‘Fairly concerning’ — Johnson County COVID-19 numbers spike as part of larger trend driven by Delta variant

Johnson County COVID-19

In Johnson County, new cases are rising and percent positivity has spiked to levels not seen since February, when mass vaccination efforts were just getting underway. Local health officials say vaccination rates have fallen off, and nearly all new cases they're seeing in hospitals are in unvaccinated patients. File photo.

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Local health officials are expressing growing concern as new COVID-19 cases in Johnson County continue a renewed surge as the more contagious Delta variant spreads throughout the greater Kansas City region.

Data kept by the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment show an increase across the board in COVID-19 activity in Johnson County.

Over the past two weeks, key metrics like the county’s incidence rate of new cases and percent positivity have shot up to levels last recorded in January, when mass vaccinations were just getting underway.

“It’s starting to be fairly concerning, yes,” said Dana Hawkinson, MD, during the University of Kansas Health System’s daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday.

He said the growing case numbers are related to the fact that a large proportion of the population remains unvaccinated.

“The vast majority of people we are seeing hospitalized are unvaccinated,” he said. “And that’s a tragedy because this is so preventable.”

Alarm and frustration

Johnson County health leaders say they continue to closely monitor the situation as cases explode in southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri, where vaccination rates are generally much lower than here.

Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., Johnson County’s health director, says rising rates in other counties will have an impact on Johnson County.

“COVID-19 and the [Delta] variant cases are increasing in the metro area as well as throughout the country,” Areola said. “People live in one county but work in another. We have a highly mobile society.”

Johnson County’s percent positivity has taken a marked upward shift in the past two weeks, topping 6% for the first time since January. Image via Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

While Johnson County has a  relatively high rate of vaccination compared to other metro counties — slightly more than 50% of eligible residents have been fully vaccinated, according to JCDHE data — health officials still speculate that it will take a community vaccination rate closer to 70% to reach coveted herd immunity.

This is why health officials continue to encourage anyone who is not vaccinated to do so.

“Being vaccinated interrupts the transmission of the virus, stopping the spread,” Areola says. “The vaccines are highly effective and JCDHE continues to urge all that are eligible to receive it.”

In Thursday’s COVID-19 briefing, Hawkinson with KU Health expressed frustration with what he termed the “politicization” and “misinformation” that was prompting many people to refuse to get vaccinated.

“These vaccines are miracles of modern science and medicine,” he said. “They are life-saving and preventive, and none of the reasons we hear for not getting vaccinated are good enough to override the fact that these vaccines work and help you from getting sick and going to the hospital.”

As of Thursday, Hawkinson said KU Health was tending to 37 active infections in its hospital, an increase from recent weeks but still well below levels seen at the height of the pandemic last year. He said nearly all of those patients were unvaccinated.

New restrictions?

It’s not clear if the new Delta-driven surge in cases will prompt new public safety measures locally. Other localities around the nation, most notably Los Angeles County in California, have re-instituted mask orders in recent days.

Areola said there has so far been no discussion with Johnson County or local city officials about reimplementing measures like social distancing guidelines and mask requirements.

At the same time, local schools are beginning to consider protocols for a new school year, with students set to return to in-person learning next month.

The CDC released updated guidance this week for school reopening, urging schools to hold as much in-person learning as possible while still having mitigation protocols — like physical distancing and, potentially, mask rules — in place to help prevent spread of the disease.

Kids younger than 12 remain ineligible to be vaccinated, and the vaccination rate in Johnson County for people 17 and younger is less than 10%.

Most public school districts in Johnson County have already said they plan to make mask-wearing for students optional for the coming school year.

Some key COVID-19 metrics in Johnson County:

  • Percent positivity: 6.4%, up from 4.4% on July 7
  • Incidence rate: 126 per 100,000 residents, up from 50 per 100,000 on July 7
  • Cumulative cases: 47,436 positive cases of COVID-19, up 430 since July 7
  • Total deaths: 675, up 4 deaths since July 7

Vaccination opportunities this week:

Local health officials continue to encourage residents of Johnson County to get vaccinated if they have not yet already.

Anyone needing a vaccination can simply walk in to the county’s mass vaccine clinic at 15500 W. 108th Street in Lenexa during designated hours.

That mass vaccine clinic will operate on the following hours through July 29:

  • 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays
  • 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays

Starting Monday, August 2, first and second doses will be offered at a vaccination clinic at in Mission, 6000 Lamar Ave., suite 140. That clinic will operate from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday

Vaccinations are also available at the JCDHE Olathe walk-in clinic at 11875 S Sunset Dr. #300 for individuals being seen for other services.

Each week the JCDHE will host several COVID-19 vaccination clinics across Johnson County. You can see an updated list here.

Post Editor Kyle Palmer contributed to this report.