Hospitals overflow with COVID patients as staff is sickened

January 6, 2022 GMT

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Patients are dying in emergency rooms of small Kansas hospitals as larger hospitals that are struggling with soaring staff absences and COVID-19 cases turn down transfers.

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Hospitals across the state painted a dire picture Wednesday of worsening conditions as the highly contagious omicron variant collides with a delta surge. They urged public officials to require masks and impose emergency declarations that could free up more resources, saying they are struggling to keep up with the demand for testing and that surgeries are being delayed and clinics canceled.

“This is hands down the toughest surge the medical community has had to face since the pandemic began in 2020,” said Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, during a briefing with more than a dozen chief medical officers and infectious diseases doctors.

Stites said his hospital is treating 128 COVID-19 patients, more than three times as many as a month ago, and has deferred nearly 130 surgeries, including one to remove cancerous lung nodules, after 640 staff members called out sick.

The briefing came as Kansas once again reported a record high for the average number of new cases a day over seven days, 4,311 for the seven days ending Wednesday, according to state data.

Motient, a company contracted by Kansas to help manage transfers, said there has been a fivefold increase in patients dying while waiting to be transferred.

“Those patients are upwards 20 hours plus in the emergency room and then passing while waiting for transfer to another facility,” said Dr. Richard Watson, founder of Motient. “It speaks truly to not challenging situations, but true crisis situations.”

Salina Regional Health has been limiting surgeries because of a staffing crunch that has made it difficult to keep up with the surge in patients and demand for testing, said Dr. Robert Freelove, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

He said another hospital official recently sent him a note expressing thanks that the Salina hospital had accepted a patient who was having a heart attack. The official told Freelove that two patients had died in the past two weeks while waiting to be transferred.

“We didn’t have room,” Freelove said. “Nobody had room and those patients died non-COVID related deaths that probably could have been prevented.”

HCA Midwest Health is treating a pandemic high 250 COVID-19 patients at its Kansas City area hospitals, said Dr. Kim Megow, the chief medical officer. She said the emergency departments are slammed and at least 190 workers have called out sick so far Wednesday.

“And as we track that we see no end yet, no peak,” she said, adding that the hospital is canceling surgeries. “So it’s still really climbing just almost vertically if you look at the charts.”

Megow said an emergency declaration in Kansas as well as Missouri would be “extremely helpful,” noting that it would allow hospitals to exceed their licensed capacity. She said it also would provide a pathway for the state to request help from the National Guard.

Pediatric cases also are on the rise at a time when when districts have lifted mask mandates.

Children’s Mercy is treating a pandemic-record 30 COVID-19 in-patients, nearly a third hospitalized in intensive care, said Dr. Jennifer Watts, the chief emergency management medical officer. She also said 327 staff were out sick Tuesday and the number continues to rise.

Lawrence Memorial Hospital has close to 50 staff members who are sickened with COVID-19 and is canceling surgeries, said Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious diseases physician at the hospital and the deputy public health officer for Douglas County. She said the drive-through COVID-19 testing is booked out and that staff is burned out.

“It is heartbreaking to look at that situation and think that we have to deliver substandard care,” she said, “just to try to piece together, you know, care for our patients.”

Stormont Vail Health in Topeka is helping smaller rural hospitals across the region manage some patients in their emergency departments as it deals with a rise in cases and staff absences that has limited its ability to accept them.

“It’s just not possible to transfer those patients anywhere,” said Dr. Kevin Dishman, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

Hays Medical Center declined 300 transfers over the past month, said Dr. Heather Harris, the medical director there.

“That breaks my heart,” she said, noting that small rural hospitals with no specialists are caring for patients they are ill-equipped to handle. “Care is already being put at risk.”

Ascension Via Christi is treating 110 COVID-19 patients at its Wichita hospital alone, said Dr. Sam Antonios, the chief clinical officer. He said hospitals need help.

“Right now, I think a lot of health officials feel like they don’t have a lot of authority, and that is something that I think the state could consider,” Antonios said. “So flexibility, regulatory flexibility, but also providing some support to public health officials.”

Gov. Laura Kelly has been monitoring the hospital capacity situation, said her spokesperson Sam Coleman. He said she is reviewing short-term measures and longer-term solutions that would require Legislative action.

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John Hanna in Topeka contributed to this report.

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This story was first published on Jan. 5. It was updated on Jan. 6 to correct Dr. Sam Antonios’ title. He is the chief clinical officer for Ascension Via Christi, overseeing the system’s hospitals, not the chief medical officer in Wichita.