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Short-Staffed, Fatigued And Filling Up, Kansas Hospitals Struggle Again With COVID Surge

Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka is among those preparing for the worst when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka is among those preparing for the worst when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Cases and hospitalizations have multiplied so swiftly over the past six weeks that Kansas finds itself far worse off going into this school year and fall season than during the pandemic last year.

The calls in search of a bed come from hospitals in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas.

“At this point, we have to kindly decline,” said Chuck Welch, the vice president at Hutchinson Regional Healthcare System. “We can’t help them.”

The hospital has its own problems. So do scores of hospitals across the region. The stress of the delta-driven COVID-19 resurgence has medical facilities across Kansas worn out, overwhelmed and often looking for outside help from nearby states that are just as overrun.

After last winter’s exhausting COVID-19 surge, some nurses and other frontline workers simply couldn’t take it anymore. They retired or just quit and took other jobs. They didn’t come back.

Now the Hutchinson hospital has, at best, 70% of the workers it needs.

At the same time, it’s dealing with a significant jump in non-COVID-19 patients.

“Our speculation is that a lot of people put off care” during the pandemic, Welch said. “And now we get these surges of people needing surgeries. Or they come in with heart trouble or diabetes. … They're waiting and putting it off and coming into the hospital sick.”

Hospitals across the region may have solved the dire shortages of gloves, gowns and goggles that struck in the early days of the pandemic, but how do they replace a burned-out workforce?

“Everybody is soberly aware of what Round One felt like,” Welch said, “and that Round Two is probably going to be worse, with less resources.”

Last winter versus this summer

In sheer numbers, the delta surge hasn’t yet filled as many beds as COVID-19 did last winter. About half as many people are hospitalized with the disease right now compared to the virus’ winter peak.

But cases and hospitalizations have multiplied so swiftly over the past six weeks that Kansas finds itself far worse off going into this school year and fall season than last year.

Last week, the hospital in Abilene had to fly a patient 570 miles by air ambulance to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to find a spot in an intensive care unit.

“Patients are going to die needlessly because there’s nowhere to go,” said Megan Brown, that patient’s doctor at Memorial Health System in Abilene.

And the state faces the prospect that the rapid climb will continue.

So far, the hospital in Hutchinson isn’t turning away residents. It has been able to handle the 60-some local COVID-19 patients since the delta variant turned up in the area in early June.

But hospital administrators expect the situation in their area to worsen. They see how fast delta cases mushroomed in places like Springfield and Kansas City.

The nearby Wichita area has seen the number of inpatients climb for six straight weeks. Local health officials say intensive care units at both the Wesley Healthcare and Ascension Via Christi hospitals are full.

On Monday, the University of Kansas Health System said it has 85 COVID-19 inpatients and the most active infections since January. About nine in 10 are unvaccinated.

It receives calls searching for beds from states as far away as the East Coast.

“Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma,” said Steven Stites, a lung specialist and the hospital system’s chief medical officer. “We’re only being able to accept 10%.”

Full intensive care units across the Kansas City area means coronavirus and non-coronavirus patients alike have to wait hours for critical care.

“Sometimes,” Stites said, bad things happen and they don’t survive.”

Topeka’s largest hospital, Stormont Vail Health, has turned down requests to take in patients suffering strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure and cancer. It rejected 24 transfer requests just over the weekend.

Like the hospitals in Hutchinson and elsewhere, Stormont says the delta variant is bringing in younger and sicker patients — the vast majority unvaccinated.

The hospital has about 50 coronavirus inpatients. At the start of July, it had seven. It, too, faces a worker shortage, so emergency room patients in need of an inpatient bed wait longer for one.

“We have had to periodically place our Emergency Department on diversion,” Stormont Vail CEO Robert Kenagy wrote in an open letter last week, “meaning it can take no additional patients arriving via ambulances during that specific time.”

Doctors continue to plead with the public to get vaccinated.

Since the delta variant started making local headlines, the number of Kansans showing up each day at clinics and hospitals to get their first shot has more than doubled.

But that’s still fewer than 30,000 Kansans a week. Nearly 1.5 million Kansans still haven’t had a single dose.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

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.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is based in the Kansas News Service’s Topeka newsroom. She writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. He aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.