TOPEKA, Kan. — Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday pinned Kansas' hopes of keeping the COVID-19 delta variant in check on more people getting inoculated because it is spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated.
Kelly acknowledged that there's not enough time before K-12 schools resume classes in mid-August to get all students ages 12 and older fully vaccinated, but she said the state will focus on giving at least the first of two Pfizer shots to as many of them as possible. No COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for younger children.
Speaking to reporters after a Statehouse event, Kelly brushed aside a question about whether the delta variant's spread means schools should require students to wear masks indoors. The American Academy of Pediatrics this week recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated, though the White House said Thursday that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will decide whether to change the guidance on that issue.
Kansas confirmed its first delta variant case in May, and the state's COVID-19 cases have so far tripled this month. Health officials said the delta variant's ability to spread faster generally means that if one person – such as an unvaccinated parent – is infected, everyone else in the household generally becomes infected. They said that wasn't always the case with other strains.
"We are doing everything we can to get as many people vaccinated, particularly our students between the age of 12 and 17," Kelly told reporters. "That's the only thing that's going to stop it."
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 1,104 confirmed delta variant cases as of Wednesday, which was up from only 358 at the start of the month.
Confirming which variant sickened someone requires genetic testing of the patient's nasal swab or saliva sample, and 7.8% of the samples from positive COVID-19 results have undergone such testing this month.
A University of Kansas Health System official said Wednesday that it is refusing to admit patients from outside hospitals because its main hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, is too full. That led the state health department's top administrator, Dr. Lee Norman, to tweet that the health system is "truly panicking now."
"In my 15 years of intimate knowledge of the KU health system, I've never seen them panic, not even earlier in this pandemic," he tweeted.
Doniphan County, in the state's northeastern corner, had the highest rate of confirmed delta variant cases among Kansas' 105 counties. Its small towns along U.S. 36 are linked by a bridge across the Missouri River to jobs and shopping in the much larger community of St. Joseph, Missouri. That state is a delta variant hot spot.
Doniphan County had 30 confirmed delta variant cases as of Wednesday, state data showed. The county has a population of 7,600, and its rate of 39.47 delta variant cases per 10,000 people was more than 10 times the state's overall rate.
Sheryl Pierce, administrator of the Doniphan County Health Department, said her department is having all positive patients' samples tested genetically by the state health department's lab. She said most new COVID-19 cases are the delta variant infecting unvaccinated residents, with most younger than 50.
"It's a pandemic of the unvaccinated right now," Pierce said.
Crawford County, along the Missouri border in southeast Kansas, had 85 confirmed delta variant cases as of Wednesday, according to state data. The county has about 39,000 residents and as many or more delta variant cases as some counties with three or four times the population.
Teddi Van Kam, its health department director, missed four weeks of work starting in November because of COVID-19, despite following all recommended precautions. A self-described "old nurse" with 45 years in health care, she said she had trouble breathing and was too tired to walk across a room without resting. She got her first vaccine shot in February, as soon as she could.
She said people give a wide variety of reasons for not getting vaccinated, some based on social media misinformation.
Vaccinations in Kansas peaked in early April. Federal data showed that 43.2% of the state's 2.9 million residents were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, compared with the national rate of 48.8%. The state reported that Crawford County's rate was 37.4%, though additional residents might have gotten shots in Missouri.
Crawford County has seen a half-dozen COVID-19 deaths this month, Van Tam said, including two residents in their early 40s.
"That's just heart-breaking," Van Kam said. "It's just so sad to know that those people have been lost - and it was preventable."