Seven COVID-19 cases reported at KCK construction site

Work at Donnelly College continuing
Posted at 7:11 PM, Apr 20, 2020

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A new cluster of COVID-19 cases has been reported at a Kansas City, Kansas, construction site.

Seven workers from the Donnelly College work site have all contracted the virus.

But a construction crew was back at the site Monday morning working on the new building for a teacher's college currently scheduled to be completed in late July or early August.

On Friday, the site was shut down for some heavy-duty disinfecting after a sixth worker from the site tested positive for COVID-19.

But Jerry Katlin, the president of Overland Park-based Excel Corporation, the general contractor for the project, said he was told of a seventh case Monday.

Katlin said it's the second time the site has been shut down in less than two weeks for disinfecting.

He said the first confirmed case was on April 10 from a worker who was last on the site April 6.

Katlin said the site was cleaned on April 10 and 11.

"Then we take that 48-to-72-hours period and then we bring back the workers to the job site," Katlin said.

He also said the seven cases come from five different subcontractors for the project.

"No one has said they don't want to work on the site. We feel that we're providing the safest possible construction site we can," Katlin said.

He also said all workers are now required to wear masks at the site, regardless of how close that person works to anyone else.

However, when the 41 Action News Investigators visited the site Monday morning, several workers were not using masks, including a man working in close proximity to about five other people on scaffolding.

One of roughly 30 recipients of a series of Excel Corporation emails reporting new cases contacted the 41 Action News Investigators last week with concerns about the site.

The source is especially outraged because after contacting the Unified Government Public Health Department twice — once on Thursday and again on Friday — to report the construction site outbreak, that source was referred to the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.

"They may have been referred to the police department reporting line where people report violations of the stay-at-home order," said Janell Friesen, a spokeswoman for the UG Health Department.

But the UG Health Department did get the message about the Donnelly College cluster from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Thursday.

The UG's chief epidemiologist, Elizabeth Groenweghe, said she's currently aware of only four of the seven cases from the construction site.

Compounding the issue, all four people she knows about live outside KCK. Three live in Kansas City, Missouri, and one lives in Johnson County, Kansas.

"We're working to track down these additional cases and see what part of the metro they might live in," Groenweghe said.

She says the UG Health Department does have the power to shut the construction site down if safety guidelines aren't followed.

But Groenweghe said the health department doesn't send people out in person to monitor cluster sites such as the Donnelly College one.

"We've seen clusters of cases at other work places as well, and our preference is really to work with management at the work places to try to control the spread without having to shut an essential business down," she said.

As for Katlin, he said keeping the Donnelly College construction site open or closed is something he's constantly evaluating.

"It's a fine balance between job site safety and keeping our essential employees, essential infrastructure, of which we are a member, employed," he said. "It's that fine balance between shutting down because there's no guarantee that if shut down, once we come back up, that we wouldn't have a case that next day as well. There are those that rely on these paychecks each week. It's just a very difficult question that we evaluate every day."

Ultimately, Donnelly College President Monsignor Stuart Swetland can make any decision about the construction site.

"He's highly involved in our decision-making process," Katlin said.

Katlin also said Swetland has been kept informed of all the positive COVID-19 cases as they have developed.

Reached by phone, Swetland said, "We have informed everybody we need to inform and are meeting the requirement we have to meet."