With the Sedgwick County Commission approving an extension of the local disaster declaration in order to help secure CARES Act funding, hiring of temporary health department employees was also cleared to increase data analysis and contact tracing related to COVID-19.

With May 16 the official end date for the local disaster declaration put in place in Sedgwick County as of March 18, the county commission had a decision to make at its meeting last week. The commission had to decide whether to extend that disaster declaration or lift it for all of Sedgwick County in the midst of the current pandemic.

County staff came forward requesting an extension due to the COVID-19 virus still being active.

“It is still a serious matter in this community, so a disaster declaration seems in order,” said County Manager Tom Stolz.

Previously, the disaster declaration had a set end date, but with the extension county staff recommended leaving it open-ended – with the commission to decide and vote on when it would be lifted.

Extending the disaster declaration was seen as a way to protect the county from liability in some cases, mirror state action (with it also unclear how long that declaration will last) and keep Sedgwick County in line to receive federal relief for the pandemic both now and in the future.

“The third one is kind of a fiduciary duty for us to be available for federal fundings,” said commission chairman Pete Meitzner.

At present, it was reported that Sedgwick County has received nearly $100 million in funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Whether the county were to extend the disaster declaration or not, it was reported by staff that the belief is those funds could not be taken away.

Not knowing what the situation will look like in a month or two months, extension of the local disaster declaration was seen as a safeguard to help guarantee future funding access ability in response to the pandemic. While Commissioner Jim Howell did not see a need for it at this time, the extension of the local disaster declaration was approved 4-1 by the Sedgwick County Commission.

While plans for dispensation of those CARES Act funds were presented to and reviewed by the county commission last week, requests have already started rolling in – including one for hiring of temporary positions within the county health department.

Given the nature of that funding, Department of Public Services Director Tim Kaufman noted those nearly 50 positions would strictly be tied to addressing the COVID-19 response at a local level through contract tracing, data analysis, etc.

“Information is what allows you and the health department to make decisions going forward,” Kaufman said.

Questioned on if the health department would be coming before the commission with more hiring requests related to CARES funding, Kaufman stated the initial request should meet all the department’s personnel needs for the rest of the year.

Commissioners approved a motion to allow the health department’s hiring request as long as consideration is first given to currently furloughed employees to fill those positions.

Due to the local disaster declaration and phased reopening, the Sedgwick County Health and Economic Recovery Plan was also recently put together in light of COVID-19. That document was amended last week to delineate between Gov. Laura Kelly’s restrictions lined out in her phased reopening plan and the recommendations being made by the county local businesses.

Some additional measures for consideration included Commissioner Lacey Cruse asking for strong encouragement of face mask use, though Assistant County Manager Tania Cole noted mandates on face masks are up to individual local businesses.

Local and state information lines – as well as PPE resource links – are also included in the plan, which commissioners appreciated. On the heels of the approved amendments, as well as Gov. Kelly’s new phase 1.5, it was noted the plan may continue to change as the situation evolves.

“We’ve always said this is a working document,” Cole said, “so it can be fluid and adapt to that.”