Intensive care unit nurse Caitlin Beatty, who works in a COVID-19 unit at University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, says suffering of extremely ill coronavirus patients was heartbreaking for families and devastating to health professionals working to save lives. She fears too many people ignore advice of public health officials in terms of diminishing spread of the virus. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Intensive care unit nurse Caitlin Beatty says no amount of medical education could prepare health workers for a hospital landscape burgeoning with patients catastrophically ill with COVID-19.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, is bustling with patients who have been attacked by the delta variant of coronavirus. The extended pandemic is driving young health professionals into new careers outside the medical field and compelling more experienced doctors, nurses and specialists to retire. A growing presence of the omicron mutation is a reminder the pandemic is far from over.
“There’s no amount of school or training that can really prepare you for walking into a COVID ICU and seeing those patients who are the sickest patients we have ever seen,” Beatty said.
She said nurses hold hands of patients unable to interact with family members and reassure hospitalized patients they are loved by relatives and friends. It’s proving difficult for health workers to explain a relentless virus to people who view COVID-19 as a political hoax or exaggerated malady.
Hospital staff connect patients capable of speaking — some are on ventilators — with spouses, sons, daughters and other relatives, Beatty said. During rare visits, she said, family members have revealed guilt about not masking, decisions to be in large crowds or for rejecting opportunities to be vaccinated.
“It’s difficult to watch them go through that,” Beatty said. “It’s frustrating because people don’t listen to us anymore.”
Inside the numbers
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 505,500 cases of COVID-19 since March 2020, when the virus made a large impact on the state 2.9 million people. Sixty-two of 105 counties in Kansas have reported more than 1,000 positive tests for the virus. Overall, through Wednesday, there have been 16,700 hospitalizations and 6,950 fatalities linked to the pandemic.
In the month of December alone, through Dec. 22, the toll in Kansas stood at 35,700 cases, 945 hospitalizations and 245 deaths.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 68% of Kansans have at least one coronavirus vaccination. Thirty percent of the state’s population received a supplemental jab. In terms of county-by-county vaccination rates, five counties have a rate of 60% or more, with Johnson County at 70% and Graham County at 68%. At the other end of the spectrum, at least 20 counties have vaccination rates of 40% or less. The most vax-averse: Neosho County, 26%; Elk County, 32%; and Sheridan and Linn counties, 34%.
Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at the KU Health System, said three of the 64 active coronavirus patients at the KU hospital were fully vaccinated. In other words, about 95% of people sick enough to be admitted to the KU hospital one day this week had avoided the vaccine.
The surge in COVID-19 patient volume is due to the delta variant, Hawkinson said. The lapse between infection and ICU indicates an omicron wave hasn’t yet taken root in Kansas hospitals, he said. It’s possible that spike in demand for health care could arrive during January, he said.
He applauded the “thoughtful decision” to cancel the basketball game Tuesday between the University of Kansas and University of Colorado. He said the college athletes were young, healthy and vaccinated, but big public events serve to spread COVID-19 to fans, relatives and friends. He said critics of the cancellation were clinging to a “myopic” perspective of the pandemic that placed individual liberty above greater good.
“Everyone has COWS now,” Hawkinson said. “COVID Weariness Syndrome.”
However, he said, principles of risk minimization still applied, including masking, distancing and vaccinating. People who abide by these measures could still catch COVID-19, he said, but the vaccinated have the best chance of experiencing a mild case and recovering faster.
Gov. Laura Kelly, in a statehouse interview, said vaccines offered Kansans a path to avoiding steps taken in 2020 and 2021 that included business closures, school disruptions, mask mandates and gathering limitations. She’s convinced vaccinations are key to avoiding those unpopular boundaries.
“I just have to beg and plead with Kansans to take it upon themselves to do their part,” she said. “To not only stop the spread of the virus, but to help our health care workers.”
Respiratory therapist Grant Ogden said personal choices made by people during the pandemic, especially in regard to vaccinations, was shaking the health system’s foundations. Experienced therapists anxious about the pandemic are leaving the field due to burnout and stress, he said.
The delta and omicron variants are complicating work of specialists such as himself responsible for assisting patients with breathing challenges, he said.
“Our operational tempo has really increased a whole lot,” Ogden said. “This is the time of the year where you have a lot of respiratory illnesses. With the increase in COVID, it’s kind of wearing on us.”
“Sometimes your choice is going to lead you to the hospital. If your personal choice is to not get vaccinated or not wear a mask, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, you’re putting other people at risk,” he said.
Steve Stites, chief medical officer with KU Health System, said statistics on hospitalizations and deaths illustrated COVID-19 had transitioned to a pandemic of unvaccinated people.
During the holiday season, he said, people mingling in groups ought to be vaccinated and wear a mask. At big gatherings, he said, it was better to be outside than indoors.
He was wary of omicron’s potential to spread more quickly than previous versions of the virus. Omicron is on the rise at a time when people are letting their guard down, he said.
“What happens when things peak? What happens to our health care workers who are already pretty burned out and tired? What happens to the businesses? What happens when a lot of people are sick with this?” Stites said. “I’m tired of watching people suffer and die of COVID-19. We know how to bend the curve. What we don’t want to have is Omicron bending us.”
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