TOPEKA, Kan. – Severe storms. Tornadoes. Floods. Blizzards. Wildfires.
Kansas has faced its share of these over the years. By working through these disasters, state agencies have forged and refined the partnerships that have allowed them to face a situation affecting not just a city or a county, but the entire state, the nation and even the world: the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We first learned about the virus itself in December," said Angee Morgan, deputy director, Kansas Division of Emergency Management. "In late January, is when KDEM started actively preparing for COVID."
Although the pandemic had been a topic of discussion in the state since January, Devan Tucking, response and recovery services section chief, KDEM, recalled the moment when the virus was no longer just a potential threat.
"A number of KDEM staff were working a weekend of dangerous fire weather in the State Emergency Operations Center when word was received regarding the first potential case of the virus in the state," said Tucking. "After weeks of briefings and many conversations, the virus was a reality for Kansas."
When the first confirmed case of COVID-19 appeared in the state, Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency, and KDEM activated the SEOC in Topeka March 12 to respond. Using the Kansas Response Plan as its guide, KDEM began operations to address the many issues facing the state.
"We set the priorities for the SEOC, the event and resources while carrying out the guidance that we were getting from Dr. (Lee) Norman and the governor," said Morgan.
"This is the first disaster that we've ever had that affects all 105 counties and every city in the state at the same time," said Jeffrey Welshans, SEOC manager. "It's the scope of the disaster, as well as the time. Even the worst floods are over in a month or a month and a half. Last summer was about flooding. We were activated for 60 days, but that wasn't just for the response. (With the pandemic) we're still in the response phase, which is usually over within a week."
Unlike many disasters, which tend to be more localized, the pandemic has required the participation of nearly every state and county agency, emphasizing the importance of interagency partnerships built over the years.
During public health emergencies, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is the lead agency for the state and works closely with KDEM and other state agencies to protect the health and safety of Kansans.
"The partnerships we have here are incredible," said Ashley Goss, COVID-19 incident commander and KDHE deputy secretary for public health. "Being at the same table has enabled us to have a coordinated response to the pandemic."
"The KDEM staff, the men and women of the Kansas National Guard and all of our agency partners are no strangers when it comes to working disasters," said Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, the adjutant general and director of KDEM. "The relationships we have formed with our emergency support function partners has enabled us to not only handle the workload from the pandemic but also have the ability to monitor and respond to additional emergencies, including civil unrest, floods and wildland fires."
"KDHE's always been a strong partner, but it's been a really good opportunity to showcase the skills of other state agencies," said Morgan. "We're really seeing the effectiveness of the expertise of other state agencies that may not be heavily engaged in response or recovery, and they're able to fulfill other roles within the state emergency operations.
"Because of the way we plan and respond with the all-hazards concept, we know each other because we work so many disasters together. It's just a lot easier to work together when you know the individual before you're thrown into chaos."
One of the initial problems encountered during the state response was a lack of personal protective equipment for front-line medical responders.
"Because of these difficulties, we realized early on that we would need a warehouse at a state level for use to procure and distribute the PPE," said Bryan Murdie, planning and mitigation branch director.
KDEM turned to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Strategic National Stockpile. The stockpile is the nation's largest supply of potentially life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to become exhausted. Kansas received its portion of the SNS in early April and used the people and resources of the Kansas National Guard and Kansas Wing of the Civil Air Patrol to distribute the PPE to all 105 counties.
"Initially with our supplies, they did all of our deliveries across the state and slowly transitioned to private industry to help with distribution," said Murdie, "but our warehouse is still manned by our National Guard."
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 211,114 miles have been driven to deliver PPE across Kansas.
"As the state response continues, more supplies will be needed," said Morgan. "We are aggressively seeking vendors nationwide and have established contracts for more PPE. This is a combined response effort between federal, state and local jurisdictions, and we appreciate everything local leaders and communities are doing."
As people began to isolate themselves and stay at home, many Kansas food banks saw an increase in requests for assistance and a decrease in available volunteers, making it difficult to keep up with the demand. Members of the Kansas National Guard have been instrumental in assisting food banks and mobile food pantries across the state to serve their customers. They have helped assemble, warehouse and distribute more than 7.6 million packaged meals to food banks across the state.
Anyone who has been to the grocery store has noticed shortages of many products, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. Keeping the supply chains going has been one of the prime concerns of the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
"We worked directly with Kansas agribusinesses to provide them with guidance about how to adapt their services to fit within the state health rules and restrictions as they changed during the course of the pandemic," said Heather Lansdowne, Kansas Department of Agriculture. "When businesses were faced with challenges related to staffing shortages or the threat of closure, we worked to connect them with experts who could help them make necessary adaptations to meet requirements to allow them to stay open.
"In collaboration with the governor's office and KDHE, we were able to provide necessary assistance to the major meatpacking plants in the state to ramp up their protective actions, keep staff working and prevent the plants from shutdowns that were occurring in many other places across the country."
Staffing quickly became a concern for state agencies to determine how to continue essential services remotely.
"Coordination among all levels of government ˗˗ local, county, and state – became one of the largest challenges," said Murdie. "Communication has become much easier with the shared platforms and use of technology."
"Once a day, we have a call that's open to all 105 counties along with the emergency support functions," said Welshans. "We give a briefing and we answer any questions that they may have and we work together with the counties and our partners to coordinate a unified response to the disaster."
The lessons learned during these months will prepare state agencies to better serve Kansas communities.
"A lot of positive comments have come through the duration of this event," said Murdie. "We use the feedback we receive to see and correct deficiencies in where we may not be operating efficiently or effectively. We look at what changes we can implement from that feedback."
"After each event, we do an after-action review and we identify the gaps and the capabilities that we want to build on," said Morgan. "So we improve on that, whether it's planning, training or a piece of equipment, and you try to get that fixed before the next time."
No one knows when the pandemic will end. Until then, thousands of local, state and federal responders will continue to rely on each other to get through it.
"Everything else, you know will end," said Morgan. "I mean the water will go down. The snow will melt. The tornado goes through, then it's gone. But this one is the challenge. You need a hand so you can cross the finish line."
"Partnerships are the key," agreed Weishaar. "Solid, long-lasting partnerships between local, state and federal agencies have always been crucial to successful response and recovery operations during past disasters, and they will be just as instrumental in helping us get through this unprecedented time and whatever comes our way in the future."