Local doctors worried about COVID infections among vaccinated, immuno-suppressed

Tracking Coronavirus

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Breakthrough infections, or COVID-19 cases among people who are vaccinated, have local health care workers concerned.

University of Kansas Health System doctors suspect those vaccinated patients have compromised immune systems, a major risk as the delta variant spikes across the country.

At KU Hospital, there are currently 39 COVID patients in the ICU, and 32 of them are unvaccinated.

The vaccinated patients are largely immuno-suppressed and for a variety of reasons. One reason is organ transplants. Another is chemotherapy. Certain medications can also suppress immune systems.

Local health officials are also worried about COVID-19 cases among children.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health spokesman George Diepenbrock said his 6-year-old son isn’t yet eligible to get the COVID vaccine.

“So we’re obviously concerned about him. We want him to be smart and safe. So he wears a mask to summer school, and if we go into a public place, then we kind of do it in solidarity with him. I think a lot of parents do that,” Diepenbrock said.

Last week, six of the new COVID cases in Douglas County were among people too young to receive the vaccine.

About a quarter of new cases happened in fully vaccinated individuals, according to Douglas County.

The same percentage breakdown is happening in KU Health System’s cases.

“In the totals, only a quarter are vaccinated. So 75% are unvaccinated. In the ICU, almost 80% are unvaccinated as well,” said Dr. Dana Hawkinson, infectious disease specialist in the KU Health System.

“We’re seeing a significant rise. I mean, our patient numbers are up, but we were down to five at one point and we’re nearly at 40. And seven of those patients have been vaccinated, and we need to do a little more research so we can know more about what the profile of those patients is like,” said Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at KU Health System.

“It’s odd because when you step back and look at it, you would say that there aren’t that many breakthrough infections. But again, we’re seeing some breakthrough infections — even though it’s 20% or 25%. That’s a little higher than I would have liked,” Stites said.

Stites said that vaccinated individuals who are immuno-suppressed should wear masks — advice he would give even outside of a pandemic.

“We have a transplant patient in the ICU right now who had been fully vaccinated, and it does look like the others who have been fully vaccinated have had chronic illnesses,” Stites said.

“I think the common thread is going to be this: If you are really immuno-compromised, you may need a third shot,” Stites said.

But health leaders don’t want this information to dissuade people from getting vaccinated.

“It’s confusing. There’s a lot of information out there, especially with the delta variant. But we would kind of just shout it from the rooftop that the vaccines have been shown to be effective, and they protect you from having to go to the hospital and having to overwhelm our healthcare system, which is what we’re most concerned about,” Diepenbrock said.

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