Caution, optimism as communities learn to live with COVID-19

A Topeka infectious disease specialist updates how we're living with COVID-19.
Published: Aug. 4, 2022 at 9:25 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - With new COVID cases rising in Kansas and nationwide, plus new variants continuing to emerge, it’s easy to wonder just how worried should we be.

“Clearly, there’s a lot of activity with COVID-19 in the community,” says Dr. Clifton Jones, Stormont Vail Health vice president and an infectious disease specialist.

Two and a half years since it arrived, Dr. Jones says we’re still learning about COVID-19.

“It’s a new reality to have a respiratory virus that’s year round. That’s a little different than your typical influenza season which is colder months through the early spring,” he said. “We’ve never dealt with anything as dynamic and as fluid as COVID-19 with the capacity of that virus and virus family to develop relative resistance to the antibodies that we produce, whether it’s from natural infection or with vaccination.”

Even the new variants are different. The Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment’s weekly updates include a chart showing what variants are active. It reflects the rise of Omicron in late winter, shifting to its BA.1 variant as cases declined in early spring, then showing the BA.2 variant becoming dominant as an upward trend in new cases arrives in May - a trend that’s continued with the Ba.4 and BA.5 variants that are currently dominant.

Dr. Jones said the most recent variants have brought a steady rise and plateau in cases, whereas previous forms of the virus tended to ebb and flow with holidays and major events. But there appears to be good news.

“It’s behaving a little differently in that the proportion of severe cases seems to be less,” Dr. Jones said. “With this much activity, if this was last winter, we’d have 80, 90 patients probably in the hospital, so people seem to be less sick. The presumption is that there’s a level of immunity that’s not preventing infection but is providing partial protection.”

He said Stormont has averaged between 10 and 20 COVID-positive inpatients a day over the past couple months, far less than during other case spikes.

Dr. Jones says the newer variants seem to cause more headaches and muscle aches and pains, along with upper respiratory symptoms. He says common-sense prevention measures remain important: stay home if sick, good hand hygiene, wear a mask for indoor group gatherings where you can’t socially distance; and get vaccinated and boosted.

“(I) strongly recommend trying to get kids vaccinated before school starts because that’s going to be another amplifier,” he said.

The CDC recommends all people age five and older get one booster five months after their initial doses, with a second booster for people over 50, or who are immunocompromised.

The FDA announced Thursday that new vaccine formulations expected to be more effective against the variants could be available in September. However, it could be longer, so Dr. Jones says if you are high risk and due for a booster, go ahead get it now, rather than wait.

The CDC’s latest community level map puts Shawnee County and much of northeast Kansas at high community levels this week. Riley and Lyon counties are among those at moderate.

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