Has Omicron peaked in Johnson County? Health officials say don’t get hopes up as cases remain ‘astonishingly high’

Johnson County health leaders say a recent dramatic drop in the county's reported rate of new cases was due, in part, to a lag in testing over the long holiday weekend and that the incidence rate and case positivity remain near record highs. They urge people to continue to take precautions, like wearing masks, in order to slow spread of Omicron and ease pressure on local hospitals that are still strained with the influx of COVID-19 patients. Above, nurses gather for a shift in the emergency room at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, which reported 100 active infections in its facility Thursday, including 21 patients in the ICU. Image via University of Kansas Health System.

Residents hoping that the most recent surge of the COVID-19 pandemic is waning in Johnson County shouldn’t get too excited about what looked like a decrease in new case rates this week, say public health officials, who described the county’s latest numbers as a downward “blip” and still “astonishingly high.”

County Public Health Officer Joseph LeMaster and Director Sanmi Areola spoke in different venues Thursday morning, giving slightly different takes on how the county is doing.

LeMaster, who appeared on the University of Kansas Health System’s daily COVID-19 briefing on Facebook, was slightly more hopeful.

“There is a tiny blip that shows a coming down,” and the county may be nearing its peak, he said. Wastewater monitoring — a predictor of where the virus is trending — also shows some declines, he added.

That said, “the numbers are still astonishingly high,” LeMaster said.

Later Thursday, in an update to the county commission, Areola addressed a graph on the county’s COVID-19 dashboard in which the incidence rate of cases appeared to zag sharply downward this week.

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

The incidence rate, which is expressed as cases per 100,000 residents, is still holding fairly steady at 1,835, Areola said, and the county’s positivity rate stands at 29.8%.

That compares with a week ago, when health officials reported an incidence rate of 1,939 and positivity of 30.8%.

Areola said the sharply dipping chart line recorded Tuesday was the result of a lag in testing over the three-day holiday weekend.

He also did not pin any hope to the wastewater monitoring report either, saying that the data was not yet ready to analyze.

Vaccination rate slows down

There’s also been slow progress on vaccination of the youngest eligible group, kids 5 through 11, Areola said. About 40% of that group have now received at least a first dose.

Areola urged parents to get the shot for their children because of the risk of multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a serious but rare condition in some children that has been linked to COVID-19.

The number of people in the county considered to be fully vaccinated is at 65.3%, according to county data, with about three quarters of residents having been at least partially vaccinated.

However, demand for a first shot has slowed considerably, Areola said. About 37.3% of residents have received a booster.

Both LeMaster and Areola stressed that the number of cases is still too high and that people should get the vaccine and continue to wear masks in indoor settings.

The CDC has recommended higher-efficiency masks such as N95s and KN95s because the newest variant is so much easier to spread through the air.

Read the Post’s tips for looking for legitimate N95 and KN95 masks and avoiding potential scams. 

City mask mandates

On the KU health briefing, LeMaster praised four Johnson County cities that have reimposed mask requirements. But he said enforcement issues have made it difficult for commissioners to renew a countywide order.

Orders requiring masks in most publicly accessible places went into effect Tuesday in Fairway, Mission, Prairie Village and Roeland Park. Individual violators in those cities can be fined up to $25.

County health departments can no longer issue a mask order on their own, LeMaster said, but said Johnson County remains in a “better situation” than many other Kansas counties when it comes to navigating the pandemic politically.

“Because we have a group of commissioners who, in the main, are working very closely with us, listening to us, talking to us. We consult with them regularly,” he said.

Masking requirements would be advisable if possible, LeMaster said. But at this point there’s been enough resistance from people who don’t want to mask up that enforcement by overstressed sheriff’s deputies or police seems impractical.

The negative reaction to mask rules can also make for a more dangerous situation, LeMaster said, with people intentionally flouting mask requirements.

Right now officials should concentrate on doing what they can to support hospitals that are still crushed by the increased number of cases, LeMaster said.

Areola also said people should be urged to continue to do the right thing.

“We need to take enough steps to be consequential to make sure we don’t stay up at this level of infection. That does not bode well for the health of our residents,” he said.