© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New COVID variant driving winter surge in Kansas City. Here's what you should know right now

Kansas City Beacon

In the Kansas City area, hospitals are already seeing a steady stream of cases associated with respiratory viruses, including COVID. If the trend of hospitalizations continues, the CDC warns that hospitals will be forced to ration care.

Holiday gatherings in Kansas City this year face the prospect of a very unwelcome guest – JN.1, the fast-spreading COVID-19 variant driving this year’s winter surge.

In the Kansas City area, hospitals already see a steady stream of cases associated with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.

A week before Christmas, the University of Kansas Health System had 26 patients hospitalized for the virus — including four in intensive care. St. Luke’s Health System had 23 patients, and University Health had 15.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that if the trend continues, some hospitals will be forced to ration care by the end of December.

To help Kansas Citians stay healthy during the busiest travel season of the year, The Beacon compiled information from local hospitals and health departments on the current best practices on vaccinations, avoiding infection and staying safe while traveling.

I tested positive — what should I do? Should I isolate?

Stay home from work, cancel plans (even holiday gatherings) and isolate as much as possible for the first five days of the infection. The day symptoms start — or the day you test positive — is Day Zero. For the following five days, you should avoid other people. Sleep alone and, if possible, use a bathroom others aren’t using.

If you can’t isolate completely, wear a mask and ask other people in your home to do the same when you are around. You can stop isolating on the sixth day, but you should continue to wear a mask through Day 10.

What should I do to take care of myself?

Dr. Sarah Boyd, an infectious disease physician at Saint Luke’s Health System, recommends resting, drinking lots of fluids and checking in with your health care provider as soon as you test positive to see if you are eligible for antiviral medication, which can ease symptoms.

Some long-COVID specialists say that pushing through fatigue may make things worse.

What is the incubation period?

Symptoms usually start within five days after you have been exposed, but they can show up as late as 10 days after that exposure, Boyd said. The CDC website offers a calculator to help you.

What if I know I’ve been exposed? Should I quarantine?

Wear a mask for 10 days, even if you don’t have symptoms. Testing is recommended on Day Six, but you should continue to wear a mask through Day 10, even if the test is negative.

Who needs to be notified?

Government agencies are no longer tracking COVID-19 as closely, but health officials urge people to notify anyone who they may have exposed.

“Because this is not a reportable disease anymore, it really does place more responsibility on individuals,” said Charlie Hunt, the director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

If a child tests positive after going to school in person, their parents should notify the school nurse — who is a mandated reporter under the law — and the child’s teachers that their classmates may have been exposed. Hunt said the parents should also notify child care providers.

The same goes for someone who may have been contagious while visiting a long-term care facility or retirement home.

What if a family member tested positive?

Avoid being around them as much as possible, wear a mask if you need to be in the same space and try to improve ventilation to reduce infection risk. Practice masking and follow the testing recommendations for exposure.

I just got over COVID — how long should I wait before getting the booster?

It is safe to get a booster as soon as the 10-day isolation period is over and your symptoms are improving. But since you will have gained some immunity from having the virus, the CDC says you may wait up to three months after being sick to get another shot.

I haven’t had any vaccines since the original series. What should I do?

You should get the latest vaccine being offered. There is no need to worry about getting previously offered boosters, Boyd said.

How do I get up to date on my vaccines and boosters?

The CDC recommends that everyone 5 years and older get the updated vaccine that came out this fall. Children 6 months to 4 years old should check with a pediatrician because additional doses may be necessary.

Since the last booster series, the vaccine has been “commercialized,” meaning that private insurance companies are now expected to pay for the COVID vaccine.

To make sure that your insurance pays for the vaccine, Hunt said to go to an in-network pharmacy or provider.

For people who are uninsured or underinsured, there are programs on both sides of the state line that cover vaccine costs. These resources are listed here.

After receiving the vaccine, it will take around two weeks to build up immunity, Hunt said.

I got a booster this fall. When should I get another one?

At this point, the CDC has not made a recommendation about when an additional booster will be necessary, but many doctors expect the COVID vaccine to become an annual shot, similar to the flu shot.

People who are moderately or severely immunocompromised may be eligible for an additional booster two months after their last shot.

How is COVID different from the flu?

The symptoms can be similar. If you’re exposed to either virus, you may experience a cough, fever, chills, sore throat and diarrhea. But COVID lasts longer than the flu. People usually get symptoms of flu one to four days after exposure. COVID symptoms come within two to five days, but can take up to 14 days to appear.

Although COVID might resemble the flu during the onset, it is more serious and remains a severe public health risk. According to the CDC, COVID is responsible for some 1.2 million deaths in the United States.

“We’re only three and a half years into it,” Hunt said. “It’s still relatively early in the course of history.”

While public health experts know more about it now than they did in 2020, looming questions remain about long COVID and what happens after the initial infection.

Although treatment is similar for flu and COVID, it’s important to get tested so you know which virus you have. The antiviral medications your doctor might prescribe are different for each.

Doctors recommend that people with flu isolate until symptoms have improved and you have been fever-free for at least 24 hours. But patients with the COVID virus should isolate until Day Five and mask a full 10 days.

How can I get a test?

Beginning Nov. 20, the federal government began offering households four additional free at-home tests. Households that didn’t receive four tests earlier this fall can get a total of eight. Pharmacies also sell at-home tests.

A negative at-home test should be repeated after 48 hours for the most accurate result. Doctors’ offices and health departments also offer testing.

How can I prevent long COVID?

While doctors continue to study long COVID — the continuation of symptoms for three months or more after an initial infection — the best way to avoid getting it is to avoid getting infected in the first place, Boyd said. Her advice is to stay up to date on the vaccines and mitigate risk by masking and taking other measures to avoid exposure.

Find more information here:

What are the travel recommendations?

If you are sick, you should test and rule out COVID before traveling, experts said. Ultimately, the decision of whether to get on an airplane should be based on individual risk, said Steven W. Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System. “If you have any risk,” he said, “put on a mask.”

This holiday season, COVID is circulating more rapidly now than it was in July or August. People who are traveling, Hunt said, should keep these trends in mind.

“Unfortunately, you never know what’s going to happen in your particular situation,” he said. “You don’t want to get it and expose someone who is at higher risk. So again, I think it goes back to that social and personal responsibility involved.”

Travelers should keep in mind that, if they get infected, the recommendation is still to isolate for at least five days. So if someone catches it at the airport two days before a family gathering, that may disrupt holiday plans.

How do I get the care that I need if I don’t have insurance?

To get a free or reduced-cost vaccine, contact your local health department and ask about the CDC’s Bridge Access program.

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of theKC Media Collective.


Suzanne King Raney is The Kansas City Beacon's health reporter. During her newspaper career, she has covered education, local government and business. At The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Business Journal she wrote about the telecommunications industry. Email her at suzanne@thebeacon.media.
Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.