a very similar plan. We are not going rogue here,” Vernon said.
Vernon indicated she was aware of the criticism she and the health department had received the previous day at a meeting of the Platte County Commission (see last week’s Landmark for details).
“We have done everything we can to work with our county commission. I appreciate all their work very much throughout all of this. I’ve answered numerous texts, phone calls and emails from them, day and night, and I don’t mind that at all. I placed several of you on this council at the request of the commissioners. And I also invited them to our board meeting that we had a few weeks ago,” Vernon said.
Dan Luebbert, deputy director of the Platte County Health Department, soon echoed Vernon’s comments.
“Platte County is very similar to Missouri’s plan. If we didn’t have a plan we would fall back to Missouri’s plan and still have the same restrictions in place. So if people are upset, remind them of that, please,” Luebbert remarked to members of the advisory group, while encouraging them to compare Platte County’s plan to the governor’s plan and the president’s plan.
Vernon said the health department board of trustees “has been gracious to allow adjustments” to the original plan, including on the topic of mass gatherings, including churches. Mass gatherings are limited by rules that set limits based on square footage and occupancy limit of the area in question. Under 10,000 square feet, gatherings are limited to 25% of occupancy limit; gatherings in 10,000 square feet or more are restricted to 10% of occupancy limit.
“We did relax our language on the collection of names and contact information even though that’s what we would use to do contact tracing,” Vernon said, noting that step had switched from being listed as a requirement to being described as “when reasonably achievable, collect names and contact information of those entering building.”
When advisory group member James Burcalow pressed the discussion on regulations on churches, Pastor Rusty Savage of the First Baptist Church of Platte City spoke up in support of the health department’s work.
“Mary Jo had communicated directly with our ministerial alliance here in Platte City about specific plans and how it relates to churches. As I understand it, mass gatherings are no longer off limits and churches have the same capacity limits that retail businesses have been offered,” Savage said.
Savage remarked that the issue a lot of churches are going to face is limitation of capacity may not make the math work. “According to the governor’s formula, my capacity is 19 people. At that I’m probably not going to have any large opening at 19 people,” Savage pointed out.
Savage added that most pastors with which he has spoken are willing to hold off on opening churches “until we get more clarity.”
“Until we can be safeguarding our folks, none of us that I’m aware of wants to be known as the church that was a hot spot that got somebody killed,” Savage stated.
The pastor went on to say he does not view the health department’s work as a constitutional affront.
“The response that I’ve gotten from Mary Jo and the health department has not been in any way that ‘hey, we’re trying to keep you from doing your constitutional rights.’ It has simply been that ‘we are trying to help you protect your folks.’ And that’s what we are all trying to do,” Savage said.
“So most of the churches I’ve spoken with are finding interesting work-arounds. I’ll grant you it’s a challenge and yet the church is the church and we are still doing our work out there in the world,” Savage added.
Vernon added that “the better job we do of tiptoeing into reopening we can move into the next step. Mass gatherings, which is what a church is, contain risk. People can have no idea they are sick.
“Low numbers can give the illusion that everything is good and that’s just not the case and that’s not the advice we are being given by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” the health director explained.
Burcalow said he believes some of the big box stores in Platte County are not adhering to occupancy rules. To this, Vernon pointed out a couple of things.
“The big box stores are in the Kansas City Health Department’s jurisdiction, not Platte County Health Department’s jurisdiction,” she said.
Vernon also pointed out that in a retail store, people are in and out and are moving throughout the store, not generally standing next to people for 10 minutes or more. The longer you’re in close proximity to an infectious person the greater your chances of catching the virus, health officials say.
Tammy Saylor, health services coordinator for the Park Hill School District and member of the advisory council, praised the work of the health department.
“We have been working on a plan for summer school. The health department has been a fabulous partnership for us, collaborating and putting in the safest possible plan. Thank you and we will continue to look for your guidance,” Saylor said to Vernon.
Dagmar Wood, first district county commissioner who has been openly critical of the health department plan, asked what is the ultimate goal of all restrictions. Vernon said the CDC guidance is the need to go slowly “so that you can assure you don’t blow your case count off the charts.” Vernon said “at the beginning it was to flatten the curve and now it has been proved through other countries that if you open up too soon your case count will dramatically rise and then you risk shutting things down again, and people get unnecessarily sick and die.”
Wood said: “When I look at people making the decisions, it seems like the people who are asking people to shut down get paid no matter what. There are health consequences, negative consequences to people being shut up in their houses and being impoverished.”
In response, Vernon said “everyone across the nation is looking at that. There are consequences of opening up too soon. These are not game pieces on a board. These are lives.”
She then added: “I want to stress we are not going rogue. We’re doing the same thing that’s being done across the country. There’s just no precedent for all of this for us to adhere to.”
At one point in the meeting, Luebbert, the deputy health director, encouraged members of the advisory council to be careful with their social media postings. Some postings, including some made by Wood, could be interpreted to indicate the health department’s order should not be taken seriously and some have seemed to give tacit approval to non-compliance.
“As community leaders, and you all are community leaders. I ask you to be careful with your social media postings. Don’t encourage people to ignore the orders. We’re all in this together. We’re trying to save lives and save the economy. If we continue to make it worse it’s going to hurt the economy longer. So let’s use common sense and just post sensible messages, if we post anything at all,” Luebbert said.
Scott Monsees, who is on the Park Hill School Board and is listed as being affiliated with Truman Medical Center, said: “I know we have the best interest of all citizens at heart. Health, finances, spirituality. Mary Jo has to follow what the state sends down. She is doing the best that she can, based on Kansas City is part of the county. I would hope that the county health department would follow closer to the state and not track necessarily with Kansas City. Kansas City is basing their decisions on south of the river, which is completely different area than north of the river.”
As of Tuesday, May 12 at 5 p.m., the total number of COVID-19 positive cases in Platte County was listed by the health department as 87.
That total is up by 15 compared to a week ago, on Tuesday, May 5, when the department reported a total of 72 persons had tested positive.
Of the 87 cases, 46 of those have been residents of the county living outside the city limits of Kansas City and 41 have been residents of Kansas City within Platte County.