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Hospitals serving Kansas stressed as coronavirus cases rise

November 5, 2020 GMT
In this photo provided by Ascension Via Christi Health System, Jenifer Phelps, right, a nurse manager, talks with patient Angie Mooneyham in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at the Ascension Via Christi St. Francis hospital,  Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in Wichita, Kan. The hospital has created two new units for coronavirus patients as hospitalizations have increased, both in Wichita and across Kansas. (Ascension Via Christi Health System via AP)
In this photo provided by Ascension Via Christi Health System, Jenifer Phelps, right, a nurse manager, talks with patient Angie Mooneyham in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at the Ascension Via Christi St. Francis hospital,  Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in Wichita, Kan. The hospital has created two new units for coronavirus patients as hospitalizations have increased, both in Wichita and across Kansas. (Ascension Via Christi Health System via AP)
In this photo provided by Ascension Via Christi Health System, Jenifer Phelps, right, a nurse manager, talks with patient Angie Mooneyham in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at the Ascension Via Christi St. Francis hospital,  Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in Wichita, Kan. The hospital has created two new units for coronavirus patients as hospitalizations have increased, both in Wichita and across Kansas. (Ascension Via Christi Health System via AP)
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In this photo provided by Ascension Via Christi Health System, Jenifer Phelps, right, a nurse manager, talks with patient Angie Mooneyham in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at the Ascension Via Christi St. Francis hospital, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in Wichita, Kan. The hospital has created two new units for coronavirus patients as hospitalizations have increased, both in Wichita and across Kansas. (Ascension Via Christi Health System via AP)
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In this photo provided by Ascension Via Christi Health System, Jenifer Phelps, right, a nurse manager, talks with patient Angie Mooneyham in an intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at the Ascension Via Christi St. Francis hospital, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020 in Wichita, Kan. The hospital has created two new units for coronavirus patients as hospitalizations have increased, both in Wichita and across Kansas. (Ascension Via Christi Health System via AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Several dozen hospitals serving Kansas patients reported Wednesday that they expect to deal with staffing shortages over the next week as the state continues to report an average of well over 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day.

The Wichita area’s two major health systems said Wednesday that almost 150 coronavirus patients were hospitalized, their highest numbers since the pandemic began. The Ascension Via Christi system is trying to bring about 60 nurses from outside Kansas into the state to help with staffing, and it has converted space into two new units for COVID-19 patients.

A surge in cases even prompted public health officials and the local Chamber of Commerce in Reno County in south-central Kansas to launch a 10-day campaign to be more diligent in following the county’s mask mandate and following other public health recommendations, such as observing social distancing and avoiding gatherings.

The state Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday added 2,988 confirmed and probable cases to the state’s count since Monday, a 3.3% increase that brought the pandemic total to 92,215. The state averaged 1,453 new cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday — not a record, but still more than double than the rolling seven-day averages reported a month ago.

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Public health officials say Kansas is seeing such large numbers of new cases because too many people aren’t wearing masks in public, aren’t social distancing and aren’t avoiding gatherings. They contend that people are letting their guard down at family events such as parties, weddings and baby showers.

“When I see people without a mask, that’s what breaks my heart,” said Jenifer Phelps, nurse manager in a 20-bed Via Christi unit for coronavirus patients in Wichita. “So when I see that, the first thing in my mind is, ‘Well, we’re going to be — the unit’s probably going to be full next week.’”

In northeast Kansas, the Douglas County health department said it has seen a “concerning” trend of people “not staying home while awaiting a COVID-19 test result.”

The state health department reported five active clusters of five or more cases within the past two weeks tied to private events, including a wedding in Riley County and a wedding reception in Leavenworth County. It also reported five clusters in schools, including an outbreak involving five students at Newton High School.

Debra Teufel, president and CEO of the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce said the community previously focused on reopening businesses safely, then on economic recovery.

“Now, everyone recognizes that if numbers continue to rise, there’s a risk that we could have to go back into some sort of stay-at-home order,” Teufel said.

The state averaged 33 new hospitalizations a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. The state health department reported 91 new hospitalizations since Monday, bringing the total to 3,984 since the pandemic reached Kansas in early March.

“We also saw increasing problems for urban hospitals this week,” Gov. Laura Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference Wednesday.

The state also reported an additional 41 deaths since Monday, to bring the pandemic total to 1,087. Kansas averaged 11 additional deaths a day for the seven days ending Wednesday.

The Kansas Hospital Association surveyed 143 hospitals that serve Kansas patients, including some on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metropolitan area. Forty-three of them, or 30%, said they expected to deal with staffing shortages within the next week.

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“You might have have a physical bed or a physical ventilator, but you have to have the staff to be able to staff that,” said association spokeswoman Cindy Samuelson.

Robert Freelove, chief medical officer of the Salina Regional Health Center, said his hospital had 11 active COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday afternoon. The hospital has designated 29 out of about 35 negative pressure rooms for COVID-19 patients and can accept up to 44 coronavirus patients. The hospital can accept up to 16 critically ill COVID-19 patients, Freelove said.

But the Salina health center, with a nursing staff of about 600, is about 50 nurses short of full staff. Freelove said the shortage is “a little high,” compared to before the pandemic.

“Certainly things are more stressful,” Freelove said. “I don’t know if we’ve lost anybody necessarily because of COVID, but certainly being a healthcare provider is a lot more difficult now than it was pre-pandemic.”

Phelps said caring for coronavirus patients can be both physically and emotionally draining. She said it sometimes requires one nurse for some patients — and it takes a team of a half-dozen staffers when a doctors want to turn patients from their backs to their stomachs so that they can breathe more easily.

She said nurses’ 12 1/2-hour shifts now typically begin with a prayer with a hospital chaplain. Phelps said a few weeks ago, a patient told her, “I’m just not going to beat this.”

“After leaving his room, I just cried, and then I of course didn’t want others to see me cry, but I couldn’t wipe my face, because I can’t touch my face,” she said. ___

This story has been corrected to show that Robert Freelove’s title with the Salina Regional Health Center, is chief medical officer, not chief executive officer.

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna