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Two-thirds of Ky. counties remain at high risk for COVID-19

A health care worker tests a student for COVID-19.
A health care provider tests a student at Pleasure Ridge Park High School for COVID-19 in September 2021.

Two-thirds of Kentucky counties remain in the highest risk category for COVID-19 spread, as the most recent surge continues.

A map on the Kentucky Department for Public Health website shows the majority of counties in the red as of Friday. That’s the highest level of infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention model. The agency’s three-color system is based on new cases and hospitalizations. 

Jefferson County had more than 2,600 new cases reported last week. But Ted Smith, director of University of Louisville’s Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, said infections are likely higher based on wastewater testing. 

Smith said wastewater testing is more accurate than clinical testing, since many people are now taking COVID tests at home, results from which aren’t included in state data. 

He said the data have been high for the past four weeks. Three weeks ago, the samples showed infection rates higher than at any point since researchers started testing wastewater for the illness in August 2020. 

“We're just at very, very high levels of virus in the community,” Smith said. “And it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”

But he added that the hospitalizations have not increased to levels seen during previous spikes. Samples show more than 90% of the infections in Jefferson County are the omicron BA.5 variant. 

“It seems that the majority of the folks that are infected right now in this wave are recovering at home,” he said. “And so it's hard to see the impact of this virus at this level, because…the people aren't in the hospital at the same rates they were in past surges.”

The state health department reports hospitalizations and COVID patients on ventilators or in the ICU are the highest they’ve been since March. 

Around three weeks ago, researchers also began testing wastewater for monkeypox, which the White House declared last week a national emergency, as well as polio

The CDC reported nine monkeypox cases in the state, and Smith said the team has detected it in wastewater. The first U.S. polio case in nearly a decade was discovered last month in New York, but none have been identified in Kentucky. 

Smith said using the wastewater surveillance tool in conjunction with other information can help show a better picture of public health issues and be an indicator of what’s to come. 

“We're all learning how to do this at the same time,” he said. “We're really trying to figure out how to use this data as a companion with what you're used to looking at from the CDC. But there's every reason to believe that we'll see things first in the wastewater before we'll see them reported as clinical cases.”

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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