By Adam Strunk
Harvey County saw a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases this week, Kansas announced the more contagious Delta variant as the most common strain, and vaccination progress has slowed within the county.
The Harvey County Health Department finds itself in a better position than most Kansas counties as infections begin to pick up, thanks to the fifth highest vaccination rate in the state. But it still trails national averages by more than 5%.
“You’re getting reminded again, if you haven’t gotten it [the vaccine], please get it,” Harvey County Health Department Director Lynnette Redington said. “Call us. We’ll get it to you, or we’ll find someone who will.”
Redington and health officials hope to avoid a future fall and winter like last year, when local hospitals filled and many of the 70 county residents which COVID-19 has claimed died.
Redington said increasing the county’s vaccination number was important to prevent severe illness and death, as well as spread to vulnerable populations in the county.
“We want to reduce as many hospitalizations as we can,” Redington said.
Harvey County saw 19 new cases this week but has not had the deluge of COVID-19 hospitalizations that other nearby states, such as Arkansas or Missouri.
Currently, one resident is hospitalized.
“Overall the individuals who have been in the hospital have been unvaccinated,” Redington said. “It definitely shows the vaccine keeps people out of the hospital.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also estimated 99% of COVID-19 deaths in June took place among unvaccinated segments of the U.S. population.
Information released from the CDC also recently stated that COVID cases increased by 11% nationwide last week, with approximately 93% of COVID-19 cases occurring in counties with vaccination rates of less than 40%.
Local data shows new cases have remained mostly in the unvaccinated part of the population.
Ninety-seven out of the last 109 cases have occurred within the unvaccinated in the county—or 89% of new cases.
Harvey County currently has 42.8% of its total population completely vaccinated, and 55.2% of eligible residents—ages 12 and over—have received at least one vaccine shot. Those are good enough to place it in the top five to six counties statewide, depending on the metric used.
Still, vaccination progress isn’t what it once was in the county. In May, around seven to eight people per 1,000 in the county were getting vaccines per week. Numbers hovered closer to 2.5 per 1,000 through most of June. Increases of a quarter percent slowed the progress towards the goal of herd immunity, which has been estimated at around 70% of the population being vaccinated.
Redington said it’s not for lack of access, as vaccines are available county wide.
She said some of local residents were still untrusting of the safety or data behind the vaccine.
“People are leery or still feel the science isn’t behind it,” she said.
Not helping the situation is false information or data lacking context. The CDC hosts a database called Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) that allows anyone to report adverse reactions or issues following vaccination.
While the database expressly states, “The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental or unverifiable,” those numbers have creeped into local conversation as arguments against vaccine safety.
Our own search of the database found it reported that 47 people in Kansas who received the vaccine later died.
Many of these reports, when viewed, included late health complications, falls, heart problems, or existing poor health that health care providers wrote in their reports that they believed were unrelated to the vaccination.
For context, 70 have died of COVID-19 in Harvey County, and more than 5,188 have died from the disease state wide, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
For those concerned
Redington said, for those with concerns, “I’d point them to the research from the CDC and KDHE. Look at our reports coming from the health department; those ending up in the hospital are those that haven’t had a vaccine at all.”
Redington re-iterated that the health department has seen vaccines work and they are a safe way to prevent COVID-19 cases.
“That’s coming from both a personal as well as a Harvey County Health Department Director,” she said. “We’d not be promoting this if our public health office director and state health and environment was not saying this was safe; we’d not be doing that for our community.”
Redington said that the vaccine remains safe. She said she knows of no one in the county who has died after receiving the vaccine.
“We would have already heard if it was something we had administered,” she said.
There have been cases of reported allergic reactions, which is why people are to wait 15 minutes after receiving a vaccine.
Data shows vaccines to be safe and efficient and to have stopped spread and decreased hospitalizations.
Redington did credit the vaccination numbers with the lower spread the county has seen recent months. She said the department has noticed it through contact tracing. When a positive case comes in, they call close contacts.
“A lot of their contacts have been vaccinated and don’t spread it,” she said.
She added that those contacts have avoided having to quarantine.
Redington said there was a bit of good news last week and numbers climbed to 5.7 out of 1,000 receiving vaccines.
“Personally, from the health department last week, we had a nice bump up,” she said. “We had about 30 vaccines given last week. That felt really good.”
With a possible uptick coming when cooler weather forces more people indoors and into higher contagion situations, the county needs more of those good weeks to hit the herd immunity threshold.