Kansas Chief Health Officer says the coronavirus did not “magically” go away as the Department of Health prepares for an end to the statewide declaration of emergency.
“The trendline is doing really well, but we have to keep in mind that we still have about 100 – or a little more – new cases every day,” said Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “We still have one to three deaths every day.
“Put that in perspective. The deaths are preventable. If we had one to three deaths a day from something else that was preventable, there would be rioting in the streets. So the fact is that the numbers have fallen quite dramatically, but we still have a way to go. “
Norman’s comments came during a media briefing on Tuesday hosted by the University of Kansas Health System.
As of Wednesday, the KDHE has recorded 315,500 cases of COVID-19, 10,849 hospital admissions and 5,103 deaths since the pandemic began. In Sedgwick County there were 57,512 cases, 1,867 hospitalizations and 775 deaths.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 47.5% of the total state population have been vaccinated with at least one dose, while about 39.3% of people are fully vaccinated.
Norman said the Department of Health is preparing a transition from emergency operations to be presented to the governor.
“Our legislature decided to let our emergency declaration expire on June 15,” said Norman. “That means we will gradually dismantle our emergency call center. I don’t want people to get away with the idea that somehow the virus is magically disappearing because the Kansas State Declaration of Emergency is disappearing. We still have the same struggle, we still have the same need for vaccinations. “
The emergency operations tend to happen behind the scenes, like locating warehouses and truck drivers, Norman said. FedEx and UPS will do more vaccine shipments. Ending the statewide emergency will also remove the National Guard forces that helped respond to the pandemic, although there are plans to use contract nurses to fill that void.
Contact tracing and case investigations will continue. Local officials will continue to be empowered to issue mask mandates and other health regulations. Federal money used for vaccinations and testing is not tied to the emergency statement, Norman said.
“We’re on the rise,” he said. “I think we’re doing pretty well, but we still have a lot of things to consider.”
COVID data update
Data from the White House Task Force and CDC Tuesday showed “moderate” prevalence in the Kansas community as a whole. However, some areas are about to become hotspots.
In the seven-day period June 1 through Monday, the CDC reported 787 new cases and 27 new deaths in Kansas. There were 100 confirmed COVID-19 hospital admissions and 180 suspected COVID-19 hospital admissions. The positive test rate was 3.8%
By federal standards, hospital rates and positivity rates were green, while cases and deaths were yellow.
Kansas has five of the 100 worst counties in the country for new case rates, CDC data show. Decatur County has the 19th-highest weekly fall rate in the country, being more than three times the red zone threshold. Rawlins County ranks 23rd, Washington County 30th, Cloud County 60th, and Geary County 62nd.
Overall, 15 of the 105 counties in Kansas have “high” community transmission, the highest possible spread of disease on the county-level CDC COVID reports. Other counties in the red zone for spread in the parish include Allen, Cherokee, Dickinson, Doniphan, Ellsworth, Linn, Marshall, Morris, Pottawatomie, and Wabaunsee, according to CDC data reported Wednesday.
The areas in Wichita and suburban Kansas City generally have a “moderate” or yellow zone, community spread.
Sedgwick County had 185 new cases in the weekly period ended Monday, a rate of 36 per 100,000. There were eight new deaths. The positive test rate was 4.3%. There were 19 confirmed and 115 suspected COVID-19 hospital admissions. The ICU status is in the red, with 87% of beds occupied for adults, although only 4% of beds are occupied by confirmed COVID-19 patients.
The Sedgwick County Department of Health reported that 27 patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized at Ascension Via Christi and Wesley Healthcare facilities on Monday. Eleven of these patients were in intensive care units. The number of local hospitals has largely improved since the spring high in early May.
Vaccination rates in Sedgwick County are below national numbers. On site, 41.4% of people have had their first vaccination and 32% of people are fully vaccinated, reports the CDC.
Kansas, which ranks 30th in the US for a fully vaccinated population, continues to have a hard time getting high vaccination rates.
Norman said Kansas won’t reach a 70% vaccination rate on the first dose by July 4, a goal set by President Joe Biden, adding that herd immunity is likely a few months away.
“We need to accelerate the pace,” he said.
The opposite is happening. Last week was the worst week for vaccine delivery in Kansas since at least late January, according to the CDC data archives.
In the past week, 12,979 first doses and 13,927 second doses were given nationwide, according to the CDC report on Monday. Kansas peaked with 133,964 first doses given in the week before April 5 and 112,880 second doses in the week before April 19. Last week’s numbers were a 90% decrease in first doses and 88% in second dose since the peak of vaccination.
“Vaccinations have dropped dramatically,” said Norman.
In Sedgwick County, the local health department will open its drive-through vaccination clinic on Wednesday, according to an announcement Wednesday. The clinic had primarily served elderly residents, and most of those populations have already received both shots.
The bulk vaccination station in the old library in downtown Wichita and smaller mobile clinics continue to operate.
While mass hospitals have seen a significant drop in demand, school hospitals have made up some of the gap, the health minister said. Children aged 12 and over are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
“There are even children who drag their unvaccinated parents with them to show them the right things to do and then they get vaccinated too,” said Norman.
Norman said that more than 90% of Kansans who get a first dose get their second dose. Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer of KU Hospital, said the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both “fairly effective” after the first shot, but “you want to get this second dose” because it makes immunity stronger and lasts longer.
Hesitation and refusal of vaccines continues to be “an uphill battle,” said Dr. Dana Hawkinson, KU’s Infection Prevention and Control Medical Director.
“I even had a patient on Friday who didn’t want it because that patient didn’t believe the coronavirus was real and thought it was a government hoax,” Hawkinson said.
A vaccination doesn’t just protect you. Studies show that vaccinations help prevent transmission to other people, he said.
“It is still an act of charity to help those around you,” by getting vaccinated, said Hawkinson. “You may feel like you don’t get sick … but you also need to understand that you are a danger to other people.”
Some of the vaccine hesitations claim the vaccine is “experimental”. Stites said this was not true, noting that mRNA vaccines have been around for more than a decade.
“With hundreds of millions of doses administered, it is one of the most tested and most experienced products in modern history,” said Norman. “The fact that it doesn’t have full FDA approval – and they will – doesn’t necessarily mean it’s experimental. I think this conjures up something that may not be intended, but I think this is used on occasion to turn people off. “
Coronavirus clusters, variants
Coronavirus clusters continue to emerge across the state. In the past two weeks, 33 new outbreaks have been reported by the KDHE. Locations include 17 companies, five long-term care facilities, three private events, three sporting events, a school, health facility, dormitory, government office, and correctional facility.
Norman said staff in care facilities should be vaccinated, noting that “many” outbreaks in care homes started with an unvaccinated worker who then infected residents.
“The good news is that most of the residents, over 90% of them, are vaccinated,” he said. “Many of the infections we’ve seen in these people are completely asymptomatic.”
“I think it’s a moral obligation to get vaccinated when working in such environments.”
There were 1,364 confirmed variant cases nationwide as of Wednesday, although genome sequencing is only carried out in a fraction of COVID-19 cases. The alpha variant first identified in the UK remains the predominant strain in Kansas with 971 cases.
Sedgwick County had 620 of the state’s confirmed variant cases. The most locally dominant strains are 398 cases of the alpha variant and 176 cases of the gamma variant, which was first identified in Brazil.
Sewage tests show the proportion of the Delta variant in Kansas has increased, Norman said. The Delta tribe, first identified in India, is partly behind a surge that recently made two rural counties in Missouri the worst in the country.
“We’re watching it carefully,” Norman said of the Delta Tribe.
Norman, who has praised the benefits of wastewater testing in identifying COVID-19 prevalence in a community, said public health officials have started a similar air sampling pilot.
“Imagine coming back with certain classrooms in the fall,” he said. “It’s like a saliva test, but you don’t have to touch anyone. It’s basically (testing for) the presence or absence of (virus particles in the air). It’s a PCR test, so it’s very specific. Whether it fits in the work environment or in the classroom or not – I think it will – we will find out. “
Still, the KDHE is likely to continue to recommend that school authorities require masks in classrooms for the next school year.
“Our guidance remains that unvaccinated people should wear masks,” said Norman. “So we will continue to have the same recommendations on distance and wearing masks, until what time we can vaccinate children. There’s going to be a lot of pressure, and I think we’re going to end up with a strange patchwork quilt all over the state of Kansas. “
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Jason Tidd is a reporter for The Wichita Eagle covering breaking news, crime and the courts.