New COVID variants pose threat for seniors

A new COVID variant poses a threat for senior citizens, according to doctors at the University of Kansas Health System.

Doctors heard at Friday’s news conference that there had been an upswing of COVID patients recently at the health system, with the numbers of COVID patients in the 60s last week. The number of COVID patients was 53 on Monday.

On Friday, doctors heard from Dr. Gregory Poland, vaccinologist at the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group, that the COVID bivalent booster is working to prevent 40 to 50 percent of infection, and its real value is it prevents severe disease, hospitalization and death. That’s the reason to get the vaccine, Dr. Poland said.

He said the Mayo Clinic had seen a 30 percent increase in COVID cases in the past 10 days, along with hospitalizations and admission to the intensive care unit. It was post-Thanksgiving as the Christmas season is starting.

Dr. Poland was concerned they would not be able to offer the best medical care because of all the illness filling up the hospitals, including COVID, flu and RSV.

He was also concerned about a new variant XBB, called the most immune—evasive variant seen to date.

It’s possible some people today may get this COVID variant by Christmas and not be able to enjoy the holidays with their families, instead being hospitalized, he felt.

“So it’s really important that people sort of shake off this COVID fatigue and lethargy and take action to protect themselves. We are not helpless here,” he said.

Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at KU Health, said senior citizens make up more than 90 percent of the COVID deaths. People need to take precautions when traveling to see grandparents, he added.

The number of COVID deaths for people who are vaccinated has gone up in the fall of 2021, Dr. Stites noted. Three in 10 adults vaccinated and boosted still died of COVID, he added. The number jumped to six in 10 in April.

Only one-third of the people over age 65 have received the bivalent boosters, according to Dr. Stites.

Dr. Jessica Kalendar-Rich, geriatrician at KU Health System, said there is definitely a higher risk for older adults. How people are moving and healthy they are overall are going to affect outcomes, she added.

Older adults are in need of socialization, meeting with their families, and keeping communication going to enhance better mental health, according to Dr. Kalendar-Rich.

In other COVID news, FDA recently approved COVID Omicron vaccinations for children 6 months and older, according to Dr. Dana Hawkinson of the KU Health System.

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  • Information from KU Health System

Kansas health experts monitoring COVID-19, flu and RSV trifecta as holiday season arrives

Wastewater researchers search for variants as powerful as Omicron, Delta

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — Physicians and public health researchers anticipate a surge in COVID-19 infection during the holiday months would complicate the medical response to rising prevalence of flu and a tricky influenza virus.

The trifecta of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, could lead to escalation of health problems and hospitalizations this winter as precautionary measures such as vaccination, masking and isolation waned during 2022. In the winter of 2021-2022, Kansas experienced a surge in Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19.

“We’re just kind of keeping our fingers crossed,” said Dana Hawkinson, director of infection control at the University of Kansas Health System.

Hawkinson said there was a two- to four-week lag between infection and hospitalization for COVID-19, and urged Kansans to be vaccinated and boosted to shield themselves from the most dangerous aspects of the virus.

Since COVID-19 spread into Kansas in March 2020, the state has documented nearly 900,000 cases. The actual number is thought to be higher because testing for the virus has dropped off. Eighteen counties in Kansas reported more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19, with Johnson County’s 171,000 cases and Sedgwick County’s 164,000 cases contributing more than one-third of the state’s total.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s latest report showed 9,657 fatalities in Kansas had been associated with COVID-19 during the pandemic. The Kansas figure incorporated 2,613 deaths in 2022.

Risks of reinfection

Nathan Bahr, associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said there was reason to be concerned about research findings indicating that people contracting COVID-19 multiple times were more susceptible to erosion of organ function. He compared it to someone who repeatedly injured a leg and eventually suffered a fracture.

“The more times that happens, the more risk you are for losing function,” he said.

Washington University in St. Louis said analysis of medical records of 5.4 million Veterans Administration patients suggested individuals who contracted COVID-19 more than once were twice as likely to have a heart attack compared to those who caught the virus once. In addition, the researchers said kidney, lung and gastrointestinal health risks were greater among those infected multiple times.

Amber Schmidtke, chair of natural sciences and mathematics at University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed Kansas in the second-highest category of five categories in terms of the incidence of influenza not requiring hospitalization. The influenza-like symptoms factoring into the CDC analysis were fever, cough and sore throat.

The CDC produced a color-coded map that placed Kansas in the “high” level and Missouri in the “moderate” range on influenza. Flu-like symptoms were the highest in the states of South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia.

“This year the intensity is so high, especially in the South, that the CDC had to add a new color to the very high category,” Schmidtke said on the KU Health System’s broadcast.

She recommended people get both a flu shot and COVID-19 booster. However, there is no vaccine for RSV available in the United States.

Sewer water sleuthing

Marc Johnson, a professor of microbiology at the University of Missouri and a researcher with Missouri’s wastewater program to track the shifting nature of COVID-19, said the ability to detect emerging strains of the virus had been refined in the past two years. The holiday season is an opportune moment for the virus to spread and evolve with people in confined spaces, he said.

“Last year and the year before it was right about now where we started to see lineages. We started to see the numbers go up,” Johnson said.

He said the Delta surge and emergence of Omicron produced a “rough winter.”

“Fortunately,” Johnson said, “we’re getting a lot of new variants and none of them are doing what Delta did or what Omicron did. With Delta, this was really amazing, because we could see it moving through the state.”

In response to a question about whether heavy rain led to misleading conclusions about concentration of COVID-19 in wastewater samples, Johnson said the solution was to also test for presence of caffeine. The numbers can be compared to routine presence of the component of coffee, he said.

His research partner in the COVID-19 testing, Chung-Ho Lin of the University of Missouri’s agriculture college, said sewage was an important resource for assessing the health of a community.

“Wastewater never lies,” Lin said. “Give us 15 milliliters of water, and we can tell you a lot of stories.”

Kansas Reflector stories,, stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
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Kansas doctors warn of lax approach to coronavirus variants

by Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — Doctors with the University of Kansas Health System warn of a lack of preparation surrounding a COVID-19 subvariant driving rising case numbers.

The BA.5 variant has led health care providers in eastern Kansas to report levels similar to surges seen with Delta and Omicron. Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, said the loosening of disease prevention protocols could be setting communities up for failure.

“Knowing that we are seeing a lack of boosters going into arms, and Paxlovid isn’t quite working as well, and the monoclonal antibodies aren’t quite what they were before, I just wonder, are we setting ourselves up for some problems this fall?” Dr. Stites said.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 7,519 new COVID-19 cases and five new deaths in the past week.

Without full vaccination and booster shots, variants will continue to spread, said Dr. Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control for the KU Health System. In Kansas, 62.8% of the total population is fully vaccinated, and 45.6% has at least one booster shot. For Kansas adults, the vaccination rate is 73.7%.

“There’s just so much spread, but the other thing is that we know that there are animal spillovers that can occur and then occur back to humans as well,” Dr. Hawkinson said. “You’re just going to have so many opportunities for this virus to be selected out, for any one variant to be self-selected out. So think we are in for a long road as far as watching and monitoring for variants.”

KU Health System doctors said wastewater testing confirmed COVID-19 is on the rise in the region. Numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show hospitalization is on the rise across the country, including in Kansas.

Dr. Joseph LeMaster, medical director and health officer for Johnson County, said assumptions based on national data that the pandemic was over led to a return to old practices. He said the wastewater testing indicates actual infections may be much higher than reported numbers.

LeMaster said he was unsure if the board of commissioners would require masks in Johnson County schools.

“We’ve continued to recommend the strong use of masks and all the other mitigation efforts and have never really changed our recommendations, but the mandates in the schools last year were predominantly due to the lack of availability of vaccines for the youngest populations,” he said.

Patrick Sallee, president and CEO of Vibrant Health in Wyandotte County, said the public was set to repeat the same things experienced at the beginning of the pandemic. The brunt of this, he said, would be felt by under-resourced communities.

Carlton Abner, associate provost of Campus Health and Wellness at Kansas City University, said convincing people to get vaccinated necessitates restoring trust in underserved communities.

“It most likely is going to be establishing that trust, one person or small group at a time,” Abner said. “It’s going to probably require very intimate contact within those communities and conversations that are extended over a period of time to just get people across the line.”

Kansas Reflector stories,, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
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