TOPEKA — Doctors and public health researchers expect a spike in COVID-19 infections during the holiday season would complicate the medical response to the rising prevalence of influenza and the sneaky flu virus.
The trifecta of COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, could lead to escalating health problems and hospitalizations this winter as preventative measures like vaccinations, masks and isolation wane through 2022. In the winter of 2021-2022, Kansas experienced a spike in delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19.
“We’re crossing our fingers,” 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.
Since COVID-19 spread to 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 dropped. Eighteen counties in Kansas have reported more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19, with 171,000 cases in Johnson County and 164,000 cases in Sedgwick County contributing more than one-third of the state’s total.
The latest report from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment showed that 9,657 deaths in Kansas were linked to COVID-19 during the pandemic. The Kansas data included 2,613 deaths in 2022.
Risks of reinfection
Nathan Bahr, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said there is reason to be concerned about the results of research suggesting that people who contracted COVID-19 more than once were more susceptible to organ failure. He likened it to someone who repeatedly injured their leg and eventually suffered a fracture.
“The more times it happens, the more you risk losing function,” he said.
Washington University in St. Louis said an analysis of the medical records of 5.4 million patients from the Veterans Administration indicated that 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 reported that the health risks to the kidneys, lungs and gastrointestinal tract are greater in those who are infected multiple times.
Amber Schmidtke, chair of natural sciences and mathematics at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Kansas in the second-highest out of five categories for incidence of the flu that did not require hospitalization. Flu-like symptoms considered by the CDC analysis were fever, cough, and sore throat.
The CDC created a color-coded map that placed Kansas in the “high” range and Missouri in the “moderate” flu range. Flu-like symptoms were highest in the states of South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia.
“The intensity is so high this year, especially in the south, that the CDC had to add a new color to the very high category,” Schmidtke said in a KU Health System broadcast.
She advised people to get a flu shot and a COVID-19 booster. However, there is no RSV vaccine available in the United States.
Waste water detection
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 the ability to detect emerging strains of the virus has been refined over the past two years. According to him, the holiday season is a good time for the spread of the virus and its development with people in closed spaces.
“Last year and the year before, it was right now that we started to see the lines. We started to see the numbers go up,” Johnson said.
He said the rise of Delta and the emergence of Omikron caused a “harsh winter”.
“Fortunately,” Johnson said, “we’re getting a lot of new variants, and none of them do what Delta or Omicron do. It’s been really amazing with Delta because we’ve seen it move across the state.”
Asked if the heavy rain had led to misleading conclusions about the concentration of COVID-19 in the sewage samples, Johnson said that the test for the presence of caffeine was also a solution. The numbers can be compared to the common presence of the coffee component, he said.
His research partner in the COVID-19 testing, Chung-Ho Lin of the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, said wastewater is an important resource for assessing community health.
“Wastewater never lies,” Lin said. “Give us 15 milliliters of water and we can tell you a lot of stories.”