Kansas doctors warn of lax approach to coronavirus variants

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TOPEKA — Doctors with the University of Kansas Health System warn of a lack of preparation surrounding a COVID-19 subvariant driving rising case numbers.

The BA.5 variant has led health care providers in eastern Kansas to report levels similar to surges seen with Delta and Omicron. Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, said the loosening of disease prevention protocols could be setting communities up for failure.

“Knowing that we are seeing a lack of boosters going into arms, and Paxlovid isn’t quite working as well, and the monoclonal antibodies aren’t quite what they were before, I just wonder, are we setting ourselves up for some problems this fall?” Stites said.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 7,519 new COVID-19 cases and five new deaths in the past week.

Without full vaccination and booster shots, variants will continue to spread, said Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control for the KU Health System. In Kansas, 62.8% of the total population is fully vaccinated, and 45.6% has at least one booster shot. For Kansas adults, the vaccination rate is 73.7%.

“There’s just so much spread, but the other thing is that we know that there are animal spillovers that can occur and then occur back to humans as well,” Hawkinson said. “You’re just going to have so many opportunities for this virus to be selected out, for any one variant to be self-selected out. So think we are in for a long road as far as watching and monitoring for variants.”

KU Health System doctors said wastewater testing confirmed COVID-19 is on the rise in the region. Numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show hospitalization is on the rise across the country, including in Kansas.

Joseph LeMaster, medical director and health officer for Johnson County, said assumptions based on national data that the pandemic was over led to a return to old practices. He said the wastewater testing indicates actual infections may be much higher than reported numbers.

LeMaster said he was unsure if the board of commissioners would require masks in Johnson County schools.

“We’ve continued to recommend the strong use of masks and all the other mitigation efforts and have never really changed our recommendations, but the mandates in the schools last year were predominantly due to the lack of availability of vaccines for the youngest populations,” he said.

Patrick Sallee, president and CEO of Vibrant Health in Wyandotte County, said the public was set to repeat the same things experienced at the beginning of the pandemic. The brunt of this, he said, would be felt by under-resourced communities.

Carlton Abner, associate provost of Campus Health and Wellness at Kansas City University, said convincing people to get vaccinated necessitates restoring trust in underserved communities.

“It most likely is going to be establishing that trust, one person or small group at a time,” Abner said. “It’s going to probably require very intimate contact within those communities and conversations that are extended over a period of time to just get people across the line.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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