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COVID-19 spread low across much of Ky. as researchers monitor for emerging variants

Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville.
Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville.

Most Kentucky counties are at low levels of COVID-19 spread, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that includes new cases and hospitalizations.

Meanwhile, researchers in Louisville continue to monitor COVID levels in wastewater samples to stay ahead of any spikes that could come as colder months approach.

This week, data from the CDC show all but 17 Kentucky counties in the green, or the lowest level of spread. Only one — Letcher County in eastern Kentucky — was in the red, or highest level. 

The incidence rate for Jefferson County was around 72 cases per 100,000 residents, a 16% drop from the week before.

University of Louisville’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute has been monitoring wastewater for COVID since 2020. Ted Smith, the director at the institute’s Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, said the samples have shown a slow drop in infection in the area since a spike in summer. Hospitalization rates have dropped much more quickly, which he called encouraging.

“So that would suggest that there's still a fair number of people that are carrying around infections,” he said. “The good news is they're not necessarily getting very sick or ending up in the hospital.”

Now, the research team is on the lookout for new and emerging variants, including BQ.1.1. It’s one of two omicron offshoots that have been spreading rapidly in Europe and parts of the United States.

The variant was found in one Jefferson County sample taken Sept. 26, but Smith said there has been no sign of it since then.

CDC data show as of late last week BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 made up more than 11% of cases in the U.S., compared with around 3% the week before.  

White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week the two strains are “troublesome.” Early findings from some researchers show BQ.1.1 could fight through antibodies, but health officials say vaccinations and boosters still provide better resistance to serious illness than not having them.

Smith said the team at U of L will continue to look for changes in the wastewater samples, an early indicator of a rise in infections or new variants.

“When this whole pandemic started, we were caught without any information about the situation,” he said. “And so I feel like we've got a lot more intelligence now about what our situation is, so that we'll know if it ever gets worse, we'll know about it earlier.”

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

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