On Feb. 10, 2020, the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners named its new Director of Public Health, Dr. Sanmi Areola.
He was serving as the Deputy Director/Interim Director of Health for the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville and planned to start his new job in Johnson County on March 23. During his drive up to Kansas City on March 16, he got a call from the County Manager asking if he could start the next day.
“Because I was still en route, I said I could come into the office briefly on the 17th,” Dr. Areola recalled. “It was a challenge, arriving to an empty apartment and having just a few hours of sleep. And then I began full time the next day on the 18th.”
Imagine, arriving in a new city, with a new job, never having even met your staff or most of the leadership, and having to establish yourself as a trusted leader during the chaos as a global pandemic entered your community.
March 2020: Swift actions and somber milestones
(March 3) The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment (JCDHE) issued a news release to assure residents that there were no confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the county. The risk to the public was low, but it was an evolving situation and subject to change.
(March 7) The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) confirmed its first presumptive-positive case of COVID-19 in Kansas, which was also the first in the Kansas City metro. The case was in Johnson County.
(March 12) KDHE confirmed three presumptive-positive cases of COVID-19 in Kansas. These cases involved three males who range in age 35-65 and resided in Johnson County, and traveled from the same conference in Florida. That brought the total presumptive-positive cases both in Johnson County and the entire state to four.
(March 13) Chairman Ed Eilert declared a State of Emergency for Johnson County.
The declaration allowed the chairman to establish measures intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the community. It also allowed Johnson County Government access to resources, such as personal protective equipment for first responders and health care personnel, that was either in short supply or not available on the open market.
Specifically, the declaration prohibited public gatherings in Johnson County with 250 or more people. Exceptions included governmental and judicial functions, healthcare facilities, private business operations, religious and faith-based activities, weddings and funerals. For any size gathering of people, the county encouraged everyone to follow the guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), federal, state and local public health officials and private medical providers.
The State of Local Disaster Emergency was effective immediately and was to remain in effect for a period of seven days unless renewed by consent of the Board of County Commissioners.
Residents were encouraged to do business with the county online and by phone when possible. County departments adjusted business practices to accommodate remote interaction.
(March 14) JCDHE announced a fifth case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Johnson County. This case was not travel-related and became the first known case in Johnson County of local transmission.
(March 16) The CORE 4 partners of Jackson County, Missouri; Johnson County, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri, and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas met and agreed to implement measures to close restaurants, bars, taverns, clubs and movie theaters in their jurisdictions as of 12:01 a.m. on March 17, 2020, for 15 days. Exceptions were delivery, pickup and drive-through service.
All four jurisdictions also decided to ban public gatherings of more than 10 people immediately effective that day. Exceptions included governmental and judicial functions, health care facilities, private business operations, religious and faith-based activities, weddings and funerals.
Also, on March 16, Johnson County Government announced Johnson County Public Health Officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster signed an order to close all schools in Johnson County through April 5 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
(March 17) The CORE4 partners issued a joint message recognizing that the coronavirus was circulating in the Kansas City area. The message was that while the metro area may be divided by city, county and state lines, the spread of COVID-19 will not be deterred by them.
Residents were asked to please not visit the emergency rooms for mild illness, testing needed to be prioritized to the sickest patients who were seriously ill and required admission to the hospital. Excessive testing of patients with minor symptoms would likely put too much strain on laboratories and hospital resources.
(March 19) The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners declared a State of Local Disaster Emergency for Johnson County, Kansas.
This board action extended for 60 days the Chairman’s declaration of a State of Disaster Emergency ordered on March 13. It ratified all public health orders, current and future, issued by Johnson County’s Public Health Officer or the Johnson County Board of Public Health. It also allowed Johnson County to access funding and resources from the federal government.
Sitting as the Board of Public Health, the board issued an Emergency Public Health Order.
To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic in Johnson County, this public health order updated the order issued by the county’s Public Health Officer on March 16 prohibiting public gatherings with more than 10 people until 11:59 p.m. April 2, 2020. It removed the exemptions of religious and faith-based activities, weddings and funerals previously included. Government and judicial functions, health care facilities and private businesses remained exempt in this order.
Under all circumstances, even allowed activities, people were strongly urged to follow all public health guidelines on social distancing, voluntary isolation where appropriate and sanitation. Due to the COVID-19 situation, action was taken to minimize attendance at the Board of County Commissioners meetings. If attendance was not essential, people were asked to please watch the broadcast of the meeting.
(March 21) JCDHE reported its first death of a resident from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The person who died was a male, in his 70s who was hospitalized and had no history of travel. He did have underlying health conditions. The county had 26 positive cases of coronavirus, including the death, at that time.
The CORE4 partners, based on the urgency of the COVID-19 public health emergency and the imminent rapid progression of the pandemic in the area, announced that beginning Tuesday, March 24, residents were directed to stay at home except for essential needs. All jurisdictions issued orders that were in effect for 30 days from the effective date of March 24, with consideration after 30 days of whether to prolong these orders beyond that date, based on public health and critical care metrics available at that time.
(March 22) The county’s Public Health officer signed Johnson County’s Stay at Home Order. For the second time that month, leaders from the regional CORE4 held a joint news conference in Union Station to announce implementation of each jurisdiction’s stay at home order.
Johnson County established two community hotlines with Spanish translators available. The Johnson County Community COVID-19 Hotline was answered by Johnson County school nurses.
(March 23) As Johnson County continued to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson County MED-ACT sought donated cloth masks. At the guidance of the CDC, these would serve as a last resort, if surgical (disposable) masks were unavailable.
There was a nationwide mask shortage. MED-ACT had both surgical masks (disposables) and N95 masks on back order for months and continued to request masks from different sources. The county continued to use its supply of surgical and N95 masks, however, contingency planning was necessary, should the county be unable to acquire the proper disposable masks.
(March 24) Due to continued efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our community, a list was developed of Johnson County Government services and buildings that were to be closed to the public as of March 25, 2020, for 30 days concurrent with Johnson County Public Health Officer’s Stay at Home order.
(March 25) To reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Johnson County Administration Building was closed to the public effective March 25, 2020. For the Thursday, March 26, 2020, Board of County Commissioners meeting, the county commissioners were not physically present in the Board Hearing room and used an online meeting tool to conduct the meeting.
(March 27) The Johnson County Election Office reminded voters of their options for voting by mail in response to concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on upcoming elections. Any registered voter in Kansas could request a ballot by mail for any reason.
(March 30) At a special meeting, the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners authorized a program for additional COVID-19 testing in an amount not to exceed $400,000. The funding came from the county’s general fund reserves to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, if allowable. JCDHE needed to test a random sampling of the community to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on children, the role of pre-and asymptomatic transmission and the case fatality rate.