New COVID-19 reports describe Kansas hospitals struggling ‘close to the edge’

Wichita restaurateur and community leader John Rolph is leading weekly calls with regional health care leaders and reporting back to the State Finance Council. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Feedback from medical care providers through a new regional reporting system provides insight into the severity of stress the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on hospitals across the state.

In Abilene, a chief nurse reported this week there were two patients on cpap machines, which regulate air pressure ventilation, but the staff had never used the machines before.

In Hiawatha, a cardiac patient waited seven hours for a room while staff worked to keep the person alive without the tools they needed.

In Pittsburg, the hospital has 12 patients in intensive care but only 10 beds for them. Nine of the patients are on ventilators. Staff couldn’t find another place to send any of the patients.

In Lakin, a staff member calls seven to 12 centers three times per week to get updates on where to send patients. Usually, patients there would transfer to a hospital in north Texas where this is now a 10-bed waiting list.

In Hays, the hospital turned down 160 patients in November, 75% of them in the Hays region.

The feedback comes from a new initiative by Gov. Laura Kelly and legislative leaders to hold weekly calls with health care officials in each of seven regions across the state. John Rolph, a Wichita restaurateur who leads the regional calls, relayed the stories for Kelly and legislative leaders during a meeting Wednesday of the State Finance Council.

“We are very close to the edge,” Rolph said. “We’ve gotten comfortable being close to the edge, and it’s something that we’re going to want to continue to watch to see if there is indeed the anticipated post-holiday spike. That would put a lot of pressure on the system.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday reported 59 new deaths from COVID-19 since Monday, as well as 5,089 new cases and 157 hospitalizations. The statewide totals from the start of the pandemic: 2,507 have died, and 209,689 have been infected.

Also on Wednesday, the Shawnee County Medical Society urged Kansans to heed the advice of public health officials and avoid large gatherings during the upcoming holidays.

John Spethman, a family medicine physician in Topeka who serves as the society’s president, said his colleagues who work directly with COVID-19 patients have experienced more death and suffering than ever before. Patients in ICU only leave in two ways, he said — in a wheelchair, or headed to the morgue after dying alone.

Still, he said, he sees people in the community who refuse to wear a mask or practice social distancing.

“People aren’t getting that this is a very serious virus,” Spethman said. “And those who are on the front lines taking care of those who have it have been doing this constantly for months and months and months, and you have holidays and events and gatherings where personal protective guidelines are cast aside.”

The good news, Rolph said, is the arrival of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which provided “a real injection of hope” into the morale of health care workers.

Kelly said the tens of thousands of doses the state has received so far have been given almost exclusively to high-risk front line medical workers who provide care for COVID-19 patients. Employees of long-term care facilities and other health settings are now starting to get the vaccine, she said.

After mid-January, as more doses arrive, the vaccine will go to essential workers and people over the age of 75.

“We expect after the first of the year we will have a more definitive list of who will be back vaccinated when,” the governor said.

She also expressed hope that President Donald Trump would provide a Christmas blessing in the form of his signature on the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress on Monday night. Trump has threatened to veto the package because he wants larger stimulus checks. If he doesn’t sign it by Saturday, Kelly said, the federal boost to unemployment aid will run out.

Kelly said it was too soon to know the full details of aid included in the relief package, or what strings might be tied to how the money can be used.

“We know what everybody else in the world knows right now,” she said.