photo by: Kevin Anderson/Journal-World File Photo
Although Douglas County has seen a rise in the amount of COVID-19 detected in wastewater since mid-July, an analyst with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health says it isn’t a cause for concern for now.
Veronica White, the health department’s preparedness and epidemiology coordinator, told the Journal-World Wednesday that the rise in detection — and a smaller upward trend in hospital emergency department visits — could easily be associated with travel, students returning to school, waning COVID immunity or the emergence of new subvariants. But White said that doesn’t mean alarm bells should be ringing in anticipation of a late-2023 COVID spike.
“Although wastewater reports help us see there is more transmission out there than what the surveillance of (emergency department) visits indicates, the rate of severe disease is still relatively low,” White said. “All currently circulating variants are descendants of (the Omicron variant), which typically cause relatively mild symptoms compared to other variants.”
In fact, White said Douglas County is currently in a “much better place” than it has been in the past when it comes to COVID. Now, she said, COVID treatments and medications are more widely available, as are tests, vaccinations and masks.
And at this point, a large majority of the county has been fully vaccinated, according to numbers White provided. As of Sept. 6, almost 76% of the county’s population — 92,837 people — have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and about 66% or 80,833 people have received at least two doses or a single Johnson & Johnson dose.
The numbers dwindle comparatively when it comes to the rate of booster doses, with 47,706 people having received one booster dose and 31,960 having received the updated bivalent booster dose approved around this time last year.
White said the health department would be providing individuals and families with free at-home tests, which come in packs of five. The department will also be distributing those tests in Baldwin City, Eudora, Lecompton and at the Lawrence Public Library.
On top of that, White said the health department hoped to have an updated COVID booster available to administer by mid-September; that shot is expected to provide protection against the “most serious health outcomes from currently circulating variants.”
White said it was still important to be informed about COVID spread, and that’s why the health department’s weekly COVID updates are returning after being discontinued in April. That change marked the end of the regular local data tracking the health department had been performing since March of 2020. Starting this month, the weekly updates will be back every Wednesday.
“We were initially planning on starting the reports around flu season, but we decided we’re just going to try to stay ahead of things and let people know now,” White said.
Weekly reports on influenza and RSV, a virus that infects the lungs and respiratory tract causing cold-like symptoms, will join the COVID updates as flu season begins, White added. She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended getting the flu vaccine between September and October since flu season typically lasts from October to May, so now is a good time to get that done.
As for RSV, White said that last year Douglas County saw a large RSV outbreak that “really hit the older population and young children hard,” and there weren’t any treatments or vaccines for it. That has changed this year, however, as there’s now an FDA-approved vaccine for people 60 and older, and a new antibiotic treatment for children between 8 and 19 months old who are at increased risk of severe RSV will be available this fall.
“Expectant parents and parents of infants under the age of 8 months, as well as those with older babies, should talk with their health care providers and request this layer of protection against RSV this season,” White said.