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

TOPEKA – Doctors and public health researchers predict that a surge in COVID-19 infections during the holiday months would complicate the medical response to the increasing prevalence of the flu and a complicated flu virus.

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

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

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

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Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Kansas in March 2020, the state has documented nearly 900,000 cases. The actual number is believed to be higher as testing for the virus has decreased. Eighteen counties in Kansas have 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.

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The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s latest report showed that 9,657 deaths in Kansas were linked to COVID-19 during the pandemic. The Kansas figure included 2,613 deaths in 2022.

Dana Hawkinson, a physician with the University of Kansas Health System, said the winter onset of the flu combined with COVID-19 and a challenging form of influenza are putting new pressure on hospitals, especially to care for people who are not vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu.  .  (Kansas Reflector screen capture from the KU Health System YouTube channel)
Dana Hawkinson, a physician with the University of Kansas Health System, said the flu season combined with COVID-19 and a challenging influenza virus will make it more difficult for hospitals to deal with a flood of patients. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from KU Health System’s Facebook Channel)

The risks of re-infection

Nathan Bahr, associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said there is reason to be concerned about research findings that show that people who contract COVID-19 multiple times are 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 at risk you are for losing function,” he said.

Washington University in St. In addition, the researchers said that kidney, lung and gastrointestinal health risks are greater in those infected multiple times.

Amber Schmidtke, chair of natural sciences and mathematics at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, said that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places Kansas in the second highest category of five categories that do not require the incidence of the flu. The influenza-like symptoms that factored into the CDC analysis were fever, cough and sore throat.

The CDC produced a color-coded map that put Kansas in the “high” level and Missouri in the “moderate” range for flu. Flu-like symptoms were 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 broadcast.

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

Amber Schmidtke, chairwoman of the natural sciences division at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, said the CDC reports that Kansas has a high incidence of influenza-like symptoms among non-hospitalized people, while Missouri has a moderate level of fever, cough and has sore throat symptoms.  (Kansas Reflector screen capture from KU Health System's Facebook Channel)
Amber Schmidtke, of the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, said CDC reports that Kansas has a high incidence of influenza-like symptoms among non-hospitalized people, while Missouri is in the moderate range. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from KU Health System’s Facebook Channel)

Sewer water sleuthing

Marc Johnson, a professor of microbiology at the University of Missouri and a researcher with the Missouri Wastewater Program to track the changing nature of COVID-19, said that the ability to detect emerging strains of the virus in the past two years has been refined. The holiday season is an opportune moment for the virus to spread and develop with people in confined spaces, he said.

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

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

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

In response to a question about whether heavy rain led to misleading conclusions about the concentration of COVID-19 in wastewater samples, Johnson said that the solution is also to test for the presence of coffee. The numbers can be compared with the 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 many stories.”


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