KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in February fell precipitously in Kansas and Missouri, as well as the Kansas City region.
The stark declines since the pandemic reached a crescendo in the two-state region in November and December is welcome news, but health experts said it’s not a sign that the COVID-19 threat has passed.
“Without a doubt, we are not out of the woods, and this is not time to change how we've been behaving in the sense of physical distancing and masking and keeping our bubble size limited where we can,” Dr. David Wild — an anesthesiologist, professor and the vice president for performance improvement at the University of Kansas Health System — said Tuesday.
Missouri topped out with 123,756 confirmed COVID-19 cases in November, while Kansas peaked at 72,579 new cases and the seven-county KC metropolitan area peaked at 34,841 news cases for the same month, according to the 41 Action News COVID-19 Tracker.
By last month, the number of new cases in Kansas (19,115), Missouri (23,969) and the Kansas City region (10,687) — Johnson, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties in Kansas along with Cass, Clay, Jackson and Platte counties in Missouri — had dropped significantly.
Missouri has seen a more than 80% decrease during the past three months, while new cases in Kansas have declined 73% and new cases in the KC region have declined more than 69% from November to February.
Vaccinations, which began in mid-December, played a role — and an increasingly important one in the COVID-19 fight — but they don’t completely explain the recent drops.
“It's fair to say that vaccination is having an impact on the numbers,” Wild said. “I don't think it's the driving force behind the overall population decrease. I think there are a number of factors that play into that.”
Wild said the relatively low vaccination rates for both states — 14.6% of Missouri residents and roughly 14.1% of Kansans have received one vaccine dose, according to the respective state health departments — signal additional factors at play in the declining rates.
Those factors include:
- Decreased travel after the holidays, which reduced contact and transmission from community to community;
- Increased compliance with mask mandates, which peaked in December and January;
- Natural immunity after people with high-risk jobs or lifestyles contracted the virus during the fall and early winter months;
- Decreased testing at health care facilities as employees received vaccinations.
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Dr. Randall Williams largely agreed with Wild’s assessment.
Williams said in a written statement to 41 Action News that the February decrease likely is “due to a combination of factors: prevention measures in place, natural immunity for those who have previously been infected, seasonality (meaning it is the time of year when we begin to see fewer respiratory illnesses) and yes, some COVID-19 vaccinations. The low positivity rate, number of hospitalizations and decreasing number of reported deaths related to COVID-19 help ensure that this is not due to under-testing.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment also attributed the decrease to “a combination of factors, including vaccination and the other public health measures including maintaining physical distancing and masking. We have seen the number of outbreaks steadily declining as well” in a written statement to 41 Action News.
But Wild also cautioned against underselling the role vaccinations have played, particularly in the decreases being seen in hospitalizations and severe cases.
“I want to be careful not to make it seem like I think that vaccination of 8 or 10% with two doses of the population should only lead to an 8 or 10% reduction in cases, because we know that's not true,” Wild said.
Long-term care facilities were hotbeds for outbreaks during the spring, summer and fall. They also were among the first places Kansas and Missouri targeted for mass vaccination efforts, hoping to protect those most likely to experience severe complications or death from a COVID-19 infection.
Such targeted vaccinations have made on outsized impact on the hospitalization and mortality rates.
“That's actually leading to less patients from long-term care facilities and less patients over 65 in our hospital, for example," Wild said. "So there’s been maybe even a more pronounced reduction in those numbers than the overall reduction in cases across the population... It is safe to say that there is an impact from vaccination.”
But not all of the news is encouraging. The months-long drop in new cases stalled out in late February, leading to some concern a fourth wave could be building in the next few months.
The increase in variants, which often are more transmissible, combined with states relaxing health restrictions at a time when travel is expected to increase again set the stage a new case surge.
“There are some troubling signs,” Wild said. “... We've actually seen an increase in the 14-day rolling average number of new cases per day. So, for weeks and weeks we've been on the decline and then we sort of bottomed out two weeks ago and now we've actually started to be on the incline again.”
There aren’t firm indications yet that a surge similar to last March, last summer or November’s peak are building.
“But the possibility for those things to happen definitely still exists, especially if variants become part of the conversation and natural immunity, or even the immunity from a vaccine, is even moderately less against the variants than it is against what we would call the native strain what has been causing most of the disease today,” Wild said.
Vaccine access and utilization will be critical in the coming months to continue building toward herd immunity and prevent the emergence of additional COVID-19 variants, like the strains identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, among other locations.
“We know that vaccines will reduce transmission.” Wild said. “That evidence is stronger and stronger every day.”
Wild said it will be crucial for efforts to combat COVID-19 that “when the vaccine is available to us, accept it. Go get it as soon as your name is called, or your group is called, if you will.”
Until then, not much will change.
“The pillars of infection prevention that we've talked about so much over the last year — physical distancing, mask wearing, good hand hygiene, limiting the size of your bubble — will maintain or remain a very important part of our sort of population health or community strategy for at least a few months still,” Wild said.
If vaccine production and vaccination rates continue as projected, there is hope that society can largely return to normal by the late summer or early fall.
“Will we be completely out of the woods by then? Probably not,” Wild said. “And will we ever be back to the way that things were in all respects prior to this starting a year ago? Probably not. We've learned some things about how we can manage the health of our community a little bit differently and we've learned some things that we don't want to occur again. From those lessons, we probably will be forever changed in some ways, but hopefully not so dramatically that it changes our way of life.”
The data tells a similar story for the number of deaths reported from COVID-19, which peaked across the two-state region in December.
Those totals remain high compared to last spring, summer and fall, but are trending in the right direction with 22% to 40% decreases in KCMO, Kansas and Missouri from December to February.
Despite those trends, the Kansas City region, Kansas and Missouri reported the third most deaths in February as any month since the start of the pandemic a year ago.