Weekly COVID-19 Update: Local officials warn it’s only a matter of time before virus mutations appear here

New variants of the novel coronavirus — which scientists say are more contagious but no more deadly than what's currently prevalent in Johnson County, have been detected in nearby states of Colorado and Illinois. Above, a file photo of COVID-19 testing at Viracor Eurofins in Lee's Summit. Photo courtesy Viracor Eurofins.

New variants of COVID-19 are popping up around the world and in some nearby states but haven’t been documented in Johnson County or Kansas yet. Still, health officials warn that if it’s not already here, it’s just a matter of time.

The new variants — which have generally been found to be more transmissible — were first tracked in the United Kingdom. It has now been detected in Colorado, Illinois, Texas and other states in the U.S.

In all, CDC data counts 122 cases across at least 20 states from this new virus lineage. Additional variants from other countries, like South Africa and Brazil, have not been detected yet.

Kansas testing COVID-19 samples to see if they’ve mutated

Kansas does some genomic testing on COVID-19 samples to determine if they are mutated strains, Kansas Secretary of the Department of Health and Environment Dr. Lee Norman said during Tuesday morning’s University of Kansas Medical Center COVID-19 briefing.

That genomic sequencing effort was recently expanded in order to monitor for the variant from the UK. The goal is to process 200 to 300 samples a week — an amount that pales in comparison to the sheer volume of cases counted each week, Norman said. Some commercial labs will begin helping with the process of sequencing the genetic information of viral samples.

“There’s no question it’s going to make it into the state,” Norman said.

During his appearance on the University of Kansas Medical Center COVID-19 briefing last week, Dr. Gregory Poland, the director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, said higher case numbers associated with more transmissibility can lead to more bad outcomes and more COVID-19 related deaths — even if the new variants aren’t any deadlier.

“These variants are of concern,” Poland said. “These variants are no more lethal — that seems to be true — but the number of deaths and hospitalizations goes up exponentially because you’re infecting so many more people.”

Vaccination rollout

Poland says there’s little evidence to suggest that the vaccines currently being administered across the U.S. won’t be effective at combating serious illness from these new COVID-19 variants.

However, vaccine roll-out remains a barrier to a more effective defense against any form of the novel coronavirus.

“It’s just fallen short because we don’t have the amount of vaccine we need,” Norman said. “It’s just a trickling supply coming in that’s been a source of frustration.”

As neighboring counties — like Wyandotte County — finish Phase 1, Johnson County has lagged behind due to a higher volume of health care workers who need to receive doses. After what Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., county health director, referred to as weeks of “begging” the state for more doses, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment remains hopeful it can finish up Phase 1 soon.

This week, the department expects to receive just shy 7,000 more doses, which “should take us through most of what we need to conclude Phase 1,” the county’s COVID-19 newsletter from Tuesday evening says.

Norman said he expects a more concrete projection for the start of the second phase of vaccination roll-out in the state of Kansas by the end of this week — some of Kansas’ 105 counties are already done with Phase 1. If you are 65-years-old or older, a critical employee or otherwise eligible for Phase 2, register here.

Here’s a look at the overall trends in Johnson County

Data via Johnson County Department of Health and Environment COVID-19 dashboard.

Following a slight uptick in cases the last couple of weeks, Johnson County’s positivity rate fell two percentage points — from 14.7% last week to 12.7%. JCDHE leaders have said repeatedly their goal is to have the positivity rate at 5% or less. As of Wednesday, data from JCDHE has new cases per 100,000 residents metric is nearing 680, a decrease from last week.

Last week, Johnson County saw 31 deaths and 110 new hospitalizations.

Overall, Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said the Kansas City metro area was spared from big surges in new cases and hospitalizations following the holiday season.

“Something is going right out there,” Stites said about compliance with guidance that mitigates the spread of COVID-19.

Recent COVID-19 coverage