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Kansas hospitals raise morgue capacity concerns, more schools close as Covid surges

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Rick Kimpel
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flickr Creative Commons

The problems come as Kansas yet again shattered its record for new confirmed and probable cases. The state reported an average of 7,887 new cases a day for the seven days ending Friday -- nearly triple what had been the biggest peak in November 2020.

MISSION, Kansas — Nursing homes are facing COVID-19 outbreaks, schools are closing and hospitals in the Kansas City area are seeing so many deaths that they are raising alarms about morgue capacity.

The problems come as Kansas yet again shattered its record for new confirmed and probable cases. The state reported an average of 7,887 new cases a day for the seven days ending Friday — nearly triple what had been the biggest peak in November 2020, according to state health department data.

While the omicron variant is less deadly, hospitalizations are approaching the previous high from December 2020, new state data shows.

The rise in cases, combined with a surge of staff absences, has hospitals across a large swath of the state halting elective procedures. And hospitals in the Kansas City area are now talking to the medical examiner and county health officials about how to handle the excessive death. Already they have sought help tracking down more ventilators.

“They are running out of morgue capacity,” said. Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the health department in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county. “It does not take being an expert in public health to know that things are pretty bad."

The county has been looking for new testing sites and expanding hours at existing ones. The positivity rate now tops 30%.

In Sedgwick County, the positivity rate is 21.3%, the highest figure recorded since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“Quite frankly the numbers we are getting in are exceeding all capacity at all levels," said Dr. Elizabeth Holzschuh, director of epidemiology at Johnson County's Department of Health and Environment.

She noted that since the beginning of the year, nearly 30 county residents have died of COVID-19, with the vast majority of them unvaccinated. Nursing homes in the county also are hard hit with cases, Areola said.

“Virtually all of them have outbreaks going on," he said, adding, “The good news is because of the high vaccination rate and the high rates of booster uptake we haven’t seen very high levels of hospitalizations and death, at least not yet in that group. So our message continues to be get vaccinated, get boosted.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly told reporters that she thinks Kansas should rethink restrictions on remote learning in public schools enacted last year. But top Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature are so far standing behind the policy.

Her comments come as a growing number of schools closed, including Valley Center, El Dorado, Eudora, Desoto, Manhattan-Ogden and Bonner Springs. Many cited staffing shortages, which are so severe that the state announced this week that substitute teachers in Kansas will not be required to have college credit hours.

Meanwhile, Kansas City, Kansas, schools warned parents to start preparing for school closures. And the Olathe district, which is the state’s second-largest, is about 65 staff absences away from having to cancel school, warned Superintendent Brent Yeager.

“We all know the best place for our kids to be is right in our schools so we will continue to work hard and make that the case,” Yeager said at the district’s board meeting this week.

The Wichita district, the state’s largest with about 47,000 students, issued a similar warning earlier this week that closures were possible.