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As COVID-19 surges in Kansas City during the holiday season, booster shots are in high demand

Close-up photo of a nurse's gloved hands administering a vaccine shot.
National Cancer Institute
A nurse administers a vaccine shot as the coronavirus pandemic generates concerns during another holiday season.

Local health professionals say Kansas City is a "sitting duck" as cases caused by the delta variant spike and omicron looms.

COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate in Kansas City and surrounding areas and local health professionals are concerned.

Dr. Amber Schmidtke is the chair of the Division of Natural Sciences at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth and author of the blog, "The COVID Digest."

She said positivity rates are a way doctors measure whether enough COVID-19 testing is being done. The ideal positivity rate is 5%.

In Kansas City, test positivity rates among most age groups are in the teens or upper teens, which Schmidtke said indicates cases are likely drastically higher than data suggests.

“On both the Kansas as well as the Missouri side of the river, we are probably undercounting cases by a large margin,” said Schmidtke. “The danger in that is that you can’t see how big the problem is which makes it harder to control.”

She said in the metro, COVID cases have already surpassed the delta peak which occurred over the summer. In August, the highest 7-day average was 262 cases. Currently, it’s 270 cases.


Testing for the newest strand of COVID, omicron, is done at state health labs in batches. Local doctors say this causes a delay in results, and they speculate omicron might already be in Kansas City.

Studies from South Africa where cases of omicron were first identified suggest the strand is more contagious than delta, but causes milder side effects.

University of Kansas Health System Director of Infection Prevention Dr. Dana Hawkinson said it’s too early to tell whether that is true or not, given South Africa’s low vaccination rate.

“There has been a lot of spread in South Africa,” said Hawkinson. “So is this reduced intensity or reduced severity because of previous infection with delta, is that part of the immune system working? I don’t know, these are caveats that we just don’t know and don’t understand.”

Hawkinson said when a person comes into the hospital for COVID, doctors are not able to identify the variant because samples are sent to the state health lab for testing. However, he adds for treatment purposes, it doesn’t matter what variant it is as treatment is the same.

Hawkinson is still urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and for those 16 and older, to get a booster shot six months after receiving their final vaccine.

Holiday travel and boosters

Vaccination clinics that offer COVID-19 booster shots have seen an uptick in people getting boosters within recent weeks.

Leslie and Steve Goins live in the Smithville area. Leslie said the rise in cases is scary, which is why she and Steve are getting boosters.

“It’s been over six months since we were both vaccinated and I’m in a high risk category so I figured we better do it, better safe than sorry,” Steve Goins added. “What we need to do is get all of the people that are unvaccinated vaccinated. I mean, that would help immensely.”

Previously, the youngest a person could get a booster shot was 18, but on Thursday the CDC expanded booster recommendations to include 16 and 17 year-olds.

A major area of concern for doctors is upcoming holiday travel and gatherings.

“The concern is that people are picking up disease, maybe without realizing it, going to these family gatherings, and then possibly spreading it to others,” said Schmidtke.

She explained, “New Year's is a week after Christmas, and so people that go to Christmas gatherings and pick up disease may not be symptomatic before they go to New Year's Eve celebrations. We went through this last year too, where it’s just a very unfortunate sequence of events in terms of spreading disease.”

Dr. Hawkinson said the best way to avoid spreading COVID to loved ones is get vaccinated and a booster shot along with avoiding crowds.

“If you have your eyes on the near future and you’re going to be meeting with families or gathering with them for the Christmas or the New Year season, understand that, ‘Well, maybe I need to reduce my risk factors and reduce going into those places where it could be higher risk of getting COVID.'”

Stephanie Walker was at Kansas City International airport Saturday, preparing to fly to LA. She said she is not avoiding travel, but is taking all the precautions she can to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

“We’re all vaccinated, we’ve got our masks, we’ve got gloves and hand sanitizer, and we’re going to socially distance,” said Walker.

Walker added that she also got a booster shot.

“We had to do a booster with all the others, with polio, all the others,” said Walker. “So what makes this any different?”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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