TOPEKA, Kan. — A faster-spreading coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom is probably more widespread in Kansas than a single confirmed case in the state's northwest suggests, officials with a major health system said Thursday.
The first identified case of the variant came as the number of new COVID-19 cases dropped in the state and with officials focused on distributing vaccines.
State health department data showed that Kansas averaged 914 new confirmed and probable cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, the lowest seven-day rolling average since late October and just a third of the record average of 2,767 cases for the seven days ending Nov. 18.
Public health officials also are concerned that people will attend gatherings and not maintain social distances at Super Bowl parties this weekend.
The state health department announced Wednesday that it had confirmed a case of the U.K. variant, in Ellis County, which is home to Hays and Fort Hays State University.
Officials had worried that the variant was responsible for a fast-developing outbreak at a minimum-security state prison in Winfield in south-central Kansas, but genetic testing ruled that out.
"If it is in Hays, is there a chance it is in Kansas City? I think there is a chance it is in Kansas City and surrounding areas," Dr. Dana Hawkinson, director of infection control for the University of Kansas Health System, said during an online briefing Thursday.
Dr. David Wild, a University of Kansas Health System vice president, said even before the first Kansas case was identified, he could "nearly guarantee" coronavirus variants were spreading already in Kansas and the Kansas City area.
"We know now of one in the state," he said. "There will be more."
Cases of the U.K. and other variants are identified through a full review of the virus' genome.
Fort Hays State and the local health department said the person infected with variant was a student-athlete at the university, which tests its athletes weekly for COVID-19.
Officials said the athlete's contacts are being traced and that the state health department was sending a mobile testing van to Hays.
Hawkinson said it's "well established" that the U.K. variant is "more transmissible," and public health officials fear it could be deadlier. But he added, "We have to be concerned about other variants arising as well."
"We are all tired, and it is one day at a time, but that is why we need to continue to need to be more vigilant, especially this weekend," he said.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Kansas Senate was set Thursday to formally condemn a decision by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's administration to make prison inmates eligible for COVID-19 vaccines during the second phase of vaccine distribution, which Kansas launched last month.
Prison inmates are in line with people 65 and older, workers critical to the economy and other people in group living situations.
They're ahead of most of the state's 2.9 million residents, including people under 65 with medical conditions putting them at risk of severe complications if they are infected with COVID-19.
The Senate had a non-binding resolution drafted by health committee Chair Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican. It called on Kelly to reverse her policy on inoculating inmates "without delay," criticizing the idea that violent offenders could get shots before their victims.
Kelly has defended the policy, saying it will protect prison workers and helps keep COVID-19 in check in communities with prisons.
Kansas also is following the recommendations of public health officials and experts, and state prisons have been especially hard-hit with virus outbreaks.
"I continue to believe that we are doing the right thing," she said during a Wednesday news conference at the Statehouse.
But Kelly also said the state is for now vaccinating prison employees and, "Then, when we have finished with the staff, we will move on and begin with inmates who are 65 or older."