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As Kansas Awaits Vaccine, It Reports Jump In COVID-19 Deaths

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Hans Pennink
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Associated Press/File photo
Kansas expects to receive the first of two vaccine doses by the middle of this month.

TOPEKA — Kansas on Wednesday reported spikes in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations as dozens of nursing homes experienced outbreaks and the state prepared to see that health care workers received the first available vaccines.

Gov. Laura Kelly said that the state expects to receive the first of two vaccine doses for 23,750 people by the middle of this month if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorizes emergency use of a vaccine made by Pfizer. The FDA also will consider authorizing a vaccine made by Moderna, but doses of both would be rationed in the early stages and it likely will be months before a vaccine is available to most people. The first allotment of vaccines would be enough to give the first dose to one in every 122 of the state's 2.9 million residents.

Kelly said the state will follow federal guidance for the early distribution of vaccines and target them first for health care workers who are at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus, such as those who work in wards for COVID-19 patients. She said the Pfizer vaccine will be sent first to a limited number of specialized cold-storage storage sites that the state wont disclose for security reasons before being distributed more widely.

"We have a variety of ways of distributing it that don't take that long," Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference. "We've got helicopters. We've got couriers."

The state expects to receive the first of two doses for another 49,000 people later this month if the FDA authorizes emergency use of the Moderna vaccine, enough for one in 59 of the state's residents. Dr. Sam Antonios, chief clinical officer for the Ascension Via Christi health system, said it is preparing for "multiple scenarios" but expects to add temporary staff to administer the vaccine to workers on a voluntary basis.

"We are actively preparing to offer and administer the vaccine to our associates just as soon as it becomes available," Antonios said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Environment added 119 deaths since Monday, raising the state's COVID-19 death toll since the start of the pandemic to 1,679. Dr. Lee Norman, the state agency's head, said it's likely that there have been lags in reporting earlier deaths because of the stress on hospitals and public health departments.

Kansas also had a record-high daily average of 53 new COVID-19 hospitalizations during the seven-day period that ended Wednesday. Hospitals have been stressed for weeks, with many facing staffing shortages and having to convert space into rooms for COVID-19 patients.

The state health department reported 4,615 new confirmed or probable coronavirus cases since Monday, bringing the state's total since the start of the pandemic to 162,061. The state averaged 2,038 new cases per day for the seven days that ended Wednesday, which was 26% lower than the record of 2,767 new cases a day for the seven days that ended Nov. 18.

Hospitalizations haven't seen a similar drop. The state reported a net increase of 185 since Monday bringing the total to 5,290.

And nursing homes continue to be hit hard: The health department reported 56 long-term care facilities with five or more cases in the past two weeks, accounting for more than 700 cases in all. More than 1,400 of the state's COVID-19-related deaths, or about 84% of them, have been in people 65 or older. The median average age of people who have died from the disease is 80.

In northeastern Kansas, the Stormont Vail Health system, with its main hospital in Topeka, said it was converting 59 rooms to negative-pressure rooms, to increase the number available from 79 to 136. The air in such rooms is moved outside rather than being recirculated to other parts of the building to prevent the spread of infection.

Stormont Vail reported that it had 87 coronavirus patients as of Wednesday, down from its peak of 100 last week. Spokesman Matt Lara said the health system wants to be "as prepared as possible" for another expected surge in patients who attended Thanksgiving gatherings.

In northwestern Kansas, Dr. Heather Harris, medical director at the University of Kansas Health Systems Hays Medical Center, said during a conference call Wednesday that its COVID-19 patient population has numbered in the mid-30s for the past month. They are filling nearly half of the hospitals staffed beds and pushing out other patients.

In November alone, the hospital has had to turn away 103 transfers from other hospitals. In the 14 years prior, it had rejected transfers just twice.

"So it is taking a long time for those critical access hospitals to get patients moved if they are too sick," she said. "It is definitely an intense situation for the hospitals and the physicians and the nurses working there."