Jennifer Schrimsher, a physician at Lawrence Memorial Health, says the impact of surging COVID-19 patients and staffing shortages is “heartbreaking” for medical care providers. (Screen capture by Kanas Reflector from University of Kansas Health System video)
TOPEKA — Jennifer Schrimsher, a physician at Lawrence Memorial Health, was up until 2 a.m. revising contingency plans.
The hospital, like all others in Kansas, is coping with unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 patients and staff members out sick with the virus.
She doesn’t know what to do.
“We’ve offered insane amounts of overtime,” Schrimsher said. “People won’t take it because they can’t, they just mentally or physically cannot anymore. And it is heartbreaking to look at that situation and think that we may have to deliver substandard care, practice outside of our normal standards of care and just try to piece together, you know, care for patients. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Schrimsher, who is also the deputy public health officer for Douglas County, joined 17 other medical officials from Kansas and western Missouri hospitals in sounding a clarion call for public support during a news conference Wednesday. The Lawrence hospital is cancelling surgeries and transferring patients to Oklahoma, she said.
Medical providers in Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka, Salina, Hays, Garden City and elsewhere provided similar reports. With record numbers of COVID-19 patients, and up to one-third of staff out sick, there is no bed space is available. At least 80% of patients in each facility are unvaccinated, including nearly 100% of patients in intensive care.
Data from Mission Control, the software hospitals use to find available bed space, shows the number of patients who died while awaiting transfer increased from eight in November to 41 last month.
There is no end in sight.
“This is our most difficult moment in the pandemic,” said Steve Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health System.
He recalled a recent conversation with the chief medical officer from a rural area who told him, “We don’t do dialysis, but we can’t get anybody transferred out, and these patients are dying.” The doctor explained that he opened up a textbook, put in some catheters and tried to figure out how to do it.
“You have to face the facts head on,” Stites said. “The facts are we have an exploding number of COVID-19 patients, people aren’t using good infection control, governments have backed off mask mandates because they think they’re unpopular, and as a result, patients and people are suffering in our hospitals.”
Several officials called for Gov. Laura Kelly to issue a new emergency declaration to unlock federal aid and support from the Kansas National Guard. A spokeswoman for the governor didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Republican leaders in the Legislature forced the previous declaration to expire in mid-June, as the delta variant was arriving in the state.
New data from the Kansas Department for Health and Environment, which has been silent on the latest surge, shows 104 new hospitalizations and 15 new deaths from the virus since Monday, along with a record two-day tally of 15,322 new cases. The seven-day average for new cases in Kansas is now above 3,000 per day for the first time during the pandemic, and Stites said many more cases from home tests are not being counted.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show 57.2% of Kansans are fully vaccinated, including 68.6% of adults.
The latest surge, Stites said, appears to involve a 50-50 combination of delta and omicron strains of the virus. Doctors pushed back on the popular narrative that omicron is no more serious than the common cold.
“Anybody who thinks they’re not going to die from COVID-19 now because it’s omicron, that’s just wrong,” said Dana Hawkinson, director of infection prevention and control at KU Health.
The KU Health system has 90 patients with active infections, including six who are fully vaccinated and 19 in ICU. More than 600 staff members, about 5% of the workforce, are out sick.
Kimberly Megow, chief medical officer at HCA Midwest Health System, which serves the KC metro area, said the hospital had to defer 128 surgeries this week.
She said the hospital is nearing the point of “crisis standard of care,” meaning doctors will start determining who gets care and who is left to die.
“That’s how bad it could get if we are completely overwhelmed, and we’re at that point already, and we suddenly have an onslaught of additional patients,” Megow said. “There have to be tough decisions made and no one on this call wants to be faced with making those decisions.”
In Salina, eight COVID-19 patients in need of care are waiting for a room. In Topeka, patients are overflowing into the recovery room at Saint Francis. In Garden City, the ICU has been full for four months. In Geary County, a chronic shortage of nurses has forced the hospital to permanently close its ICU.
Stites said the decision by public schools to end mask mandates as students return from winter break is “a perfectly terrible idea.”
“Kids are all gonna get sick, your staff is gonna get sick, and the school is gonna get closed,” Stites said.
At Children’s Mercy, in Kansas City, Missouri, the number of pediatric patients being treated for COVID-19 doubled in the past week, from 15 to 30. Previously, the number was never higher than 22 throughout the pandemic. One third of the current patients are in ICU. Additionally, 327 staff members are out sick.
Jennifer Watts, chief emergency medical officer at Children’s Mercy, said we know masks are safe and work on children in schools. Typically, she said, the kids aren’t the ones complaining about masks.
“It is hard to look at a child that is sick and to have that thought in your mind: If we would have worn masks in school, could this have been prevented?” Watts said. “And to have that conversation with a parent is heart-wrenching. So yeah, we are devastated that kids are not wearing masks in school.”
Kevin Dishman, the chief medical officer at Stormont Vail in Topeka, said health care providers need the community’s help to mitigate the dire consequences of failing to follow basic precautions.
“We need everyone to get vaccinated, we need everyone to wear a mask, we need everyone to social distance, and we need them to do it now,” Dishman said. “Our community can help us stop the pandemic, but we’ve got to have the cooperation of everyone in the community. People that have waved the flag of personal choice are extending this pandemic.”
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