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COVID is spreading in Kansas City again. Here's what to know about the new BA.5 variant

A woman holds a young girl wearing a green mask. A nurse wearing blue gloves is administering an injection to the child's arm.
Mary Altaffer
Maria Assisi holds her daughter Mia, 4 as Registered Nurse Margie Rodriguez administers the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for children 6 months through 5 years old, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at Montefiore Medical Group in the Bronx borough of New York.

COVID cases have increased in Kansas City by nearly 40% in the last two weeks, a surge attributed to the highly contagious variant BA.5.

The new COVID-19 variant BA.5 is fueling a steady increase in COVID-19 cases in the Kansas City area. The omicron sub-variant appears to be highly contagious, although so far it doesn't appear to be causing more severe symptoms than before.

According to the latest information from the Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City, Missouri reported more than 900 new cases between June 26 and July 2. That is a 17% increase from the previous week — and a nearly 40% increase from two weeks before.

Clay County is seeing a similar increase in cases. In Kansas, Johnson County saw a 16% increase in cases from week to week. Hospitalizations, however, remain low across the region.

As of July 12, this emerging variant accounts for about 30.9% of cases in Missouri, according to the Missouri COVID-19 dashboard. But the state and local data is incomplete, because so many people use at-home test kits that don’t get tested for variants and aren’t counted in official totals.

To break down what all this means for Kansas City, Kansas City Today host Nomin Ujiyediin spoke with Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, dean of the UMKC School of Medicine. Here’s their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Nomin Ujiyediin: There isn’t as much data available about COVID-19 infections in our area as there was at the beginning of the pandemic. What does that mean for our knowledge of how bad the pandemic could be right now? 

Dr. Mary Anne Jackson: Well, what we can say is that, the case numbers, which are up, is clearly an underestimate. But we can also say that, given the fact that this is an underestimate in the number of cases, that it's not converted to a large increase in serious cases that are requiring hospitalization or causing deaths.

So it appears that what we do know about this BA.5 variant is that it is very contagious. It may evade vaccine immunity, and in individuals who have been infected in the past, they may get re-infected.

What is the usefulness of anybody individually choosing to wear a mask, if nobody else around them is wearing one?

Wearing a mask and being in the presence of somebody with a mask is best, to avoid an exposure. But wearing a mask does indeed protect yourself. Certainly, if you are an individual who is at increased risk for serious complications of COVID, you should be thinking about wearing a mask at this point, and thinking about who you're gathering with.

For those who are at normal risk for COVID, you may not get serious disease, but it is really difficult that period of time where you have to be isolated, where you worry about other people in your family becoming infected. And the newest data suggests that for individuals who do develop COVID, the risk of long COVID is about 20%.

It’s been months since the last booster was authorized for most adults. If you got a booster months ago, how effective is it now? And how effective was the two-dose vaccine if you didn’t get a booster? 

We know that vaccine immunity wanes. And wanes means that the antibody titers you have that protect you go down over time. Five to six months from the last vaccine is when we know that these titers are decreasing to the point that you may become susceptible again.

The good thing is that we know that with exposures for vaccinated individuals, even as vaccines wane, it appears likely that you're gonna get a boost in antibody titers from any exposures that you have.

What kind of risk assessments people should be making?

The risk assessment that people need to be making is when and where they're going into the community. Thinking about whether it's a population that they know well, that's been vaccinated and/or recovered from infection. Whether or not they're in a public forum where they have no idea of who they're encountering and where mask wearing is gonna be very helpful to them — so that, for instance, would be the supermarket.

When they’re going out into a public/private setting where people are gathering together, realizing that the chances that you’re going to be exposed to COVID at this point is high if this is a group that is unvaccinated. 

What should our goals be as a community, if we wanna keep fighting the pandemic?

You know, very soon we're gonna be starting school back again. Our goal should be to keep all of our children in school. And we have the opportunity now to do a better job for this population, by getting them vaccinated, as we move through this most recent variant. 

You can hear the full conversation on Kansas City Today, KCUR's daily news podcast.

As a newscaster and a host of a daily news podcast, I want to deliver the most important and interesting news of the day in an engaging and easily understandable way. No matter where you live in the metro or what you’re interested in, I want you to learn something from each newscast or podcast – and maybe even give you something to talk about at the dinner table.
Rachel Schnelle is an intern for KCUR 89.3. She is an alum of the Missouri School of Journalism.
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