On Monday, Sedgwick County’s COVID-19 dashboard reached a worrying milestone: For the first time since the pandemic began, all 208 of the county’s ICU beds were full, if only momentarily.
Wichita hospitals had a combined 111 COVID-19 patients, 60 of whom were in the ICU — putting both Wesley Medical Center and Ascension Via Christi hospitals at capacity.
The count, provided weekly by Wesley Medical Center and Ascension Via Christi hospitals, is just a snapshot in time, representatives of both hospitals emphasize.
Still, the situation prompted both hospital systems to implement their "surge plans," dedicating additional beds to their COVID-19 units.
For Ascension Via Christi, this week wasn’t the first time it had to expand its COVID-19 unit at St. Francis.
"The number of hospitalizations is concerning," Chief Clinical Officer Sam Antonios told Sedgwick County commissioners on Thursday. "The reality is there is no ceiling to this."
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Sedgwick County has climbed from just less than 9,000 a month ago to almost 14,000 this week. In the same time, the positive test rate tripled to 19%, and the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals roughly doubled.
"I’m very concerned of the future, of what’s yet to come," Wesley Chief Medical Officer Lowell Ebersole told commissioners. "We’re being taxed and stressed already at this point with our staff."
As more Wesley employees are testing positive for COVID-19 themselves, "that has limited our ability to add capacity across our facilities," said Wesley spokesman Dave Stewart.
"Capacity is about much more than beds," he said. "It’s also about staffing."
Both Wesley and Ascension Via Christi are looking to bring in traveling contract nurses to assist staff. Wesley, a regional hospital, has limited in-patient transfers from out of state, with the exception of patients from northern Oklahoma. Stewart says a little more than half of Wesley’s patients are from Sedgwick County; the rest are from surrounding counties, and a handful are from other states.
Antonios told commissioners Thursday it’s similar at Ascension Via Christi; about 75 to 80% of patients there are Sedgwick County residents.
"The people who are getting sick, who we are taking care of, are our community," he said.
Stemming the spread
County health officer Garold Minns told commissioners it’s not clear what’s driving the recent spike in cases.
"But I will say it’s the same problem they’re having in the rest of the state," he said, "if not the entire country."
He speculates that re-opening schools and allowing in-person activities this fall has contributed to the rise in cases, but says there’s no proof. Wichita Public Schools is set to bring some middle and high school students back to in-person learning next Thursday.
Minns suggests further restricting the size of public events, and says the county needs to have a better public education strategy to emphasize the need for masks and other health precautions. The commission would have to approve any new or amended public health orders.
Sedgwick County Health Director Adrienne Byrne says one challenge to stemming the spread is a recent state law making participation in contact tracing efforts voluntary. She told commissioners House Bill 2016 “severely tied” the health department’s hands.
Byrne says out of the more than 3,700 cases the county confirmed between the end of September and the end of October, 518 people provided information about their close contacts.
"We’re just gonna have a snippet, we’re going to have a very small amount of data to share just because people say, 'I’m not telling you. I’m not going to tell you,'" she said.
Byrne says what information the county could obtain shows many cases are tied to large gatherings – such as church services, weddings, athletic events and parties.
Wesley's Stewart says that’s where much of the spread is happening.
"Those kind of events where people are around close friends and family, they let down their guard,"he said. "A lot of the time they don’t wear masks."
He and others in the health care industry are urging residents to stick to the precautions echoed for months now: masking in public, washing hands, maintaining social distancing and avoiding large group gatherings — even as the holidays approach — to avoid adding to the strain on hospitals.
“We are asking [the community] to understand that there is a certain degree of urgency,” Antonios with Ascension Via Christi said.
"Just like we are here for them, I think the community could help a little bit by doing those simple actions."