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Kids among most affected by county-wide COVID-19 surge, director of epidemiology warns

Children account for 30% of all COVID-19 infections in Johnson County

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It’s not just older citizens and people with preexisting conditions who are getting sick from COVID-19. In an advisory issued by regional public health departments across Kansas and Missouri — including the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment — officials warned that unvaccinated people who “have resumed normal activities without adequate protection are most at risk.”

“As we've looked at the data, what we've really seen is that kids are making up a much greater proportion of our cases,” director of epidemiology Elizabeth Holzschuh said. 

That makes sense, she says, when you consider the local data. In Johnson County, the least vaccinated group among the eligible age categories are children and young people. According to JCDHE data last updated Friday afternoon, less than 10% of county residents between the ages of 12 and 17 are vaccinated. Additionally, children under 12 aren’t able to get the vaccine at all yet, which makes that age group more vulnerable to infection. 

At previous points in the pandemic, Holzschuh says children between the ages of five and 17 accounted for about 10% of all COVID-19 infections. Now, they account for about 30% of all cases recorded in Johnson County. 

Most children infected with COVID-19 are getting it as part of an outbreak from their childcare facility, at a day camp or through an athletic activity, Holzschuh said. 

Some kids, she warns, require hospitalization. 

“The best thing to do to protect young children is to have those around them who are eligible to receive a vaccine get one and wear masks when indoors with large groups of people they don’t live with,” public information officer for JCDHE Barbara Mitchell said via email. 

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Holzschuh says the Delta variant — or the B.1.617.2 variant first documented in India — is to blame for surges in COVID-19 cases. 

“We know that delta is transmitted far more easily from person to person, than the virus that we had circulating last year when our kids were going back to school,” Holzschuh said. “It’s not necessarily unexpected but probably came a little sooner than we were hoping or wanting, and we are seeing a fairly rapid increase in our cases.”

People who had the “wild type” version of COVID-19 — which is the variant of the virus circulating this time a year ago — would probably infect at most three other people. With the Delta variant, each person infects between six and eight people

“When you sort of multiply that out as they transmit from the next group to the next group, it becomes very big very quickly,” Holzschuh said. “It's definitely alarming as we're seeing these signs.” 

On Monday, she said there have been 125 confirmed cases of the Delta variant in Johnson County alone. 

“The percentage of our cases that are coming back as delta are really quite high, and it is without a doubt the dominant strain here in Johnson County,” she said. 

But that’s not the only reason COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Johnson County. If you ask Sanmi Areola, JCDHE director, the upward trajectory can also be blamed on people who fail to abide by the mitigation guidance from the federal government. 

Under the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are fully vaccinated can pretty much return to life as it was pre-COVID except for a few scenarios. People who have yet to receive the vaccine or are waiting for full immunity to take effect must keep masking. 

“We've all basically resumed activities — those that are vaccinated and those that are not,” Areola said.

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A month ago, the local rate of positive tests was just shy of 2%. On Monday, JCDHE reported the rate of positive tests to be 7% — the highest it’s been since Feb. 1. 

In mid-June, Johnson County’s COVID-19 incidence rate — number of cases per 100,000 residence — was 24, and about two weeks ago it was 57. As of Monday, it’s 144. 

“As you can tell by the increase in cases, the pandemic is not over. We have a variant that spreads more easily and we are yet to vaccinate enough people to have population immunity,” Mitchell said. 

Johnson County does boast one of the highest vaccination rates in the region with 50% of the county’s eligible population fully vaccinated, but it has yet to clear the population immunity threshold. Additionally, the county’s high rate of vaccination isn’t enough if other neighboring communities have lower levels of immunity, Areola said. 

“We're following the same trajectory that we're seeing in other parts of the region,” Holzschuh said. “We've all heard about Southwest Missouri and how they're being hit very hard.” 

Elsewhere in the Midwest, the COVID-19 situation is getting to be too much for local healthcare systems to handle. In Springfield, Missouri, healthcare officials and medical workers had to set up alternative care sites to deal with the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, the Springfield News-Leader last week.

“We don't want to lose the gains that we have made because every single person that's infected is giving this virus an opportunity to mutate,” Areola said. “If we don't have these shots in the arms of as many people as possible, we don't take these public health interventions of wearing masks, we are giving the virus an opportunity to mutate.” 

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