A record 2,016 new COVID-19 cases in the Kansas City metro area were reported by the Mid-America Regional Council on Tuesday.
The count includes cases that were not reported during the long New Year’s holiday weekend. Still, Tuesday’s tally surpasses post-holiday counts from last winter, which previously marked the high point of virus infections in the Kansas City area — despite the fact that COVID vaccines are now widely available.
On Tuesday morning, University of Kansas Health System chief medical officer Steven Stites warned against underestimating the latest surge.
“This is a dangerous moment,” Stites said. “We’re not trying to scare you. We’re just trying to be honest with you.”
Even though the omicron variant, which is quickly spreading throughout the U.S., has been associated with less severe illness among vaccinated people, local hospitalization numbers are now near record levels as well.
An average of 182 people are hospitalized each day with COVID-19 in Kansas City-area hospitals, only slightly below the all-time high of 188 hospitalizations reached in mid-December 2020.
KU doctors said that the COVID patients who have been hospitalized are overwhelmingly unvaccinated.
Record-setting cases are still likely an undercount
Statewide, the average number of daily COVID cases in Missouri climbed to 6,805 on Monday, far surpassing the previous peak in November 2020.
In Kansas, daily average cases reached 3,148 on Monday, also a new record.
However, experts say that official numbers likely undercount COVID cases, due to limited testing.
On Tuesday, a long line of cars with patients waiting for a free COVID test stretched out from 15112 Glenwood in Overland Park, around the corner and down the block on 151st Street.
Testing kits have been scarce or sold out in stores around the Kansas City area, pushing people from across the metro to this one-day, back-to-school testing event.
Employees from MyHomeLabs and sister company 4M Healthcare shuttled from the line of cars and back to the testing facility with armloads or boxes of kits, which they collected from the driver’s side of the cars.
Inside the office, employees sorted and labeled the test kits before sending them to be processed in a back room. Patients who arrived before noon were promised to get results the same day.
Early on Tuesday, some people were waiting up to an hour to get their test, according to Sloane Heller, a spokesperson for MyHomeLabs, which hosted the testing site. But after some tweaks to the system, the site was able to speed up the process to around a 15-minute wait time.
Heller estimated they tested around 1,500 patients by mid afternoon.
Independence resident Katie Collobert said she went out on New Year’s Eve and woke up not feeling well. Tuesday was her 31st birthday, and Collobert called this a gift to herself.
She has several family members that are immunocompromised.
“Those of us that are lowerpaid income — I learned that COVID hits those that are in poor neighborhoods and they maybe don’t have insurance or anything like that,” Collobert said. “So for these tests to be free for them to get this access is really incredible.”
Like many, Collobert says she was unable to find a testing appointment anywhere else in the area.
“I couldn’t find anywhere else,” she said. “I was looking on the public health department website, I was looking on Walgreens, CVS and HyVee. No one could get me in for another week.”
How Omicron is affecting Kansas City
In line at the Overland Park testing site, Parkville resident Christy Phelps says she woke up congested and coughing. She took a test at home that gave her a negative result, but she wanted to be certain.
“Omicron is spreading like wildfire, and I’m a teacher and it’s important that I don’t give it to the kids or any of the teachers, even though we’re still lucky to be masked in KC Public Schools,” Phelps said.
Though both Kansas and Missouri now show nearly vertical upward trend lines, similar to hotspot such as New York and Washington, D.C., Stites says it’s not clear that the region’s spike in hospitalizations is entirely driven by the omicron variant.
“Not even sure how much of the outbreak in the Midwest is omicron or delta,” Stites said. “We still have a lot of delta. We have a lot of omicron, and together, we have a lot of patients.”
National data also suggest that the omicron variant has still not yet dominated COVID-19 infections in the Midwest, as it has in much of the U.S..
Omicron comprises about 77% of COVID-19 cases in the Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska region, according to new CDC estimates, well below the 95% seen nationally.
KU is hosting a virtual statewide conference of hospital leaders on Wednesday to provide updates on how the current surge is affecting hospital capacity.
Stites offered a preview of the assessment from him and other experts: “Today, I have a combination of fear, maybe a touch angry, and a whole lot of frustration.”
KCUR 89.3 is Kansas City’s NPR affiliate public radio station. You can read and listen to more of their reporting at kcur.org.