MISSION, Kan. — Kansas added a record-setting 5,418 new coronavirus cases Friday as hospitals warned that staffing was being seriously strained and the state’s top public health official said many local officials "haven’t done anything" to check the surge.
The increases in confirmed and probable cases brought the state’s total to 97,633, a 5.9% increase from Wednesday. With the influx, the seven-day daily rolling average rose to 1,779 cases, which is almost three times as high as it was just a month ago, data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows.
The state also added 79 COVID-19 fatalities Friday to bring the total to 1,166. Deaths have more than doubled since mid-September.
Dr. Lee Norman, the head of the state health department, said cases "are just skyrocketing" because people are spending more time indoors and attending public events and family gatherings without being diligent about wearing masks or social distancing. He said he’s worried that cases will spike again from family Thanksgiving get-togethers.
"It doesn’t show any sign of leveling off, let alone going down," Norman said Friday during an Associated Press interview. "There’s no place to hide, and what used to be relative protection by being in rural areas is no protection anymore."
Norman also blamed inaction by county commissioners. State law allowed Kansas’ 105 counties to opt out of a mandate for people to wear masks in public issued in July by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, and most did. Norman said some counties also are allowing businesses like bars to remain open and packed and refusing to cancel public events that they should know will be "super-spreaders."
"There are many, many counties — and I haven’t done a tally lately — where the elected leaders haven’t done anything to intervene," Norman said.
Ellsworth County in central Kansas has seen among the largest per capita increases in cases in the state during the past two weeks, partly because of an outbreak in a state prison there. But county commissioners this week unanimously rejected a mask mandate proposed by local health officials.
Commissioner Dennis Rolfs, a farmer and a Republican, said he was hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19 about three weeks ago. He said he contracted the virus after attending his sister’s birthday party, along with six others who went.
But Rolfs said commissioners were contacted by residents and business owners who worried that a mask mandate would damage businesses and possibly force some to close. He said that ultimately, "my constituents didn’t want it."
"And I’m not going to go against their wishes," he said.
Norman also criticized as "ill-advised" a Kansas Republican Party election party Tuesday night at a downtown Topeka hotel, attended by about 100 people who celebrated two-term GOP Rep Roger Marshall’s victory in a race for an open U.S. Senate seat. Marshall, his family and most of his supporters opted not to wear masks — despite a local mandate — and as it became clear that he would win, people crowded into the hotel’s ballroom and organizers didn’t enforce social distancing.
Norman said that probably between 5% and 10% of the participants in the event will contract the virus. He said he worries that participants may not want to "fess up" to their "recklessness" when health officials try to trace people’s contacts.
"We may never know," he said. "They, you know, cast to the wind, and then may not want to admit they were at something like that."
Marshall’s campaign and Kansas Republican Party officials did not immediately respond to emails Friday seeking a response to Norman’s comments or to messages Thursday seeking comment about the event.
Cindy Samuelson, senior vice president of the Kansas Hospital Association, said smaller critical access hospitals are having to make multiple calls to find a larger hospital to accept their sickest patients. In some cases, patients have to be transferred farther or out of state.
Staffing also is a growing problem, with the association’s data from Wednesday showing that 38% of hospitals anticipating shortages this week in the Kansas City area.
"Health care providers who are providing care to patients also go to the grocery store and are in the community, and if they get exposed, then they are having to quarantine like anyone else," Samuelson said.
Leaders of several Kansas City area hospitals said Friday the number of available hospital beds that can be fully staffed is becoming dangerously small, raising the possibility that they will have to again delay elective surgeries.
On Tuesday, 11 hospitals in the area had 153 non-intensive care beds available, with 76 that could be fully staffed, and 32 intensive care beds available but only 22 that could be fully staffed, said David Wild, vice president of performance improvement for the University of Kansas Health System.
Chief medical officers met privately with area public officials before holding a virtual news conference to spread the message that they are not yet turning away people in true emergency situations, but they all have plans for that possibility, particularly in the always-busy flu season.
Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the health system, said six hospitals in the region had a total of 277 COVID-19 patients Monday and that number had climbed to 318 by Friday morning. And he noted that COVID-19 is now the primary cause of hospital admissions, surpassing cancer, heart attacks and other diseases.