KDHE: Kansas hospitals prefer to surge COVID-19 capacity without erecting tent cities

Kansas doc tells mask deniers virus threat isn’t political, ‘it’s hell’

Lee Norman, secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says hospital administrators prefer to build COVID-19 capacity in existing footprint rather than turn to tent cities or other temporary facilities during fall and winter. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Lee Norman, secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says hospital administrators prefer to build COVID-19 capacity in existing footprint rather than turn to tent cities or other temporary facilities during fall and winter. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Shortage of hospital staff to care for acutely ill patients in Kansas is driving financial bonus programs for employees to cover additional shifts as COVID-19 stretches operating capacity at large and small health facilities, the state’s top public health official said Tuesday.

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the answer wasn’t creation of ancillary tent, motel or dormitory hospital units as contemplated in early 2020 as the coronavirus began its march into the United States. While the number of beds can be expanded if scope of the emergency called for it, he said, those structures wouldn’t be useful given inadequate supply of nurses and other personnel.

“You could build all sorts of construction and not necessarily solve the staffing problems,” he said. “It is very clear, universally, that the hospital executives and leaders would rather surge within their current footprint.”

Norman said hospital executives in Kansas reported receiving daily calls from multiple states seeking a place to transfer very ill patients.

Testing revealed the virus has spead across Kansas to more than 103,000 people, based on KDHE reports released Monday. Coronavirus has led to hospitalization of 4,100 and contributed to the death of nearly 1,200 in Kansas.

Gov. Laura Kelly said during the news conference at the Capitol that she fostered a relationship with the administration of President Donald Trump to create an opening to express Kansas’ needs during the pandemic. She promised to do likewise with Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team.

“To make sure we are positioned to continue to have an open-line communication with the federal government, to leverage the resources necessary to keep Kansans healthy and to protect the economy,” the Democratic governor said.

She was relieved officials in Jefferson and Lyon counties reversed course by adopting a mask mandate in line with her statewide executive order issued in July. She expects more of the 80 counties that initially rejected a mask mandate, using new authority crafted by the Republican-led House and Senate, to reconsider as cases in Kansas continued to mount.

She said it was critical elected officials use their influence to convince Kansans to wear a mask, avoid mass gatherings and maintain physicial distances. The state plans to roll out next week a public service announcement program to help encourage loyalty to basic prevention strategies.

If not, she said, hospitals in urban and rural areas would continue to experience strain of staffing, space and supply issues tied to spread of COVID-19.

Steve Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Hospital System in Kansas City, Kan., said hospitals at capacity could decline transfers of sick people, but that wasn’t ideal for patients. He said a hospital could reduce elective surgeries, an option KU Health System is considering.

“We’re actively looking at doing that,” Stites said. “It’s under strong consideration.”

He said the remaining option, given lack of a vaccine, was to preach the gospel of prevention, especially regular use of masks to protect the wearer and others.

“Those people out there who are mask deniers — I don’t know why you want to do that. We just have to get over the thought of this as a political thing. It’s just not political. It’s hell,” Stites said.

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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.