Entering the 10th month since it arrived in the state, the novel coronavirus has now killed more Kansans than influenza did over the past 10 years combined, according to data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Saturday’s death toll from COVID-19 stood at 771 statewide.
In contrast, according to KDHE annual vital statistics data, influenza was identified as the direct or contributory cause of a cumulative 713 deaths statewide since 2010.
Influenza death rates have spiked noticeably in the past three years. But even so, COVID-19 deaths are more than four times the highest number of flu deaths in any year since 1990, and almost 13 times the annual average.
KDHE Secretary Lee Norman has consistently refuted the claim that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu, noting that the number of deaths from COVID-19 statewide dwarfed the most recent flu seasons combined.
"I think that this is such a political hot potato," Norman said at a media briefing last week. "(People saying) ’Oh, how does this disease exist, has there been too much or too little reaction to it. And how can I discount the credibility of the people that are raising the red flag.’ "
Reno County averaged 1.4 deaths per year from flu for the past 10 years and an average over the past 30 years of 0.74 deaths per year. The highest total in the county was four deaths in 2013.
COVID-19 has now killed seven Reno County residents, including three last week.
Influenza is not a reportable disease in Kansas, so the total number of people who become ill from it in a given year is not tracked the same way as the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has mandatory reporting.
However, health officials have developed a regional reporting network that tracks the percentage of medical visits to medical clinics and hospitals for flu-like illnesses.
The state also collects positive influenza test results for those areas to identify the types of flu going around, which included three different strains last year.
Hutchinson and Wichita are among the nearly three dozen reporting locales, which during the 2018-2019 flu season recorded nearly 12,000 visits for flu-like illness.
While individual cases of influenza, except for pediatric deaths and novel A infections, are not reportable, outbreaks of any disease in Kansas are.
So, for the 20182019 surveillance period, according to the KDHE’s latest annual report, there were 34 influenza outbreaks reported and investigated by the agency, ranging from five to 100 cases.
Of 16 outbreaks for which hospitalization data were available, the average number of hospitalizations per outbreak was one, with a total of seven related deaths.
Most of the outbreaks — 20 — occurred in adult care facilities. Another dozen occurred in schools and two in child care facilities.
Again, it’s not a perfect comparison, but the numbers do point to the ease of transmission and seriousness of the illness.
For COVID-19, state health officials have identified 753 clusters across the state, involving nearly 14,350 of the state’s 65,800-plus cases, resulting in 769 hospitalization and 431 deaths.
As of last week, 225 of those clusters were still active.
The largest number of outbreaks, as with flu, have been in long-term care facilities, with 226 in such facilities, resulting in 416 hospitalizations and 368 deaths.
The largest number of cases stemming from clusters was 3,567 from 18 meatpacking plants, followed by more than 3,200 related to 20 prison clusters. The meatpacking clusters resulted in 109 hospitalizations and 19 deaths.
Of the deaths in Kansas for the 2018-19 flu season, the data shows 34% were people 85 years and older, and 18% among those ages 75 to 84.
People age 75 and older have accounted for just 5.5% of COVID-19 cases, but 60% of deaths.
There is one other thing worth noting about the flu statistics.
Over the past three years, the average number of flu deaths has averaged 145 per year, compared to an average of just 51 for the five years preceding that.
At the same time, the state’s influenza vaccination rate has been trending steadily downward, from a high of 67.6% of those aged 65 and older in 2011 to just 56% in 2017, the latest year for which data is available.
In Reno County, the flu vaccination rate has dropped from 62% in 2011 to less than 54% in 2017, and indications are it has plunged even further since then.
Norman said that getting the vaccine was vital to ensuring the state’s health system was not overwhelmed due to the dual threats of flu and COVID-19.
"The flu vaccine protects you, your family members and your community," he said. "I think we stand to do very well this year if people get vaccinated. I think with the mask wearing and the other anti-contagion measures, we can do very well and have a very big impact on influenza."
Andrew Bahl contributed to this report.