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Kelly declares emergency in attempt to help medical facilities hit by COVID surge

Stephen Koranda
Kansas News Service/File photo
Gov. Laura Kelly

Her orders ease or suspend Kansas licensing rules for medical personnel and nursing home workers.

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday eased or suspended Kansas licensing rules for medical personnel and nursing home workers in hopes of making it easier for them to attack staffing shortages during a surge of new COVID-19 cases.

Kelly issued two executive orders. One allows hospital staff to perform a broader range of duties. The other makes licensing of nursing home workers more flexible so homes can hire people whose licenses have lapsed and fill less-skilled jobs with workers who have relatively little or no previous training.

Her actions come as hospital officials say patients are dying in emergency rooms of small hospitals, larger hospitals struggle with soaring staff absences and ambulances are scrambling to find hospitals with room for their patients.

“Basically everybody’s drowning," said Dr. Ryan Jacobsen, medical director for Johnson County EMS.

Kelly declared an emergency for the next 15 days because of the stress faced by hospitals and nursing homes, a move that allowed her to ease licensing requirements. The declaration also suspends rules and regulations if “strict compliance” would hinder efforts to address their problems.

“This disaster declaration provides a 15-day solution to give our front-line health care workers the support they need as they battle this COVID-19 surge," Kelly said in a statement.

Kansas set a record for the seven-day average for new reported confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases: 4,311 cases per day for the seven days ending Wednesday, according to state health department data. Until this week, the previous high was 2,767 cases per day for the seven days ending Nov. 18, 2020.

In Johnson County, Jacobsen said ambulances frequently change direction as they are transporting patients because the hospital where they were headed was full, sometimes confusing family members who are following behind them.

“They call the next hospital, three and four hospitals, while they’re driving down the highway or road with the patient in the back, listening to the conversation on the radio where they’re saying, ‘Don’t bring them, don’t bring them, don’t bring them,’” he said.

The state's emergency management laws limit Kelly's latest declaration to 15 days unless lawmakers extend it, and the Democratic governor said she wants to keep it in place through March. The Republican-controlled Legislature opens its regular annual session Monday.

Kansas was under a state of emergency from March 2020 until June 2021. Legislators revised the state's emergency management laws in 2020 and 2021 to curb the governor's power so that Kelly can't close schools or businesses or restrict public gatherings again, as she did earlier in the pandemic.

And while Kansas has seen a record number of new cases, it has not seen a similarly large spike in hospitalizations or deaths.

Still, warnings from Kansas hospitals have become increasingly dire.

Jacobsen said that when half the hospitals in the Kansas City area divert patients because of high volumes, ambulances just take patients to the full hospitals anyway because there isn’t a choice.

He said the system has been hitting that point nearly every day, adding that even hospitals that aren’t diverting patients are warning that they don’t have beds or that their CT scanners aren’t available.

"It’s exhausting and it’s leading to burnout and it’s a mess,” he said.

The University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, is treating 133 COVID-19 patients, has 750 employees out because of COVID-19 and had to cancel half of its scheduled operations Wednesday.

“Those are people who need surgeries,” said Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer. “It’s not like these are electives cases that just somebody wants to come get, you know, a tummy tuck done."

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