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Dangerous COVID-19 Variants Found In Kansas City Wastewater Even As Restrictions Are Eased

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced police reforms after a closed, emergency meeting with the Board of Police Commissioners on Thursday.
Lynn Horsley
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says the spread of COVID-19 variants could force a return to tighter restrictions.

Hours after Kansas City loosened restrictions on business, Missouri's health department announced it had found evidence that a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant has been spreading throughout the state.

After weeks of reporting only a single confirmed case of a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant, Missouri’s health department has discovered through wastewater surveillance that it has been spreading throughout the state.

Kansas City officials confirmed on Wednesday that the B.1.1.7. variant has been identified in the metro area as well, but they defended recent moves to loosen business restrictions.

Dr. Rex Archer, the head of Kansas City’s health department, told KCUR that the surveillance program run by the state health department and researchers at the University of Missouri found small amounts of the variant in samples from the Kansas City area.

“The reality at this point is that the percentage of this variant is still very low,” Archer said. “But we don’t believe that will stay that way very long, given what happened in other parts of this country and particularly in Great Britain.”

Like many health experts, Archer says he’s concerned that the variant, which is 30% to 50% more transmissible than earlier strains and may be more deadly, could become the dominant form of COVID-19 within weeks.

The shedding of RNA traces of COVID-19 can continue for weeks after someone has been sick, so the detection of traces of the variant in wastewater doesn’t necessarily indicate someone is actively infected.

It generally does indicate, however, that infection has taken place in that community, according to Marc Johnson, a University of Missouri virologist and surveillance researcher.

“Someone from that sewer shed almost certainly had B.1.1.7 virus,” Johnson said in an email.

Another COVID-19 variant, B.1.427/B.1.429, which was identified in California and is also thought to be highly transmissible and possibly cause more severe illness, has also been found in the state, Johnson said.

The B.1.351 variant, which was identified in South Africa, and the P.1 variant, which has caused surges in Brazil, have not been found in Missouri, according to Johnson.

News about the B.1.1.7. variant in Missouri was sent in an email by the Department of Health and Senior Services late Friday afternoon hours after Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced the end of many business restrictions meant to reduce the spread of the virus.

Lucas said at the announcement that the variant could require the city to return to a more aggressive mitigation strategy.

“If there was a new strain, a new challenge, then we would address that accordingly,” Lucas said. “Are these restrictions as effective against a new challenge? I would say probably not.”

Morgan Said, a spokeswoman with the mayor's office, did not respond to questions from KCUR about whether Lucas was aware that variants had already been identified locally when he lifted the restrictions.

She said that decisions to implement or ease restrictions were based on trends, including numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Experts have warned that the emergence of the variants could lead to additional COVID-19 surges if restrictions are quickly eased.

“I’m having a certain amount of anxiety that, over the short term, we might be letting our guard down a little bit too soon,” Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage said at a virtual Q&A on COVID-19 variants on Wednesday.

But Archer, of the Kansas City Health Department, defended the loosening of restrictions on businesses.

“The [COVID-19] level is extremely low right now,” he said. “There’s that balance of trying to make sure people aren’t basically starving because they can’t feed their family because they can’t work.”

Missouri’s health department has provided no additional details on where in the state the B.1.1.7. variant had been identified beyond the general information provided in the press release.

The department did not respond to several inquiries from KCUR.

Archer said that, while he is comfortable with the recent easing of restrictions, he is concerned about the possibility the variants may spread more easily among children, which may require a return to more restrictions for schools.

“It looks like we could open up or stay open,” Archer said. “But that could change if this virus takes off.”

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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