Gov. Laura Kelly arrives Thursday for a news conference at the Statehouse, where she announced a new emergency disaster and executive orders for dealing with the latest COVID-19 surge. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas medical providers on Friday praised Gov. Laura Kelly for declaring a state of emergency and issuing executive orders to help confront an overwhelming surge in COVID-19 infections.
Steve Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health System, said the governor’s “bold action” will help hospitals address staffing shortages exacerbated by a multitude of breakthrough cases that are preventing staff from treating sick patients. He cautioned, however, that hospitals are prepared for the latest surge to get increasingly worse throughout the month of January.
The hope is that trends in the United States will mirror those in South Africa, where the number of new infections plunged after the country initially saw a dramatic increase in cases from the omicron variant.
“We don’t know that,” Stites said. “That’s just hope. That’s not reality yet. The reality is we’re seeing the highest number of new cases we’ve ever seen. We’re watching hospitalizations spike with the highest number of hospitalizations we’ve seen. What we next have to ask ourselves: What happens to deaths?”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 37 more deaths from COVID-19 between Wednesday and Friday, along with 97 new hospitalizations and a stunning 16,341 new cases.
Doctors who participated a virtual news conference hosted by KU Health repeatedly pushed back on narratives about the omicron variant producing less serious illness than previous strains of COVID-19. The problem is the omicron variant is far more contagious. Even if you’re half as likely to be hospitalized, Stites said, hospital counts will go up because so many more people are being infected at once.
Sam Antonios, chief clinical officer for the Wichita-based Ascension Via Christi Health, said a small fraction of a large number is still a large number.
“We hope that it ends up being a mild disease, but so far we haven’t seen that,” Antonios said.
Kim Megow, chief medical officer at HCA Midwest Health, which serves the Kansas City metro area, said the emergency declaration is necessary because “hope is not a strategy.” The organization’s modeling and forecasts include a lot of unknowns, Megow said, but indicate the current number of infections and hospitalizations could double before the surge peaks in early February.
“Is that going to be where we go? We don’t know,” Megow said. “It could be better. It could be worse.”
The governor’s executive orders allow hospitals and nursing homes to employ retirees and students to help with a number of tasks, including testing. Kelly has asked the Legislature, which opens a new session on Monday, to pass a law extending those orders through March. Otherwise, her emergency declaration expires in 15 days.
Legislative leaders met Friday to review her orders and offered support for preserving them.
“It seems like these provisions will help our hospitals in this temporary time of need, and we’re all supportive of that,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican.
During the news conference, Stites stressed the importance of wearing a mask to limit the spread of the virus and keep businesses and schools open. He urged political leaders to have the courage to support the use of masks.
Doctors also continued to encourage residents to get a free, safe and effective vaccine and booster shot. At the KU Health system, just eight of the 100 patients who are actively being treated for COVID-19 are fully vaccinated.
The enemy, Stites said, is not each other.
“The enemy is within, and it’s twofold,” Stites said. “First, it’s the virus, right? Because the virus is the enemy. And the second enemy is dishonesty. Because if we don’t tell the truth, and if we don’t just be open and honest about things, then we can’t have a conversation that allows us to take on the enemy within — SARS-CoV-2.
“So let’s remember that we’re on the same team and the real enemy in the room is this damn virus. And the way to beat it is by taking that seriously, and following the rules of infection control: Wear your mask, keep your distance, don’t go out if you’re sick, get vaccinated. We can win, but we can only win if we can stand together and not stand against each other.”
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