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Here's A Glimmer Of Hope That The Delta Surge In Kansas Is Slowing

 A COVID vaccine booth in Graham County, Kansas.
David Condos
Kansas News Service
A COVID vaccine booth in Graham County, Kansas.

This summer, the delta variant of COVID-19 filled Kansas hospital beds at a dizzying speed. A month ago, the numbers plateaued, then started a gradual downward slope.

When the delta variant arrived this summer, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Kansas skyrocketed. In just a few short months, hospitals went from serving about 100 coronavirus inpatients a day to treating 800 at a time.

But, a month ago, hospitalizations leveled off and finally started sliding slightly downward.

The state remains in a bad place, just better off than where it seemed headed.

“The fact that we still have so many ICUs full is very concerning,” said Marci Nielsen, chief advisor to Governor Laura Kelly on the state’s pandemic response. “Health care workers are exhausted and burned out.”

They spend hours just finding beds for patients. Intensive care units are so taxed with patients in respiratory distress, that it delays medical treatment for others who need it badly, too. The University of Kansas Health System says about one in 10 of its respiratory therapists quit within the past month.

Here’s how many inpatients Kansas hospitals reported each day — from last fall through the first week of September:

Kansas hospitals have more than twice as many COVID-19 inpatients compared to September a year ago.

And because many schools welcomed back their teachers and students last month to in-person classes and extracurricular activities without masks, anxiety lingers that this winter could fill more hospital beds than last.

So any slowdown in COVID-19 hospitalizations is a welcome sight, but one that comes with no guarantees for what happens next.

“It doesn’t tell us we can let down our guard,” Nielsen said.

Only about half the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 case counts

The highly contagious delta variant clobbered other countries, such as the United Kingdom, before the United States. When it waned after a few months, that lifted the hopes of some scientists. Maybe the U.S. would see the same.

In fact, the variant’s vicious surge is now losing steam in parts of the country and hospitalizations are dipping across the U.S.

What about case counts here in Kansas?

For the first time since June, the state health department has reported fewer newly identified cases two weeks in a row.

Does that mean less virus passing around? This isn’t a simple question. The number of people who get tested fluctuates constantly. It shot up when the delta variant hit, but sank after Labor Day, Nielsen said.

Here’s the count of newly identified cases per week since the start of the year:

To further complicate matters, COVID cases made a second rally in September in the U.K.

And in the U.S. and Kansas, epidemiologists worry that even if the delta surge wanes in some places, its rapid growth will continue in others.

In Kansas, state health officials have their eyes on Douglas and Riley counties, for example, where case counts rose after students returned to the state’s two largest universities for the new academic year.

They’re concerned, too, about increasing infections in several counties in the Wichita area. And though infections have slowed in southeast Kansas, where the delta variant spread quickly from nearby Missouri, public officials aren’t breathing a sigh of relief because vaccination rates remain low.

Another worrisome trend this fall: The number of infants and children developing such severe cases of COVID-19 that they end up in hospital beds and even on ventilators.

About this time last year, Kansas and Kansas City hospitals were caring for seven such cases. Now they’re caring for four times as many.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is based in the Kansas News Service’s Topeka newsroom. She writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. He aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.