As 2021 comes to a close, we’re taking a look back on local COVID data and trends,  which offer an interesting glimpse into the questions and topics that shaped our view of the second full year of the pandemic. We updated some of our most telling graphics of the year to see what’s changed, what hasn’t and what data we’ll be watching in the future. 

COVID data showed early vaccinations in Kansas and Missouri 

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines dominated news coverage during the first part of 2021. But as states released complex plans to distribute the vaccines, many people were left confused about the process. 

In February, The Beacon responded to a wide-range o f reader questions about vaccines. People wondered when it would be their turn to get the shot. Were there any potential side effects for breastfeeding mothers or pregnant women?* And what would be safe to do again once you were fully vaccinated? 

To keep our community up-to-date on the rapidly changing rules and information, we also released state-specific guides for Kansas and Missouri on the vaccine eligibility phases. 

As of March 22, only 22 percent of Missouri residents and 23 percent of Kansas residents had received their first vaccine dose. Nine months later, those figures grew to 62 percent for Missouri and 68 percent for Kansas. However, that’s still below the national rate of about 74 percent. 

It’s important to note that those figures only show the amount of people who received their first dose, which is not the same thing as saying they are fully vaccinated in most circumstances. The mRNA COVID vaccines available in the U.S. require two doses to be fully effective, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends all adults get booster shots — especially with the spread of the new Omicron variant.

*The CDC and other public health officials say it is safe for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers to receive the vaccine. In fact, due to the increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 among women who are pregnant or recently pregnant, public health officials strongly recommend all pregnant women get vaccinated. More information is available on the CDC’s website.

Problems with Missouri COVID data made tracking health disparities more difficult

The pandemic continued to highlight longstanding health dispairites among Black and other non-white communities throughout the vaccine rollout this year. 

In April, The Beacon reported on the disproportionately low vaccination rates of Black people in Missouri. Though Black people make up 11 percent of the state’s population, they accounted for only 7 percent of those vaccinated. Metrics at the time also showed Black people had disproportionately high rates of death and serious illnesses related to COVID.

What’s more, it’s difficult to assess the current status of COVID racial disparities in Missouri due to problems with the state’s recordkeeping

For example, data from the Department of Health and Senior Services shows that out of the state’s roughly 783,000 confirmed COVID cases, Black people account for about 83,000, or 10.5 percent. Yet more than 125,000 cases, or 16 percent, are listed with an “unknown” race. As a result, the true case rate for Black people in Missouri may be much higher.  

Local data from the Kansas City Department of Health has more reliable demographic information, but the picture it paints is stark. 

As of Dec. 20, the age-adjusted death rate per 100,000 residents – a metric used to standardize information across different groups – shows Hispanic/Latinix people have the highest case rate in Kansas City, followed by people who are Black or African American. The data shows the same general trend as the end of last year, although the case rates for all racial groups are significantly higher now. 

Vaccination rate slowed as Delta variant emerged

By late April, all adults in the U.S. were eligible to receive COVID vaccines, but the pace of administering new doses was already starting to slow. As The Beacon reported on vaccine incentive programs on May 24, the rolling average was about 1,257,212 new doses per day, down from a peak of about 3.3 million doses per day in mid-April.

The stats didn’t improve much from there. Despite pleas from public health officials to get vaccinated amid the onset of the highly transmissible Delta variant in July, new doses only moderately increased throughout the rest of the year. 

Kansas City COVID data showed new cases were up as mask mandates returned

Less than three months after ending a nearly yearlong mask mandate in May, Kansas City officials reinstated the restriction in response to rapidly climbing cases and new guidance from the CDC. 

In late July, federal public health officials did an about-face from earlier recommendations that stated vaccinated people were essentially free to live without any COVID restrictions. The updated guidance recommended that even vaccinated people wear masks while in indoor public settings in communities with “high” or “significant” transmission rates. 

The CDC defines a high transmission area as one where the total cases reported over a seven-day period exceed 100 per 100,000 residents or where the positivity rate is 10% or higher. 

Public health officials say that comparing the number of positive COVID tests to the total number of tests completed is useful because it demonstrates the area’s testing capabilities. Anything higher than 5 percent could indicate that the community is not testing enough and that the actual number of positive cases may be much higher, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

When Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced the new mask mandate, the city was reporting about 264 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents. While the restrictions were in place, the case rate consistently decreased. 

However, as The Beacon reported earlier this month, the case rate started to creep back up in the days before the Kansas City Council voted to repeal the rules on Nov. 4. In the following weeks, new cases shot up in the area, mirroring national trends. Most recently, the case rate has remained high as the Omicron variant began to surge around the country.  

As of Dec. 19, an analysis of DHSS data shows the weekly case rate in Kansas City is about 241 per 100,000 residents. All counties in the Kansas City metropolitan area are now considered high transmission areas, but no adult mask mandates remain active.  

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Madison Hopkins is the health care accountability reporter focused on the intersection of health policy and people. Her reporting is partially funded by Health Forward Foundation. She was previously an...