‘Astonishingly high’: Kansas health officials urge vaccination as COVID cases surge

Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com
·3 min read

Health officials in both Wyandotte and Johnson counties expressed concern Thursday over vaccination rates as they see record numbers of COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.

“Our case diagnosis rates are about four times that which we saw at any other point during the pandemic,” Johnson County health officer Joseph LeMaster said during an update Thursday with the University of Kansas Health System.

There is some indication that Johnson County may be seeing a peak in the omicron surge.

“There’s some evidence from our wastewater monitoring that we’re starting to see some decreases in the wastewater which previously have predicted a decrease in case numbers,” LeMaster said. “We are hopeful that we’ll start to see some of that come down, but still, the numbers are astonishingly high.”

Because of the high number of cases, public health agencies are unable to keep up with contact tracing. So health officials are trying to educate the public by putting out not only the rate of positive COVID tests, but the number of people who are testing positive for for the first time.

In Wyandotte County, 33% of the tests are returning positive for COVID, said Wyandotte County health officer Allen Greiner. For those who have never had the disease, they are testing positive in the high 60% to 70% range.

Wyandotte County isn’t doing so great when it comes to vaccination, Greiner said.

“We’ve really had to struggle,” he said.

About 58% of the population has had a first dose of the vaccine and only 49% have been fully vaccinated. Only about 16% of the population have received a booster shot.

“With all the data we have, we know these vaccines are very safe and very effective and we want to motivate people to get them,” Greiner said.

In Johnson County, the numbers are similar, except the population is about four times larger, LeMaster said.

“We have also seen record numbers of cases that are really astonishing,” he said.

The county reported a seven-day positivity rate of nearly 30% as of Sunday. Around 65% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

“We’re still very much behind where we think we need to be,” LeMaster said. “The biggest concern of course are in the youngest group of people who have the lowest rates of vaccination.”

The University of Kansas Health System reported 118 COVID patients with the active virus Thursday, down from 124 on Wednesday. Twenty-one of those patients were in the ICU, with 15 on ventilators.

There were 78 other patients still hospitalized because of COVID but who are out of the acute infection phase, for a total of 196 patients. The hospital reported one inpatient death on Wednesday, the 29th at the hospital so far this month.

“We still have a high rate of mortality unfortunately for the month of January,” said Dr. Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at the health system.

As the area is getting to the peak of the omicron surge, medical staff out sick with the disease or caring for children because schools have been canceled are starting to return, which LeMaster said is encouraging.

If omicron is peaking in the area, people will need to remain vigilant because it’s uncertain how many patients will need to be hospitalized, health officials said.

LeMaster was encouraged that cities were returning to mask mandates, saying wearing a mask in every situation works and cuts transmission of the disease.

“We continue to encourage everyone to be wearing masks in indoor situations where they’re with groups of people,” he said.

Health officials have stepped up recommendations for people to use more than just a single cloth mask and double mask if they can.

“But the most important thing I think that people can do still is going to be getting that booster,” LeMaster said, adding that vaccinations are not just about individual risk, it’s about the entire community.

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