'Alarming news' on COVID case increases has Kansas doctor 'cautiously braced' for another surge
A Kansas public health official warned Wednesday that coronavirus pandemic indicators are no longer improving.
Ximena Garcia, a physician and an adviser to Gov. Laura Kelly on COVID-19 vaccine equity, said case rates are increasing after previously falling and plateauing from the delta variant surge.
"In the last two weeks, we are seeing the cases rising again," Garcia told the Kansas COVID-19 Equity Task Force.
"Another little bit of alarming news ... in our surrounding states, we're really seeing increases in cases, even more than our state. So we're a little bit cautiously braced for maybe another surge, but it's too soon to tell."
Kansas Department of Health and Environment data show 7,820 new cases of COVID-19, 188 new hospitalizations, 49 new ICU admissions and 21 new deaths reported over the past seven days.
Children accounted for 2,205 new cases, five new hospitalizations and one new death. At 24% of the state's population, youths continue to account for a disproportionate share — 28% — of new cases.
The pediatric death, first reported Friday, is the sixth child death from COVID-19 in Kansas. The child was in the infant to 9-year-old age group.
Adult vaccination has "largely stagnated over the past month," according to Garcia's presentation. Meanwhile, youth vaccination has been "slowly increasing" while remaining several percentage points below the national average.
Kansas cases jump fifth-highest percentage in U.S.
Federal data show 64.5% of the entire Kansas population has at least one dose, while 54% are fully vaccinated.
"I'm very hopeful that with the approval of Pfizer for kids 5-11 we're going to start to see more of the total population vaccinated," Garcia said.
Vaccination data specific to the 5-11 age group isn't yet available through state or federal sources. Data for that age group could be available soon, Garcia said.
"We do know a lot of vaccination is happening, a lot of appointments are booked," she said.
Federal data released Wednesday show Colorado and Nebraska have higher case rates than Kansas, but Kansas isn't far behind. The current Kansas case rate is a 43% increase from a week ago — the fifth-highest percentage increase in the country.
Kansas continues to be a state with high community transmission. Statewide, 10.4% of tests are coming back positive, though school-aged children have the highest positive test rates.
The federal data reported a 12% increase in hospitalizations in Kansas, though children saw a 75% increase in hospitalizations.
Jewell and Sherman counties have two of the 10 highest case rates in the country. Thomas, Logan, Rawlins, Edwards, Sheridan, Wallace, Stafford, Labette, Stevens, Grant, Nemaha and Cloud counties are also in the top 100 highest case rates of more than 3,000 counties across the United States.
COVID-19 cases rise ahead of special session
The recent rise in COVID-19 cases comes as state lawmakers prepare for a special session next week. The Legislature is set to debate proposals designed to challenge federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates, as well as requirements by private employers.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has signed Kansas onto a trio of lawsuits challenging President Joe Biden's mandates for large employers, health care workers and federal contractors.
The University of Kansas Health System held a media briefing on COVID-19 on Tuesday.
"My worst moment (of the pandemic) is watching something that is really a public health emergency become a political tool," said Steve Stites, the chief medical officer. "That's just wrong. When you take care of people, and you watch people suffer and die and have long-haul syndrome, it hurts you to your core."
Stites said politics have made the pandemic harder because "we know what to do, but we get into this political battle over it."
Hospitalization numbers are rising again at the KU hospital in Kansas City, Kan.
"It's kind of trending back up," said Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease specialist. "This is for the United States, this is for our community specifically as well, so that's really concerning.
"But there continues to be supportive data that this continues to be now a pandemic of the unvaccinated, as 90%-plus of the people who are dying continue to be unvaccinated."
Stites said recent wastewater testing in Lawrence would forecast a continued rise in cases.
"It shouldn't surprise us," he said, pointing to the lifting of mask mandates in some of the few areas that still required face coverings. "When you start taking masks off and you go indoors, people are going to get sick again, and we're going to see that increasing rise in COVID-19 numbers, and that's exactly what we're starting to see."
Vaccine hesitancy persists
A study of vaccine hesitancy among adult Kansans, conducted in September, found that unvaccinated people tend to be younger, have likely had COVID-19 already or have a relative who got sick, generally live in rural areas and typically earn less than $50,000 a year.
Only about 19% of unvaccinated adults are considered to be in the "moveable middle," while 14% are likely to get vaccinated and 66% are unlikely to ever get vaccinated. Racial and ethnic minorities, younger adults and people living in urban areas are most likely to be in the "moveable middle."
"We have reason to believe that those who say they are unlikely to get vaccinated, at this point have made up their minds and really are not going to be persuaded, no matter what we do," Garcia said.
The biggest drivers of hesitancy are concerns over side effects and safety. About 64% of respondents believe vaccine side effects are worse than getting sick with COVID-19.
Misinformation is "widespread," including 87% of survey respondents believing that vaccines impact fertility and 64% believing they can change their DNA. Neither belief is true, scientists have said.
Survey respondents were most likely to trust doctors and other health and medical authorities, but 38% said they don't trust any source.
Effective strategies to promote vaccines among unvaccinated, Garcia said, are to use health care providers and family members as messengers, offer paid time off to manage side effects and offer a $250 monetary reward.
Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.