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Local health officials say there's no 'appetite' for mitigation measures as COVID-19 surges

“The misinformation that’s out there with people just saying ‘Let infections run wild,’ we cannot afford to do that, the consequences are huge.”

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As Johnson County continues to see its highest level yet of COVID-19 transmission, health officials say there are things to be done to address the surge, but willingness to do them has faltered. 

“We could have done something to keep the numbers low, but when we assess risk, part of our consideration is what is feasible and what is not, and what the appetite is in the community,” the director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment Sanmi Areola said on Thursday. 

GETTING THROUGH THE WINTER 

Areola told the county commission that there is “no appetite” locally for the types of measures other communities are taking to address the spread of the omicron variant, like the return of a county-wide mask mandate in Douglas County or universal masking in K-12 schools in Manhattan. This week the county didn’t end its current K-6 mask requirement, but denied efforts to expand it to all schools or institute a mask requirement for the whole county. 

As of Thursday, the incidence rate in Johnson County, which measures the number of cases per 100,000 residents, had surpassed 1,000 for the first time. That’s about double the rate recorded at this point the week before. Dr. Joseph LeMaster, local health officer, said things are getting bad and they could get worse. 

“I think that the most important thing for us to do is to anticipate what we need to do to get through the extreme extremities of the winter months ahead,” he said, “and make sure that we take appropriate measures to be able to keep all of our systems functioning at this period of time.”

Earlier this week, healthcare providers and chief medical officers from across the state and throughout the metro area came together to sound the alarm about a system on the brink. Even if omicron is less deadly, LeMaster and Areola warned that it will still wreak havoc on the population if it’s allowed to run rampant. 

‘THE CONSEQUENCES ARE HUGE’ 

The dire warnings come as the health system, still grappling with the delta surge, is about to face an onslaught of even more cases caused by omicron. According to the MidAmerica Regional Council’s COVID-19 dashboard, the region is averaging about 200 new hospitalizations a day right now, or about 1,400 a week. That’s one of the highest rates ever recorded locally. 

“We are seeing the consequence of unmitigated spread of the virus,” Areola said. “The misinformation that’s out there with people just saying ‘Let infections run wild,’ we cannot afford to do that, the consequences are huge.” 

The local peak of the latest wave isn’t expected to come until the end of January, which is still a ways off, Areola said. While the community deals with the ongoing surge — even without outright mandates — there are things people can do to protect themselves and their families from the virus, but a multilayered approach promises the most effective results. 

That means getting the vaccine for every eligible member of a household, taking the booster when the time comes, wearing well-fitted masks, physical distancing, avoiding crowded areas and mask gatherings, staying home when sick and keeping bubbles (groups of people in contact with one another) small. These, LeMaster says, are the “mechanisms” that have proven effective at fighting back at the virus. 

“We have a collective responsibility to do what is right to create conditions that will allow our residents to be healthy,” Areola said. 

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