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

TOPEKA — Doctors and public health researchers predict that the rise in COVID-19 infection during the holidays will complicate medical response to the rising prevalence of flu and a spoofed flu virus.

COVID-19, influenza and the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV trio, could result in increased health problems and hospitalizations this winter as precautionary measures such as vaccination, masking and isolation are reduced in 2022. During the winter of 2021-2022, Kansas experienced an increase in Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19.

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“We just keep 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 delay between infection and hospitalization for COVID-19, and urged Canadians to get vaccinated and empowered to protect themselves from the most dangerous aspects of the virus.

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Since COVID-19 spread to Kansas in March 2020, the state has documented nearly 900,000 cases. The actual number is thought to be higher as the virus test 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 to more than a third of the state total.

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

The combination of the winter flu with COVID-19 and a tough strain of flu could put renewed pressure on hospitals to provide care, especially for people who are not vaccinated for COVID-19 and flu, said Dana Hawkinson, a physician at the University of Kansas Health System.  .  (Screenshot of Kansas Reflector from KU Health System's YouTube channel)
Dana Hawkinson, a physician with the University of Kansas Health System, said the combination of flu season with COVID-19 and a tough flu virus can make it harder for hospitals to cope with the surge in patient numbers. (Screenshot of Kansas Reflector from KU Health System’s Facebook channel)

Re-infection risks

Nathan Bahr, associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said there is reason to be concerned about research findings showing that people who have contracted COVID-19 multiple times make their organ function more susceptible to erosion. He compared this to someone who injured a leg multiple times and eventually suffered a fracture.

“The more this happens, the greater your risk of losing function,” he said.

The University of Washington in St. Louis said analysis of the medical records of 5.4 million Veterans Administration patients showed that people who contracted COVID-19 more than once were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who contracted the virus once. In addition, the kidney, lung and gastrointestinal health risks were higher among those infected multiple times, the researchers said.

Amber Schmidtke, head of natural sciences and mathematics at Saint Mary’s University in Leavenworth, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed Kansas in the second-highest of five categories for the incidence of flu that does not require hospitalization. Flu-like symptoms included in the CDC analysis were fever, cough, and sore throat.

The CDC produced a color-coded map that puts Kansas in the “high” range for influenza and Missouri in the “moderate” range. Flu-like symptoms were highest in the states of South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Virginia.

“This year the density is so high, 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 publication.

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

Amber Schmidtke, head of the natural sciences department at Saint Mary's University in Leavenworth, reported to the CDC that Kansas had a high incidence of flu-like symptoms among people who were not hospitalized, while those in Missouri had moderate fever, cough, and sore throat symptoms.  (Screenshot of Kansas Reflector from KU Health System's Facebook channel)
Amber Schmidtke of Saint Mary’s University in Leavenworth told the CDC that the incidence of flu-like symptoms is high in Kansas, while Missouri is moderate. (Screenshot of Kansas Reflector from KU Health System’s Facebook channel)

sewage water

Marc Johnson, professor of microbiology at the University of Missouri and researcher in Missouri’s wastewater program to monitor the changing nature of COVID-19, said the ability to detect emerging virus strains has improved over the past two years. The holiday season is a favorable moment for the virus to spread and thrive with humans in confined areas, he said.

“Last year and the year before that was where we started seeing lineages. We’re starting to see numbers go up,” Johnson said.

He said the delta surge and the emergence of the Omicron had created a “hard winter.”

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

In response to a question about whether heavy rain had led to misleading results about the concentration of COVID-19 in wastewater samples, Johnson said the solution was to also test for the presence of caffeine. The numbers are comparable to the routine presence of the coffee component, he said.

Chung-Ho Lin, research partner in COVID-19 testing from the University of Missouri college of agriculture, said sewage is an important resource for assessing a community’s health.

“Wastewater never lies,” Lin said. “Give us 15 milliliters of water and we’ll tell you a lot of stories.”

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