'We are in trouble': Kansas COVID case rate doubled, hospitalizations up 32% since July 4 holiday

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
COVID-19 vaccines are distributed at Highland Park elementary school on April 29.

The rate of new COVID-19 cases has more than doubled in Kansas since the Fourth of July as the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant sends more people to hospitals.

"We are in trouble," Steve Stites, chief medical officer of The University of Kansas Health System, said Friday. 

The latest pandemic statistics from the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show "substantial" community spread in Kansas as several localities struggle to contain the coronavirus.

Statewide, the rate of new COVID-19 cases per population has risen 138% in the two weeks since the holiday weekend compared to the two weeks prior. New deaths are up 43%. Confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 32%, and suspected COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 9%. The positive test rate had a percent change of 88%.

Meanwhile, the number of people seeking vaccination continues to fall. The number of newly administered first doses fell 17% across the state during the more recent two-week period, according to the White House/CDC data as of Friday.

"The longer that people continue to go unvaccinated, the longer we continue to have these spikes and fight with COVID, the longer it's going to be before we get back to some of that normalcy," KU physician Paul Schroeppel said on Monday.

Friday's White House/CDC report classified three counties on the Missouri border as hotspots: Cherokee, Crawford and Wyandotte. Additionally, Geary County was categorized as a sustained hotspot and Riley County was dubbed an emerging hotspot.

Cherokee County in far southeast Kansas has the worst case rate in the state, at more than 2.5 times the federal red-zone threshold. Case counts have nearly doubled there since the Independence Day weekend.

More:Shawnee County COVID-19 cases in 'midst of a surge.' Here is where you can get vaccinated.

The positive test rate went from an average of 24.5% for the two-week period ending July 2 to an average of 40% for the two weeks ending Friday. That's quadruple the federal red-zone threshold.

"I think it's the rise of the Delta virus combined with the removal of mask mandates and social distancing, and people gathering together going back to camps trying to do things like it's a normal life," Stites said of the new surge.

Dubbed as the fourth wave of COVID-19, a nationwide doubling of COVID-19 cases has particularly threatened unvaccinated segments of the population.

"If numbers are increasing — case counts, death counts — we may see that this trend is not going in the way that we want it to," Lance Williamson, the infection prevention and control nurse supervisor at The University of Kansas Health System, said Monday. "So if it keeps increasing, then we may need to make changes based off of what we know works in our communities to prevent spread, in addition to vaccines."

More:'Do not send your child to camp with sickness': Summer camp COVID-19 clusters in Kansas infect youths and staff

Delta variant, hospitalizations and COVID vaccinations

Kansas Department of Health and Environment statistics released Monday showed a 124% increase in Delta variant cases since July 7. There have now been 950 confirmed Delta cases found in 58 counties across the state.

However, there are likely far more Delta cases because less than one out of every 10 cases of COVID-19 this month have undergone genome sequencing to determine the strain. The Delta variant comprised 96% of all specimens collected last week.

For instance, while Bourbon County had 43 COVID-19 cases reported in the first two weeks of the month, a total of nine specimens have been collected from the county since genome sequencing started. Eight of those came back as the Delta variant.

The vaccines offer strong protection against severe illness and death. Although rare, breakthrough cases where fully vaccinated people become infected do happen.

Williamson said KU hospitals have reported few breakthrough infections, and the Delta variant is "likely" behind those cases.

National reporting guidelines of breakthrough cases focus on hospitalizations and deaths after vaccination. There have been 5,189 hospitalizations from breakthrough cases and 1,063 deaths reported to the CDC, though at least 25% of the hospitalizations and deaths were reported as asymptomatic or not related to COVID-19.

More:Kansas nursing homes fall short of staff vaccination goal as COVID-19 outbreaks continue

Williamson said that for people who previously had COVID-19, especially if the infection was a year ago or more, their natural immunity doesn't offer as much protection as the vaccines.

"We know that the antibody immune response you get from the vaccine is much more robust than what you would get from a natural infection," he said.

Only about 40% of the entire state population is fully vaccinated, KDHE data show. Vaccination rates are lowest among the younger populations, and those same age groups tend to have higher case rates.

"As far as COVID deaths, we saw a decrease in May and June. ... We have seen them spike up a bit now," Williamson said.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are the highest at KU hospitals since February, and few of the patients are fully vaccinated.

More:Anyone can request a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Shawnee County. Here is how you do it.

"It's the unvaccinated people for the most part," Stites said. "We do have some vaccinated people ... about 16% of our patient population, but they're all severely chronically ill people who you would expect to maybe not have a good immune response.

"We have a lot of young people who are unvaccinated."

The financial cost of a COVID-19 hospitalization is about $30,000 to $40,000, nearly double that of a routine medical patient, Stites said. Medical economics could lead to higher insurance premiums for everyone.