MISSION, Kan. (AP) — A virulent strain of the coronavirus that first appeared in Kansas in a Fort Hays State University athlete hasn’t spread widely among the student’s friends, although wastewater samples in the community have raised concerns, health officials say.
Officials sent a mobile lab to Hays after the variant that is wreaking havoc in the United Kingdom was detected last week during routine testing of athletes at the school, said Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state health department, Tuesday during a webcast with doctors at the University of Kansas Health System.
But he said only one of the 200 contacts or potential contacts of the student-athlete who were tested were positive for COVID-19. Officials are trying to determine whether that person has the same strain as the student-athlete. The results are expected later this week.
“On balance, I think everything came out pretty well,” Norman said. “Of course there is a long time before we can breath a sigh of relief in this particular county. And we are still doing more testing.”
Norman said the variant was uncovered one week after sewage samples tested in Ellis County, where the university is located, showed an uptick in genomic fragments of the virus. The state has been testing sewage samples for months to get a sense for where the virus is spreading.
“It is an early indicator when the wastewater starts up ticking in terms of the amount of viral particles then we can look in a more detailed manner in that community,” he said.
He said the state had doubled its genomic sequencing capability and will be testing about3 50 samples from all over the state every week.
He said the state has been seeing the number of new cases, deaths and hospitalizations fall in recent weeks as the vaccine rollout gets underway. As of Monday, the health department reported that 8% of the state’s population had been vaccinated. Almost 304,000 doses had been administered, or 73% of the 413,000 doses sent to Kansas by the federal government.
But Norman said the real number of vaccinations is actually higher and blamed the problem in part on what he described as a clunky system for inputting data.
“We know that, for example, six counties account for about 100,000 of the doses that have been given,” he said. “And I want to emphasize have been given that are just not recorded in our data systems yet.”
Norman said 82% of residents of skilled nursing and assisted living facilities in the state had received at least their first round of vaccine. He said the federal government had begun shipping vaccines directly to several dozen retail pharmacies in the state this week, although not in large amounts so far.
But he said that for a normal summer, where people could safely attend weddings and other large community gatherings, the amount of vaccine will need to increase dramatically.
With multiple new vaccines on the horizon, that won’t remain a problem indefinitely, said Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System.
“If we boil it down, people are mad, people are angry,” Stites said. “But the real problem is there is just not enough vaccine and as we ramp up the next problem is going to be the logistics to give that much vaccine and get it all entered into the database, which we’ve got to clean up.”