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An ounceof prevention
OUR NEIGHBORS | Extension agent helps community understand prevention first concepts

The many fields related to health and wellness are front and center during this pandemic. Those professions can include doctors who treat patients, scientists who study COVID-19 and those who are working at the community level educating people on how to stay healthy.

In Riley County, Megan Dougherty, 27, nutrition, health and food safety extension agent, helps people understand the importance of paying attention to what they put in their bodies.

Since COVID-19 began spreading across Kansas, she said she has taken an active role in working to keep people informed and healthy.

She is involved with the Flint Hills Wellness Coalition, which works with the health department; and the Food and Farm Council of Manhattan and Riley County. Both of those organizations have taken an active role during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“From the health and nutrition side, my first thought is how nutrition and health can impact how you would have the virus,” she said. “They say underlying conditions cause you to have a little bit worse (case) of the virus.”

Long before COVID-19 came along, Dougherty worked to educate people on how the preventive measures they take could impact their quality of life.

“Nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle can actually decrease your risk of any kind of chronic disease by 80%,” she said. “It can also reduce your risk of getting cancer by 40%. The studies are out there that really show the impact that nutrition and health have on your everyday life and your long-term outcome.”

While people can’t prevent all disease and illness from happening, there are measures they can take to reduce their risk.

“Whether that’s eating a nutritious diet or getting the recommended minutes of physical activity every day — there are some things that we can control in order to help prevent those circumstances from happening in the future,” she said.

Dougherty’s passion for helping people led her down a path to become a doctor. However, after taking her first nutrition class at K-State she hopped off that path.

“I fell in love with the preventative side of medicine … rather than the treatment side,” she said.

Her goal is to disseminate information people need to get and stay healthy, whether it is by talking to them about nutrition or guiding them through the Medicare Open Enrollment process.

The rewards of the job come when she can make a difference in someone’s life.

“When they come and tell you all these stories and then they walk out with a smile on their face, that’s always a super rewarding part of my job,” she said.

However, the rewards are accompanied by the challenge of getting people to understand that while she can tell them what to do to improve their situation, it is up to them to make the change — she can’t do that for them.

“Generally, by the time they get to me, they’re ready to make those changes, but not always,” she said.

Originally from Colby she was an extension agent in Geary County for two years before moving to the Riley County position nearly three years ago.

It was a move that John Jobe, extension agent for 4-H youth development, said was a benefit for Riley County.

“She’s young but is just incredibly active and ambitious within the community,” he said. “She serves on a number of health-related community boards and panels and advisory groups. She’s currently working with a group … to do what’s called Kitchen Restore. They gather supplies and materials for individuals that are seeking and needing basic kitchen items, pots and pans and utensils and that kind of stuff.

“She’s just very, very ambitious. She’s … definitely a leader in the field of not only family, consumers sciences but public health, which is kind of her passion area.”

Jobe said Doughtery also has worked to dispel misinformation floating around about COVID-19, and the rules, regulations and numbers.

“She has really kind of been a go-to point for that kind of information,” he said. “To have her right here in our own backyard, I feel like we are super fortunate.”

Kansas seeing historically low number of tornadoes in 2020

Tornadoes and their warnings have been few and far between in Kansas for the majority of 2020, and in one corner of the state a record is poised to be broken if the trend continues through the end of the year.

The National Weather Service office in Dodge City has recorded only six tornadoes across its 27-county forecast area — well below the annual average of 28.

Last year saw 29 tornadoes touch down across those counties.

“Going back to 1991, the lowest tornado count for our warning area was seven,” said Mike Umscheid, storm chaser and meteorologist for the Dodge City office. “If we don’t have any more tornadoes this year, we will break that 30-year record for lowest number of tornadoes.”

Statewide, the average number of tornadoes reported each year is 96, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Umscheid said the most active tornado season his office has recorded was in 2008, when 81 twisters touched down across its warning area.

“It’s interesting how you can go from one extreme to another in the matter of a decade,” Umscheid said.

The most recent and notable tornado event in southwest Kansas occurred on July 1, when a twister touched down in northern Seward County. The only reported damage was to an irrigation sprinkler, and the tornado was later classified as an EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale with wind speeds in the 80-90 mph range.

The amount of tornado warnings issued in Kansas is significantly lower this year, as well. Through Aug. 25, the NWS office in Wichita has issued only two tornado warnings for the counties it serves, on April 28 and June 21. Chance Hayes, the warning coordination meteorologist for NWS Wichita, said his office has averaged nearly 25 tornado warnings each year over the past decade.

“When you look at the seven offices which serve the state of Kansas, all seven average 218 tornado warnings a year in a period over the last 10 years,” Hayes said. “Right now, we are right around 57 for the year across the state, or about 25% of average.”

Tornadoes and other severe weather events are the products of supercell thunderstorms — huge rotating assemblies of cloud that require a clash of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, cool dry air from the Arctic, and plenty of low-level wind shear courtesy the jet stream. Bill Bunting, the chief of forecast operations for the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said at least one of those key ingredients has been missing this year.

“The combination of factors that we look for, for favorable tornado situations, just didn’t occur very often,” Bunting said. “We actually had a good chunk of May and June with winds aloft from the north and west, which stabilized the lower atmosphere.”

Hayes said some meteorologists at the NWS Wichita office have been investigating those winds as the culprit behind the limited tornado season.

“One of the things they pointed to was airflow in middle and upper levels of the atmosphere is more from a northerly direction, which can lead to more convection and storms in the late night and overnight hours,” Hayes said. “This leads to heavy rains and flooding, hailstorms, and straight-line winds. It means the possibility for tornadoes is much less.”

Umscheid said the Gulf of Mexico’s sea surface temperature anomalies have been higher, so moisture has not been the problem.

“It’s all in the jet stream patterns,” Umscheid said. “It’s just a matter of getting those low-level winds to crank that wind shear over a large enough area.”

Umscheid, along with other atmospheric scientists, said climate change may partially explain the jet stream buckling more frequently.

“Anecdotally, there seems to be a subtle shift towards jet stream patterns which tend toward a more blocking nature,” Umscheid said. “I think a lot of that shift can be contributed to a warming of high arctic latitudes.”

Bunting said there have been studies which have looked at the degree to which a warming world would affect tornadic activity.

“The answer right now is inconclusive,” Bunting said. “You have basically a conflicting trend in two of the key parameters for tornado occurrence – instability and warm moist air. It really makes it difficult to reach a firm conclusion on the impact of climate change on tornado occurrence.”

Mary Knapp, state climatologist at Kansas State University, said atmospheric scientists are watching the development of a La Nina pattern in the Pacific Ocean. This phenomenon occurs when strong winds push warm water at the ocean’s surface from South America to near Indonesia, helping colder water rise from deeper levels to the surface of the Pacific. Knapp said this kind of pattern tends to favor hotter and dryer conditions in autumn months.

According to Hayes, there have been 108 tornadoes reported since 1950 over the months of September through December.

“We do have kind of a secondary season for severe weather,” Hayes said. “It’s part of that transition from summer to fall.”

Knapp said she hasn’t heard much complaining about the lack of tornadoes for 2020.

From a storm chasing perspective, Umscheid said, there have been fewer weather enthusiasts on the roads because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is still a need for ground confirmation of severe weather activity.

“If there have not been tornadoes for a couple years, you can kind of ‘set it and forget it’ and fall into this trap of false safety,” Umscheid said.

“I don’t think it’ll be a huge problem, because once we have another tornado outbreak in Kansas — which will happen — it will snap people back to being prepared.”

Riley County adds 112 COVID-19 cases; total at 922

Riley County confirmed 112 new coronavirus cases Monday, the second-largest increase in cases since the pandemic began in March. The 112 confirmed between last Friday and Monday is second only to the 136 confirmed last Friday. Numbers have surged since the return of college students to town.

The total number of cases is 922, officials said. Of those, 523 are active, 394 are recovered and five people have died after testing positive for the coronavirus.

That is an increase of 13.8% or 112 new cases. Riley County Health Department Director Julie Gibbs estimates about 95% of the new cases involve people aged 18-24 years old.

The percent positive rate rose to about 35%, Gibbs said Monday during the Riley County Commission meeting, although that number is not officially confirmed right now, she said; officials are waiting on student data from the Lafene Health Center at Kansas State University.

“That’s up significantly from 11% from the previous week,” she said.

Two positive patients are receiving care at Ascension Via Christi, Gibbs said.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) reported 42,612 cases, 2,304 hospitalizations and 446 deaths statewide on Monday. That is up 1,564 cases and three deaths from Friday. Geary County has 295 cases (an increase of 14), and Pottawatomie County has 145 cases (an increase of two).

Juntion City high teachers tour new high school construction site

JUNCTION CITY — Construction on the new Junction City High School continues to progress, and last week, JCHS educators had a chance to take a sneak peak inside the new facility as it is being built. School starts Monday for the school district.

USD 475 chief operating officer David Wild said the groups saw the area where the freshman academy will be, the other academy spaces including classrooms, the auditorium, the main and auxiliary gyms, the commons area, athletic areas, and the location of what is to be the new football field, among other things.

Wild said it was a good opportunity for JCHS staff members “to see the project starting to come together” and get excited about it.

“What they were excited about was the options that were going to be available to the students,” he said of comments he heard from staff about the new school.

Everything is unfinished as of yet, but educators seemed happy as they went through the areas of the new school where they would teach.

Special education coordinator Casey Bell said the new facility is “amazing” so far.

“I’m kind of partial, but I like all the little breakout rooms and the access classroom,” she said.

The access suite, when completed, will allow special education students to practice lifeskills they’ll need to go out into the real world, including how to do laundry, clean and prepare food for themselves.

“It’s going to give them more space, it’s going to give them an opportunity to practice things like washing their clothes, making a bed, washing dishes — things that a lot of us take for granted that they need extra help to practice,” Bell said.

The current school doesn’t have facilities like that.

Fine Arts and Human Services Academy administrator Doug Sallee has toured the new school building three times now.

“I think what was good about this tour is it’s giving everybody on staff an opportunity of seeing what the future is going to look like,” he said. “We’re only a year out basically, and so now they can actually start planning for that future and how they’re going to utilize the facilities.”

Sallee, for his part, enjoyed seeing the areas where his academy will be housed.

“I think it’s designed right, it’s built right,” he said of the parts of the school his students will utilize. “I believe the auditorium is just going to be an exceptional performing arts center. I believe our classrooms for our performing arts supports that center very well. And we have great instructors that are going to be supporting those classes.”

Sallee said the orchestra room, which will double as a tornado shelter and which was a last-minute add-on that had been debated by the USD 475 school board, was an important addition. It will, he said, support the school’s string instrument program.

“I’m excited about that,” he said. “Those string students are just going to love to have that dedicated facility, one they haven’t had for, really, for two years. We got an early childhood development program that’s supported by two classrooms, and one of them’s going to be a Pre-K satellite program. It’s really functional.”

The facility, Sallee said, does not just support the performing arts but also tech-ed, college, and career readiness for students.

He believes it will support the community as well.

Sallee feels it will be a draw for the military community. He said he believes word will spread that JCHS is a good school with a good facility and that military members will consequently want to send their children to school here.

“I just think that’s going to bring more of our military service members and their families asking for Fort Riley as a duty station,” he said. “I think that then helps our community. I will tell you, too, that we’re centrally located. It’s going to help us with events. Between athletics and activities and performing arts, we can bring in a lot of individuals from north central Kansas as well to events here. I just think it has this huge potential of being a showcase high school.”

The school is on track to open its doors to students next year, said Wild, with a ribbon cutting in early August of 2021.