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Wichita Worried About Running Short Of ICU Hospital Beds

Rick Kimpel
flickr Creative Commons

TOPEKA — Officials in Wichita and Sedgwick County worry that a continued resurgence of novel coronavirus cases will force local hospitals to scramble for new intensive care unit beds to treat the seriously sick.

County Manager Tom Stolz told Sedgwick County Commissioners on Tuesday that if current hospitalization trends and use of ICU beds for coronavirus patients continues into next week, it's likely the situation will be deemed “critical.”

The county health department reported that eight of the 35 ICU beds available for coronavirus patients were open as of Monday.

Stolz's comments came after Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple tweeted Monday that Wichita hospitals could reach capacity within three weeks.

Stolz said area hospitals can add new intensive care unit beds “on the fly” but that staffing is under pressure because employees have tested positive for the virus. The pandemic has made an existing shortage of nurses in the Wichita area more serious, he told county commissioners.

“It's stressing their staff to the point that they are concerned,” Stolz said. “It's all bad news this week.”

Kansas surpassed 20,000 reported coronavirus cases as of Monday and its health department reported 288 COVID-19-related deaths, though Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday put the tally at 299.

Kansas lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26, leaving the rules to the state's 105 counties. Since then, reported coronavirus cases have more than doubled, with a little more than half of the new cases coming during the two weeks ending Monday. The state's rate of positive tests also has inched up.

Gov. Laura Kelly issued an order July 2 for residents to wear masks in public and at their workplaces, but state law allows counties to opt out, and most have, exempting roughly 40% of the state's population.

In Sedgwick County, reported coronavirus cases increased 92% during the two weeks ending Monday, from 1,260 to 2,422. The county health department said the number of ICU beds in use for coronavirus patients rose from 15 to 27.

The Stormont Vail health system in northeast Kansas reported Tuesday that 76% of its ICU beds were filled. Spokesman Matt Lara said Stormont-Vail thinks it can handle additional serious coronavirus cases for now but, “it's obviously something we're going to be watching.”

Intensive health care units appear to be less crowded elsewhere. A Kansas Hospital Association survey of 57 hospitals in Kansas for Monday showed that only 31 of their 245 ICU beds were filled by suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases, or 12.7%.

But Kansas Hospital Association spokeswoman Cindy Samuelson said “upticks can happen fast.”

Kelly said in issuing her mask-wearing mandate that reversing the recent surge in coronavirus cases is necessary for public K-12 schools to reopen safely for their 519,000 students. The State Board of Education was to vote Wednesday on guidelines for local officials and Kelly scheduled a news conference to discuss restarting classes next month.

The proposed guidelines suggest teachers and other staff wear masks, but not students through sixth grade. It recommends hourly hand washing, limiting visitors and the movement of students and daily temperature checks for all staff. The guidelines also say that all students should be observed daily for signs of illness.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, who last week called for the state board to commit to reopening schools, called its guidelines “thorough” and said children need to return so that teachers and staff can assess their physical and emotional well-being “after being home for many months.”

"Many students and families are suffering from the effects of the shutdown, and schools can be a safe haven and nourishing shelter for those who have special needs,” Wagle said in a statement.

Kelly ordered all of the state's K-12 buildings closed in mid-March for the rest of the spring semester to check the spread of coronavirus, and received some criticism from GOP lawmakers for acting so quickly. The governor still has the authority to close schools, but a law enacted last month requires the State Board of Education to sign off.

State and local officials have said in-person instruction is generally more effective than online instruction for most students. State Education Commissioner Randy Watson predicted many districts will have “hybrid” instruction.

But he added, “That's a local conversation.”

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