Hultgren speaks on Omicron, COVID-19 test supplies and deferring to KDHE dashboard

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Jan. 13—During the Dickinson County Health Department Jan. 5 special meeting, John Hultgren, health department director, discussed various current issues about the pandemic and the department. The purpose of the Jan. 5 meeting went over the changes to the county's COVID-19 guidelines.

According to newer studies, Hultgren said cloth masks are not as effective as surgical, kn95, or n95 masks.

"(Professionals) say that everybody is going to be exposed to (Omicron). So it's that transmissive, that somehow it is going to seep through (masks). You're going to be close to somebody whether you are mask-wearing, having it down and you're eating or drinking, or whatever. If somebody's close, you'll probably get it," Hultgren said. "Certainly, if you have a high-level mask, a surgical or an n95, each one of those reduces your (chances), but they are saying the cloth mask will hardly have much effect on slowing down your infection (chances) with the Omicron."

The county is not, at the time of the meeting, in danger of running out of masks, Hultgren said. A shortage could happen though. Brad Homman, county administrator, said the county does not have "very many" masks left.

As for the Omicron variant's presence in the United States, Hultgren said about 70 percent of COVID-19 cases in the county are now the Omicron variant. That percentage is rising every day, which will push the Delta variant out of the country.

"If you have the Delta variant, it does not make you immune to the Omicron variant, but if you get the Omicron variant, it makes you immune from the Delta variant," Hultgren said. "So maybe we ought to go home for a couple of weeks until the Omicron pushes the Delta clear out."

Most of the hospitalizations across the country are from the Delta variant, Hultgren said. In other states, Hultgren said hospitalizations have decreased as the Omicron variant pushes out the Delta, since Omicron causes fewer symptoms compared to the Delta. Hultgren said the local area probably will see the same pattern. The Omicron variant should be in and out of the area by the end of next month.

"Some people claim this is how viruses work, they weaken as they go along, and this is going to be a weaker version," he said. "Maybe from here on out this will move from a pandemic to an endemic and it will be like the normal flu every year."

The state of Kansas has not seen much of Omicron though, Hultgren said. He said February could be "wild" with rises in state case numbers.

The national shortage of COVID-19 tests could become a problem with Omicron coming into the state, Hultgren said.

"If it comes through pretty hot and heavy, it could not only be a shortage of tests but a shortage of availability to get a test in a timely matter and a shortage of availability to get those processed in a timely matter. If you are sick with the virus for three days, you may be well before you know whether you were positive or not if you had a test."

Hultgren said the county is not capable of testing and processing 300-400 people in one day. Also, the county health department may run out of tests. At the time of the meeting, Hultgren said the department had around 200 tests. Currently, there are no provisions in the COVID-19 guidelines for if there are no tests available. If that shortage and high cases are extreme enough, Hultgren said the federal or state governments may advise people to stay at home if they think they have COVID.

Part of the reason for the test shortage is some people, especially in the East Coast states, test every day out of fear of catching COVID, Hultgren said.

"I've got a friend who is a school teacher in Florida, and she caught COVID. Yesterday was day four. She has to have a negative test to go back to work, and she spent all day yesterday trying to find a test. She lives up around Orlando, and she's been to five different places. By the time she got to the front of the line, they were out. Last (social media) post, she was waiting in a line of cars that was two and a half miles long and hoping they still had tests when she got to the front of the line. I don't know what they are going to do with places that require you to have a negative test."

Hultgren also said it is "a little dangerous" to rely on a negative test for returning to work because some people can still have particles of the virus in them even though they are not contagious or sick. The particles will cause tests to come back positive, and the particles can stay in the body for up to a month.

On the flip side, some who have the Omicron variant could have no symptoms because of how much weaker of a variant it is and still spread it, Hultgren said. So people continue working while symptomless with Omicron, unknowingly spreading it. Although, being asymptomatic does lower the chances of spreading the virus.

Hultgren announced at the end of the meeting the health department will no longer be updating their county COVID-19 dashboard. The process has become too much to maintain, Hultgren said, and other large organizations such as John Hopkins that already record and display the information they do. The department will defer people to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's COVID dashboard from then on.

For more information on COVID-19, contact the Dickinson Health Department at 785-263-4179.

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