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Here's How To Possibly Interpret A Week's Worth Of Rising COVID-19 Cases In Kansas And Missouri

Julie Denesha
A sign at St. Luke's hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, advises visitors to stay away to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

After initially lagging behind many other parts of the country, the COVID-19 case numbers in Kansas and Missouri are now rising rapidly each day.

While this undoubtedly means more people are getting sick, it’s unclear exactly what the infection trends are in both states. That's due to inconsistent testing and lack of complete numbers.

The two states' total cases, as reported on Friday:

  • Kansas: 202
  • Missouri: 670

That would seem to indicate that infections are lower than in many other states. Indiana has a population size similar to Missouri but reported 981 cases on Friday; Arkansas has a population size similar to Kansas but reported 381 cases.
However, these totals probably represent a fraction of the total number of people who are sick with COVID-19. That's because testing has generally been limited to people who are highly symptomatic and have had potential exposure to known cases.

Infectious disease experts say there are other ways to gauge the impact of COVID-19, including the “attack rate” — the percentage of a population that is affected.

Health experts announced this week that the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in New York City had reached 28%. That was several times higher than the average rate of 8% (or less) found in the rest of the country.

Dr. Randall Williams, head of Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services, said this week that the percentage of positive tests coming from commercial labs is 6% to 8%, and the percentage from the state lab is 8%.

The available data from Kansas shows a rate of nearly 6%. However, this is likely low in part because testing was limited in Johnson County after health leaders determined it was already spreading in the community.

Other clues about COVID-19 trends come from flu data.

Both Kansas and Missouri issue weekly reports on the numbers of confirmed flu cases and the numbers of people reporting flu-like activity to their doctors.

For several weeks, the numbers of confirmed flu cases in Missouri have been dropping dramatically, an indication that the flu season is coming to an end.

However, starting two weeks ago, both Missouri and Kansas saw upticks in the numbers people going to emergency departments with flu-like symptoms.

Many of these symptoms, such as fever, cough and body aches, are similar to COVID-19 symptoms. But because confirmed flu cases are dropping, health experts think that many of these people reporting flu symptoms might actually have COVID-19 that may not be identified due to lack of tests.

For most individuals who are sick, a positive test result doesn’t make much difference to treatment method, because whether an illness is COVID-19 or the flu, patients are advised to rest and isolate at home.

Health experts, meanwhile, say the lack of complete data is more problematic for infectious disease specialists trying to track the virus, and for civic leaders who are trying to obtain medical resources and determine what actions to take to protect public health.

Alex Smith is a health care reporter at KCUR. You can reach him at alexs@kcur.org.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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