Testing of donated blood in Kansas hints at vastly higher COVID-19 infection rate

Antibody present in 22% of units donated at blood banks

Rep. Brenda Landwehr listens to remote testimony Tuesday from Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, as he briefs a joint House and Senate committee on the COVID-19 response. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The top public health official in Kansas told legislators Tuesday recent testing revealed 22% of blood donations in the state contained the antibody to COVID-19, suggesting the level of coronavirus exposure during the pandemic could be higher than previously reported.

Lee Norman, secretary at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the antibody would be present among people who naturally contracted the coronavirus as well as individuals who had been vaccinated. So far, KDHE says 132,000 Kansans have been vaccinated. Reports show 269,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state since March. Taken together, approximately 400,000, or more than 13% of the state’s population, could be expected to have a detectable level of the coronavirus antibody in their bloodstream.

The 22% figure related to blood donations would suggest about 640,000 Kansans either naturally contracted COVID-19 or were vaccinated in an attempt to build immunity. This elevated figure, Norman said, might be a positive sign in terms of reaching the 85% benchmark for herd immunity.

“That’s way more than the total number of cases,” Norman said of the blood donation analysis. “There’s more disease that has occurred out there than has been diagnosed, which is not surprising. Maybe that will assist us in getting back to normal.”

The House and Senate health committees convened a joint meeting in an effort to get direct answers from KDHE about the state’s response to the pandemic. Many questions related to pace of distribution and administration of vaccine to vulnerable people in the 105 counties. There were complaints about lack of coordination among the state, county and health facilities. A series of questions were posed about KDHE’s mediocre performance on vaccination metrics that suggest Kansas was stuck near the bottom among all states.

“What is the methodology for distributing to our counties? I know in Sedgwick County we’ve come up real short,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican and chairwoman of the House health committee.

Landwehr also questioned KDHE’s decision to allow people to get a vaccination in any Kansas county. She said the policy created supply and demand problems because it was harder for a county to know how many doses might be available on any given day.

Norman said the state’s greatest challenge was an insufficient supply of vaccine. Approximately 45,000 doses were being shipped to the state each week. The state is allocated 1% of current production, which reflects Kansas’ share of the U.S. population. President Joe Biden has pledged to leverage federal authority to expedite manufacturing of vaccine.

“I think we’re going to see a steady supply of the vaccine at this point from the feds,” Norman said. “It’s going to be real tough sledding. It’s just not enough given demand.”

Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican and a physician, said he was dismayed at the response of Gov. Laura Kelly and KDHE to COVID-19. He blamed state officials for “micromanaging” distribution of vaccine.

“As a physician who has battled this thing from the start, I’ve never felt like our leadership — the Kelly administration, KDHE — has learned lessons from this virus and adapted its strategies to it,” Steffen said. “What we’ve had here has been a combination of addressing a pandemic and political agenda. Don’t be confused about that.”

In June, the 2021 Legislature limited Kelly’s power during the pandemic following a series of controversial executive orders regarding operation of schools, businesses and mandates related to wearing face coverings, mass gatherings and social distancing. The reform bill granted to county commissions authority to reject Kelly’s executive orders in the pandemic.

Norman said county officials possessed the ability to adjust vaccination programs in ways not proposed by KDHE.

“We heard loud and clear from local health departments, county commissioners and the like, ‘We do not want the state to make us work lockstep. We want to have some local control, because we know better than the state does where are our pinch points.’ I think that’s kind of what you’ve come to learn about Kansas in general in terms of the ability to have local self-determination with guidance,” Norman said.

He said 61% of vaccine delivered in Kansas has been used to vaccinate people, while the U.S. average in terms of vaccine administration stood at 54%. Other tracking systems put Kansas’ rate lower.

On Tuesday, KDHE unveiled an online dashboard chronicling county-specific vaccination information. The information will be updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. She said the tool was designed to help people access the vaccine as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Norman said the vaccination goal was to reach 85% of the state’s population, but that would take months.

“I think that is the light at the end of the tunnel,” the KDHE secretary said. “I don’t have a crystal ball that says exactly what that date will be. If we can get to 85 or preferentially 85 or 90 percent how have had either the illness or the vaccine then we’ll be a lot safer. The vaccine is absolutely the salvation that will get us there.”

The idea of creating herd immunity through natural spread of COVID-19 won’t be sufficient, Norman said, because it was possible people could get the virus again within 90 days or so. Those vaccinated may have protection for more than one year, he said, but time will offer greater insight.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.