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Shawnee County hasn’t seen a spike in COVID-19 cases because of the U.K. variant. Here’s what we know.



TOPEKA, Kan. – Shawnee County commissioners took the teeth out of the authority of the county’s mask mandate on March 29, one day before the B.1.1.7, or U.K., variant surfaced in the county.

Bad timing, said Dusty Nichols, incident commander for Shawnee County’s COVID-19 response team.

One day later, Shawnee County reported three cases of the U.K. variant. That number has risen to 34 confirmed cases as of Thursday. The mask mandate officially expired at 12:01 a.m. April 16.

The U.K. strain of the virus is more contagious. Other states are seeing rising cases, with the ease of transmission seen as a driving factor.

“We have not seen that high of a positivity rate since our first surge last spring, a year ago,” Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said in the Lansing State Journal. “That’s concerning because we are doing many more tests than we were then. This indicates that there is now broad, community spread.”

The U.K. variant is now the most common strain in the United States.

Since the virus arrived in Shawnee County, however, there has been no spike in cases leading some to wonder if or when a surge will come.

The county’s positivity rate remains at 3.7% with 167 cases reported in April, the Shawnee County COVID-19 dashboard reads. The U.K. variant was also found in Lawrence about a week before it arrived in Shawnee County. Douglas County has also seen plateauing COVID-19 numbers.

Local health departments are still urging everyone to be cautious.

“It could turn around within a week,” said Shawnee County Health Officer Erin Locke. “It depends on just the right environment for this virus to spread.”

Locke said the county can attribute most of its new cases to the U.K. variant even though virus cases haven’t spiked. Local health departments also say variant case counts are likely underreported

Sonia Jordan, director of Informatics at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said about 1% of the samples are sent to labs for testing.

There are around seven new cases per day, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s 14-day moving average chart reads, and that number isn’t decreasing even as vaccinations increase.

“On one hand, you kind of want to breathe a sigh of relief because that is way far down than where we were in November (and) December,” Jordan said. “On the other hand, that is still 7-10 people a day dealing with something that can make them really sick.”

Nichols said he is worried case counts could increase as more people schedule larger group events, such as graduation parties. The presence of the variant could mean any one of those events could lead to “significant community spread.”

“We have a potential to frustrate ourselves even more going into the summer months,” Nichols said. “We all want to enjoy it. Just a little longer, just a little longer, let’s get vaccinated.

Children could play a bigger role in virus spread

Dennis Cooley, chairman of Shawnee County’s health advisory board and former interim health officer, said he is concerned about the variant’s ability to spread in children.

People ages birth to 19 years old accounted for 39 cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks. People ages 65 and older only accounted for 14 cases and people 20-54 years accounted for 47 cases in that timeframe.

“You might say I would expect that because the adults are getting the vaccine … (but) we would hope you would not be necessarily seeing that big of a gain,” Cooley said.

He shared his concerns to the Shawnee County commissioners at Thursday’s meeting. Cooley said children could play a bigger role in the virus spread because no vaccines have been approved for use in children and because the UK variant can infect children at a higher rate. He doesn’t expect to see any approved vaccines for people 12-15 years old until the end of summer but did say those trials are under way.

Cooley said the increase in children’s infections rates also isn’t due to the return of in-person schooling. Transmission in classrooms remains low, but athletics and other extracurricular gatherings can be attributed to the spread.

Social gatherings accounts for 38% of the spread of the U.K. variant in the county with athletics and households accounting for 9% of the transmission, according to a Thursday presentation by Cooley and Locke. About 38% of people who have confirmed cases aren’t sure where they got it from.

Is there a chance the variants won’t spread in Shawnee County?

Locke expects more COVID-19 variants to come to Shawnee County because Kansas already recorded cases of the California variant, Brazilian variant and the South African variant. But just because variants arrive doesn’t mean there has to be increased community spread.

Health officials said the number of vaccinations is racing against the number of confirmed variant cases. If vaccines win the race, the virus won’t take hold in Shawnee County.

Nichols said the health department’s recommendations of mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing haven’t changed. He continued to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and said people have the ability to do so.

“The pandemic is not over yet,” Locke said. “It continues to evolve, and new situations come up and that is where we are with the variants. Although we can’t predict the future, we do know enough about the virus to know it will take advantage if we relax our guard too much.”