Johnson County COVID-19 cases spike ahead of Thanksgiving — ‘Time to be a little bit nervous’

Shawnee Mission South students

Johnson County is seeing an increase in new COVID-19 cases — and University of Kansas Health Systems Chief Medical Officer Steve Stites warns that as mask mandates end and people return to indoor gatherings, the community needs to be "cognizant" of what is happening. Above, students at Shawnee Mission South High School. SMSD will require all students to wear masks at school through December. File image.

Johnson County and the greater Kansas City region are seeing yet another spike in COVID-19 cases heading into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, prompting local health officials to issue renewed calls for safety when gathering indoors with friends and family.

The incidence rate in the county is now up to 226 new cases per 100,000 persons, according to Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s COVID-19 dashboard. That’s compared to 108 per 100,000 at the start of November.

Likewise, percent positivity in the county has shot up to 7.3%, compared to 4.6% compared to the start of November.

Both figures are the highest they’ve been in Johnson County since the last week of August, when a late-summer surge in cases caused by the Delta variant began to ebb.

As of Nov. 23, 1,358 new COVID-19 cases had been reported to JCDHE in the last seven days — which means there have been an average of 194 new cases per day in that time span, according to the dashboard.

Last week, JCDHE tweeted about the recent case increase and encouraged the public to get a COVID-19 booster shot — especially ahead of the holiday season.

Johnson County’s new daily case average is slightly higher than the Kansas City metropolitan area’s, which is seeing 122 new daily cases on average as of Nov. 23, according to Mid-America Regional Council’s COVID-19 dashboard.

An increase in cases normally predicts an uptick in hospitalizations two weeks later, University of Kansas Health Systems Chief Medical Officer Steve Stites said during KU Health’s daily COVID-19 update on Wednesday. 

While KU Medical Center is reporting COVID-19 hospitalizations in the high teens and low twenties recently, Stites said it’s “time to be a little bit nervous” about the uptick in COVID-19 cases in the Midwest, and especially in Kansas City.

Stites said unvaccinated people are vulnerable as cities and school districts begin roll back COVID-19 mitigation efforts, most notably masking requirements.

“We just have to be very cognizant of what is happening, especially here in our metropolitan area,” Stites said. “Masks are off, people are back gathering again indoors. Hats off, though, to Wyandotte County — at least in our humble opinion — they’ve extended their mask mandate to Jan. 6. I think that was a really great move.”

Currently, no Johnson County city has a mask order in place after Roeland Park let its one expire on Nov. 15.

Likewise, beginning Monday, Nov. 29, the Blue Valley and Olathe school districts will allow high school students to go unmasked at school. Though each district has also held open the possibility that mask rules could be reimposed if case numbers increase again.

The Shawnee Mission School District currently is still requiring all students at all grade levels to wear masks at school through the end of the semester. Masks are set to become optional for high schoolers in SMSD in January.

Tips for being safe over the holidays

Along with recommending booster doses, health officials also recommend a “layered approach” to follow this holiday season, if you are going to be around those who might be vulnerable or especially at-risk, including young children not yet eligible to be vaccinated, those with underlying health conditions or autoimmune disorders.

Here are tips offered by the county health department:

  • Getting vaccinated remains the best protection for you and those around you, JCDHE says. And with the availability of boosters across the state, it is also recommended to maintain the highest level of immunity to the virus. Vaccination and now boosters are readily available across Johnson County at JCDHE health centers, pharmacies, and primary care doctors. It is also recommended to get your flu shot for the season and your vaccination shot as it’s safe and effective.
  • Get tested if you are displaying symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed. It is better to be safe than risk a loved one’s health. Testing is widely available at clinics, pharmacies and at-home rapid tests are also widely available.
  • It might also be a good idea to wear a mask if you are planning on bringing together people from various households or gathering indoors with a large group of people. If possible, it might also be a good idea to increase ventilation by keeping a window open or using an indoor fan.
  • Make sure to wash your hands frequently, and if you’re feeling sick or showing symptoms of COVID-19, stay home.
    JCDHE officials are available to answer questions concerning vaccination or testing for residents in need of assistance.

To schedule an appointment or general inquiry email jcdhe@jocogov.org. Spanish speakers are available to assist by phone or email as well.

You can also visit vaccines.gov to search for the closest vaccination site by using your zip code.