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OLATHE, Kan. — There’s a definite shift in the people who are testing positive, or hospitalized, for COVID-19. When the pandemic began, older people were at greatest risk of getting ill or dying from the virus. Older Americans were given vaccine priority when vaccinations started and health departments said the majority are now vaccinated.

Now the virus is looking for people who haven’t been vaccinated, according to health experts. That includes a large number of younger people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 42% of the people hospitalized for COVID-19 last week were between the ages of 18 and 49.

“We are sort of in a situation that is not necessarily unexpected, but probably came a little sooner than we were hoping or, or wanting, and we are seeing a fairly rapid increase in our cases, about this time last month,” said Elizabeth Holzschuh, epidemiologist for the Johnson County Health Department.

The Johnson County Health Department said it’s keeping a close eye on a number of positive cases involving children. Kids under the age of 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated. The health department said children between the ages of 5 and 17 are making up 30% of the new COVID-19 cases in the county.

“We’re seeing that age group come up having a lot of infections and a lot of them are associated with outbreaks and these include things like child care centers, summer camps, those day summer camps as well as those overnight summer camps,” Holzschuh said. “We’ve seen it in athletic groups as well.”

During an update Monday, the Johnson County Health Department said about 50% of the cases in children over the last three months have been associated with a cluster or a COVID-19 outbreak.

Health experts say that’s because the Delta variant is the main one they are seeing right now. The Delta variant is transmitted more easily from person to person than the form of the virus circulating at this time last year. In 2020, every person infected with COVID-19 would transmit it to two or three others. Doctors said with the Delta variant, each infected person infects six or eight other people.

“It’s definitely alarming as we’re seeing these signs, particularly in this age group. You know kids are being hospitalized I spoke to a colleague from Children’s Mercy this morning. They have a number of children hospitalized,” Holzschuh said.

The health department is also concerned that the CDC revised guidelines earlier this month saying fully vaccinated students and teachers should not be required to wear masks while in school buildings.

“We now have data both from Johnson County as well as from other areas of the country that show that when kids are masked in a classroom, even if they don’t have that distance that we talked about if they’re within those three feet, masks are exceptionally effective,” Holzschuh said. “If you take away masks, we’re now putting those kids at a very high risk of getting infected, and without masks there’s going to be need for quarantines.”

The health department said at least 2,000 kids fell into that category last year. They said an additional 2,000 children would have ended up in quarantine if schools didn’t require masks.

Charlie Hunt with the Johnson County Department of Health said it is working with state and county leaders to make sure everyone stays as healthy as possible when school starts.

The institute said it is focusing on education about vaccinations in schools. Hunt said the institute is encouraging school districts to promote vaccination for staff, students and their families.

“We feel that vaccination will help to keep schools open and we recommend schools do all they can to promote vaccination among faculty, staff and students and their families to buy that additional layer of protection,” Hunt said.

While it doesn’t make requirements for districts, the Kansas Health Institute plans to push districts to require masks indoors for everyone who is not fully vaccinated.

“Research has consistently demonstrated that proper mask wearing is effective in limiting in school transmission so this is what that looked at specifically for the school environment, even when their schooling person learning mask wearing can help prevent the transmission of the virus,” Hunt said.

The institute is asking anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, or experiences symptoms to quarantine for at least 10 days. Those who’ve been exposed, but are not vaccinated, will also need to isolate and get a negative COVID-19 test before returning to school or activities.

The Johnson County Health Department and Kansas Health Institute said it believes that four-step approach will allow schools to start open while also keeping students and staff safe through the year.