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Kansas doctors plead for you to take COVID precautions as people die waiting for care at hospitals

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University of Kansas Health System
Medical officers and infectious disease experts from across Kansas and Missouri urged people to get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks and avoid large indoor gatherings.

Health experts in Kansas and Missouri said hospitals may soon have to institute crisis standards designed for catastrophic public health events.

WICHITA, Kansas — Health care officials across Kansas and Missouri issued a dire warning Wednesday that COVID-19 has reached new and alarming crisis levels throughout the region.

Hospitals struggling to care for sick coronavirus patients — the vast majority of them unvaccinated — find themselves short on staff after record numbers of health care workers are testing positive for the virus.

More people are dying in emergency rooms while waiting for care, doctors said. Non-critical surgeries and other procedures are being postponed. And more sick patients, including increasing numbers of children, wait hours or even days for hospital beds.

“This is, hands down, the toughest surge the medical community has had to face since the pandemic began in 2020,” said Dr. Steven Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City. “We are in crisis, and … it’s shocking to me that people want to declare victory when we’re at this point.”

In an online news conference, more than a dozen chief medical officers and infectious disease specialists urged people to get vaccinated and boosted. They pleaded for schools and communities to reinstate mask mandates and warned against large indoor gatherings.

Kimberly Megow, chief medical officer of HCA Midwest Health, said hospitals may soon have to institute crisis standards designed for catastrophic public health events.

“It is basically what the military does during wartime, which is deciding who gets care and who does not, who gets a chance at living and who is left to die,” she said. “That is really dire.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Douglas County officials announced a new mask mandate for Lawrence and surrounding areas. The emergency order goes into effect Friday and requires face coverings for anyone 2 and older inside public spaces.

Lisa Hays, chief medical officer for AdventHealth Kansas City, reported 48 active COVID-19 patients Wednesday. In November, that number was 12.

Sam Antonios of Ascension Via Christi said hospitals in that network had 140 COVID-19 patients Wednesday; 40 of those were in intensive care, 20 on ventilators. Four hospitalized COVID patients were children.

Similar numbers were repeated by administrators in urban and rural settings throughout the region.

Meanwhile, record numbers of health care workers are out sick, leaving hospitals scrambling to cover patients with COVID-19 and other ailments.

Several officials said a new state of emergency declaration would help. Staffing remains the primary issue, but Kansas can’t request assistance from the federal government for nurses or other skilled medical personnel without a state of emergency in place.

But that could prove difficult. The Kansas Legislature passed a bill in May 2020 that requires Gov. Laura Kelly to get legislative approval for emergency measures.

Dr. Jennifer Watts of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City urged schools to require masks, which are proven to curb the spread of the virus. She also voiced frustration at what she sees as a growing lack of trust in medical data.

“We were heroes last year, and people asked us for our opinions and asked us for our advice. And people listened to the medical experts,” Watts said. “We have come an entire 180 (degrees) now, and we are reacting to this. … So yeah, we are devastated that kids are not wearing masks in school.”

Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease specialist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, criticized a recent decision by the University of Kansas to no longer require masks inside Allen Fieldhouse.

“If you’ve got a ticket to the game right now, I’m going to ask you to watch it on television,” she said. “If you must go, please wear a mask. It's very simple: They work, they’re safe. And it’s frustrating.”

Kevin Dishman, chief medical officer of Stormont Vail Health in Topeka, said vaccinations are crucial, as well as masking and social distancing.

“People that have waved the flag of personal choice are extending this pandemic,” he said. “We must do everything we can to protect ourselves and protect each other. That is how we get through this pandemic.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.