COVID-19 has Kansas Ci­tians start­ing to keep their dis­tance

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY LISA GU­TIER­REZ AND ERIC ADLER lgutier­rez@kc­star.com eadler@kc­star.com

Shawn Crall felt the change soon af­ter en­ter­ing the gro­cery store. Peo­ple used to be chatty there; the at­mos­phere was lighter.

Not now. “Ev­ery­body’s walk­ing around not talk­ing to each other,” said Crall, 53, who lives in Platte County. “There’s no eye con­tact. Ev­ery­body’s rush­ing. It’s a very eerie feel­ing. The ten­sion is just re­ally high. It feels like doom.”

Or self-pro­tec­tion.

That is what health of­fi­cials want Amer­i­cans to do: Dis­tance your­self from other peo­ple.

It’s called so­cial dis­tanc­ing, and it’s a pub­lic health tac­tic de­signed to stop the spread of a con­ta­gious dis­ease, in this case the new coron­avirus that has in­fected more than 7,000 peo­ple in the United States, with that num­ber climb­ing by the minute.

The Kansas City area has passed the point at which only trav­el­ers were con­tract­ing COVID-19. Now, it’s spread­ing from per­son to per­son in our com­mu­ni­ties.

The mes­sage seems to be get­ting through. At The Leg­ends in Kansas City, Kansas, on Wed­nes­day, vast park­ing lots were prac­ti­cally empty. Streets down­town and on the Coun­try Club Plaza were mostly de­serted.

But not ev­ery­one is get­ting the mes­sage.

Out­side Crown Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day, Vickie Roellchen, 57, of DeSoto, horsed around with one of her daugh­ter’s three foster chil­dren as her daugh­ter fin­ished an ap­point­ment at Chil­dren’s Mercy Hospi­tal.

Roellchen said she’s been driv­ing a school bus for 16 years, packed with 60 to 70 kids a day. As of Tues­day, she said, she was out of a job with the clos­ing of all Kansas pub­lic schools.

Though mind­ful of so­cial dis­tanc­ing, she’s not overly wor­ried, not enough to change her be­hav­ior, he said.

“I’m go­ing to Sam’s Club af­ter this,” she said. “I’m not go­ing to be walk­ing six feet away from peo­ple. I’m just not.”

On a grand scale, so­cial dis­tanc­ing is lim­it­ing the size of groups that gather, clos­ing schools, send­ing peo­ple home to work — mea­sures that may­ors and gov­er­nors here and across the coun­try are tak­ing now at rapid speed.

On a per­sonal level it means stay­ing at least six feet away from and lim­it­ing your in­ter­ac­tions with other peo­ple — keep­ing your dis­tance in line at the post of­fice, shop­ping at the gro­cery store when the crowds

are smaller.

It is the mes­sage that pub­lic health of­fi­cials have been preach­ing for days, a mes­sage they worry is be­ing ig­nored.

Dr. Rex Archer, Kansas City’s di­rec­tor of health, made another ap­peal Wed­nes­day in an­nounc­ing the city’s first two con­firmed cases — a man in his 30s and a woman in her 40s.

“With viruses, there are no bor­ders. Ev­ery­one in the Kansas City metro area must be on guard,” Archer said in a state­ment. “Leave your home only when ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary.”

‘PEO­PLE HAVE BLIN­DERS ON’

In the Kansas City area, peo­ple who are at high­est risk for suf­fer­ing the most se­vere con­se­quences of COVID-19 have started hun­ker­ing down. They’re at home, lim­it­ing their con­tact with the out­side world.

Cae­sar Blevins is holed up in­side his home in Kansas City’s Waldo neigh­bor­hood now. No more trips to the bar­ber. No more gro­cery shop­ping. No more reg­u­lar morn­ing work­outs at the gym. No more work at UPS.

He’s get­ting chemo­ther­apy for prostate can­cer, and be­cause of his age and his chemo-com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tem, he’s at high risk.

Some­times, he goes and sits in his car and lis­tens to mu­sic. Friends have al­ready told him they’ll pull up into the drive­way and talk to him from a safe dis­tance.

As he watched spring break­ers on TV frol­ick­ing on Florida beaches, be­fore they were shut down, he grew frus­trated that so many peo­ple were ig­nor­ing the ad­vice to keep a dis­tance from oth­ers.

“We’ve never faced a dilemma like we’re fac­ing now,” said Blevins, who is 62. “Some peo­ple have blin­ders on. They don’t re­ally think about oth­ers. It’s self­ish think­ing.”

Health of­fi­cials share the same frus­tra­tion.

“Peo­ple are not tak­ing this very se­ri­ously,” CNN’s Dr. San­jay Gupta told his col­league, Jake Tap­per, on Tues­day.

“These num­bers are just go­ing to con­tinue to go up be­cause it is spread­ing and be­cause the test­ing is out there. And you look at images of Wuhan (in China, where the virus orig­i­nated), images of Hong Kong, images where peo­ple were truly, ac­tu­ally so­cially dis­tanc­ing.

“The streets were bare. Peo­ple were not out­side. It wasn’t like that for­ever. It was like that for a cou­ple of weeks be­cause that was the goal, to break the chain of trans­mis­sion.

“The in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity … we’ve been talk­ing about for weeks if not months now … I’m sur­prised at this point, still, there’s a lack of se­ri­ous­ness be­ing given to this. And it wor­ries me and it wor­ries a lot of pub­lic health of­fi­cials I’ve been talk­ing to.”

‘A BUNCH OF BULL’

On Wed­nes­day, at Wash­ing­ton Square Park, near Crown Cen­ter, 13 home­less friends, sit­ting hip-to-hip on the lawn, side-by-side on the park bench, knew what ev­ery­one’s say­ing about so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

They get it. They know it’s prob­a­bly true. They don’t care, or care very lit­tle.

“I think it’s a bunch of bull, an over­re­ac­tion,” Ne­comu Ling said of the pre­dic­tions of mass vi­ral in­fec­tion and deaths. He’s 41 and stood near his wife, Melissa, 39, and daugh­ter, Cheyanne Page, 20, both seated on the park bench, and both preg­nant.

Even if ev­ery­one is not fine, Melissa said, “It will ac­tu­ally hit the el­derly be­fore it hits the younger peo­ple.”

Cheyanne chimed in. “That’s not true be­cause Chil­dren’s Mercy has a case with a baby,” she said. The hospi­tal on Wed­nes­day con­firmed a pos­i­tive test for a child un­der age 18.

“But to shut ev­ery­thing down, though,” Melissa said doubt­fully.

“Over­re­ac­tion” some­one else chimed in.

They knew the rec­om­men­da­tion is to stay some dis­tance from one another.

“But we call stick to­gether. We’re fam­ily,” some­one shouted.

“I mean, for real,” Melissa said. “What’s the dif­fer­ence if we’re sep­a­rated or not? If we’re go­ing to get it, we’re go­ing to get it.”

Some, like Paco, 46, and Cow­boy, 37, each with one name, floated the idea that the pan­demic is, in part, just a way for so­ci­ety to rid it­self of the home­less. Though he hopes kids and older peo­ple don’t get it, he’s not wor­ried for him­self.

“If I can sur­vive an ad­dic­tion, I can sur­vive this,” Cow­boy said.

“I have M.S. epilepsy and I’ve sur­vived kid­ney can­cer, so,” Melissa said. “If I can sur­vive kid­ney can­cer then I think I can sur­vive a lit­tle virus.”

‘A CRI­SIS’ LIKE NO OTHER

Celebri­ties, sports team, health de­part­ments, gov­er­nors, po­lice de­part­ments, even the U.S. Navy are hash­tag­ging the mes­sage: #StayHome.

Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger showed up in a pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ment with his pet don­key and horse.

The po­lice in Lawrence em­ployed hu­mor to spread the mes­sage in a Wed­nes­day tweet: “It’s good to stay home dur­ing a pan­demic. It’s good to so­cially dis­tance. It’s good to laugh, be­cause we can’t be holed up for weeks and not laugh. Laugh at us if you want. Call us pigs, laugh at our tweets, what­ever. But for the love of all that is holy, wash your freakin hands.”

“Sep­a­ra­tion is so im­por­tant,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tweeted Wed­nes­day. “As I talk with peo­ple, Ohioans are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand, but it is also clear that some don’t yet get it.

“This is a cri­sis you have never seen in real life. We have to get through this. I’m call­ing on every Ohioan — when you’re go­ing into a sit­u­a­tion where you have the po­ten­tial to ob­tain or spread this #COVID-19 — it’s very dan­ger­ous.

‘GIVE SPACE’

All of Carol Win­ner’s friends who are over 60, es­pe­cially the ones with health con­di­tions or who are can­cer sur­vivors, “are pretty much in self-iso­la­tion” right now, she said Wed­nes­day.

“I have friends with heart con­di­tions, lung con­di­tions. I won’t see them for weeks, if not months.”

The John­son County woman knows a lot about giv­ing peo­ple their space. When her mother was fight­ing can­cer, a doc­tor told her to stay away from peo­ple be­cause her im­mune sys­tem was com­pro­mised. But Win­ner’s mother was a hugger and kept dol­ing out hugs.

Af­ter her mom died, Win­ner, a pub­lic health spe­cial­ist who has done work with the CDC and the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, cre­ated a move­ment called “Give Space.”

The words — sig­nal­ing that a per­son needs to keep a safe phys­i­cal dis­tance from other peo­ple — are printed on cloth­ing, pins, stick­ers and other mer­chan­dise, and are the theme of her chil­dren’s book, “What Do I Do With My Hugs?”

There’s a timely tip in the book, where the cen­tral char­ac­ter, a lit­tle girl named Lily, doesn’t un­der­stand why she can’t re­ceive hugs any­more from her ill grand­mother, Mimi.

“Right now there are a lot of Mimis in homes that are on lock­down,” said Win­ner, not­ing that Lily ends up mail­ing pa­per hearts to her grand­mother in­stead.

Win­ner, who lives in John­son County, was in Los An­ge­les this week and said the city, hit hard by the virus, was “a ghost town. There’s no­body on the streets. … They to­tally get it.”

She thinks peo­ple in the Kansas City area are start­ing to heed the ad­vice from pub­lic health of­fi­cials, but she knows it takes time for peo­ple to change their be­hav­ior.

“I do think there’s a shift in Kansas City, and I’m happy to see it,” said Win­ner, whose web­site is Gives­pace­peach.com. “I think peo­ple are think­ing, ‘Oh maybe there’s a rea­son the restau­rants are clos­ing, and the schools are clos­ing.

“We can do it, but we don’t have any time. We can’t be hit with 11 mes­sages be­fore we say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m sup­posed to do that.’ We have to pay at­ten­tion now.

“Think of it (like) you are in­fected and ev­ery­body else is, too. Be­cause it’s not just about you. You have to think that the other guy has it, too. Be­cause that will help re­mind you, ‘I need to step back.’

“We all con­cen­trate on our­selves. But this is a com­mu­nity ef­fort. This is a com­mu­nity cri­sis. And we have to care about it.”

NEIL NAKAHODO The Kansas City Star

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