By Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service
For six straight months, COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped steadily.
Kansans let down their guard. They stopped wearing masks. Most didn’t bother to get the vaccine.
Then the highly contagious delta variant arrived.
It took root, and is fueling a surge of the coronavirus worse than anything in the past several months. That’s led to steep increases in hospitalizations and fresh outbreaks in long-term care.
- Kansas reported 3,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past week. The state hasn’t seen an increase like that since February.
- The daily count of COVID inpatients hit 275 last Wednesday — the highest since early March.
- Nursing homes and other long-term care sites are battling nine outbreaks this week, four times as many as three months ago.
And this is before schoolchildren and college students head back to classes in August.
“It is scary,” Fredonia, Kansas, family doctor Jennifer Bacani McKenney said. “Because we don’t have people wearing masks in the community. Pretty much here nobody’s wearing masks except for us in health care.”
The delta variant recently found its way into an assisted living center in rural Wilson County in southeast Kansas, where Bacani-McKenney is the local health officer. About two dozen people got sick.
Most of those people were vaccinated and got only mildly ill, Bacani-McKenney said. She declined to disclose whether any of the center’s residents died, but said her county has had three recent COVID-19 deaths.
Low vaccination rate
With so many still unprotected, the delta variant has no shortage of hosts to choose from.
It can also affect those who’ve gotten the shots, though vaccination significantly cuts the risks of hospitalization and death.
How did the delta variant get into the Wilson County assisted living center?
Confirming that is difficult. As far as health officials can tell, they believe a vaccinated staff member unwittingly carried in the germs from a side gig cleaning the home of an unvaccinated couple who got sick.
Topeka physician Erin Locke, health officer for Shawnee County, urged anyone with even mild symptoms to get a free COVID test instead of assuming it’s just a cold.
“We have just over half of our county that are not protected” with vaccines, she said. “And going about and doing all the normal activities without taking any precautions is really, really risky right now.”
Shawnee County confirmed its first delta case in early June and it is now the dominant version of coronavirus there.
Last week the county pleaded for residents to get vaccinated after confirming 112 COVID cases in just four days, compared to 156 cases for the whole month of June.
The increase is fueled by unvaccinated adults and children. Locke said the county has seen very few cases of vaccinated people getting sick.
“We’ve calculated that rate at about one individual for every 1,000 fully vaccinated individuals,” she said. “So it's really quite low.”
Though children 11 and younger can’t get the shots yet, those 12 through 17 can. Yet Shawnee County estimates just 30% of that age group has done so.
Masks and schools
Pediatrician Barbara Pahud researches infectious disease at Children's Mercy Hospital, where she leads the clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12.
If you have children in that age group, Pahud said, don’t expect shots this fall. The clinical study and federal review process may well take until early next year.
That doesn’t mean kids shouldn’t go back to classes in August, she said. But families and schools should take precautions.
“The problem is, people don’t want to wear masks,” she said. “We want to go back to school, but not with masks. You can’t do that in the middle of a pandemic.”
“Until we get everybody vaccinated, you're going to have to continue doing what we know works,” Pahud said. “Masks work.”
Several Kansas school districts have already made masks optional, including some of the state’s biggest in Sedgwick and Johnson counties.
Last week, the Johnson County health department urged school districts to make masks mandatory for anyone who is unvaccinated come August.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.