MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Kansas health officials on Tuesday urged communities to take stronger action as more hospital rooms are devoted to caring for coronavirus patients and hundreds of doctors, nurses and other workers are quarantined, leading some surgical procedures to be delayed.
Hospital emergency departments in at least two communities were holding coronavirus patients while waiting for space or staff to treat them elsewhere. The CEO of a northeast Kansas health system called the local spread of the virus “uncontrolled.”
Teresa Ellis, the Hutchinson Regional Medical Center’s emergency department director, said the hospital has treated COVID-19 patients in its emergency room until enough staff were available to treat them in its intensive care and coronavirus units.
Nine patients were held in the emergency room overnight Sunday night, including four COVID-19 patients, Ellis said. The rest were waiting to be transported to other hospitals to make room for those infected with the coronavirus, she added.
“The least amount of time those nine patients had been here was four hours. The most was 15 at that point,” Ellis said.
Ellis said the medical center recently hired 12 traveling nurses to deal with a staffing shortage. While emergency room staff are trained to take care of critical-care patients, "my nurses are also taking care of the next trauma patient that comes in or the next heart attack, or code blue,” she said, meaning someone experiencing heart or respiratory failure.
In northeast Kansas, the Stormont Vail Health system has seen its number of hospitalized coronavirus patients steadily climb in the past few weeks, to 91 as of Tuesday. It said late Tuesday that its emergency department in Topeka was “boarding” some coronavirus patients while waiting for beds elsewhere for them to open up. It also created three new spaces for treating non-COVID-19 emergency patients from waiting rooms and hallways.
Dr. Lee Norman, the state health department's head, said a system that he likened to air traffic control for coronavirus patients is being put in place so nurses from rural hospitals can make a single call to find a larger hospital that can take their sickest patients. In some cases, nursing and doctors have been spending up to eight hours looking for a large hospital with an opening.
But Norman said these rural communities can't leave it entirely to the state to help.
“Number one, they need to help themselves," he said during a call with officials from the University of Kansas Hospital. “They have been, I think, very slow to come on board with the anticontagion measures that we know work."
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.
But tides are shifting. At least a dozen counties have tightened pandemic-related rules within the past two weeks. In northeast Kansas, Brown County imposed a mask mandate, Monday, days after neighboring Jackson and Nemaha counties imposed their own amid a surge of cases. In southwest Kansas, Dodge City commissioners approved a mask mandate Monday as cases swelled in Ford County.
In Hutchinson, Ellis said, four to five of her nurses, certified nursing assistants and clinical staff have been infected daily during the past two weeks, out of about 450 staff.
Ellis said she feels they are being infected outside the hospital because her staff have been wearing personal protective equipment, including N-95 masks, gloves and gowns and have provided a “controlled situation” in the hospital.
Stormont Vail reported that as of Tuesday, it had more than 170 employees and physicians who had active coronavirus cases or were isolated and on leave because of contact with someone who had coronavirus.
“The virus spread in the community is uncontrolled,” Stormont Vail's president and CEO, Dr. Robert Kenagy, said in a statement.
The University of Kansas Hospital, in Kansas City, Kansas, has 187 workers, including physicians, nurses and support staff, out as of Tuesday after testing positive. Another 200 aren't at work while they await test results. Hospital spokeswoman Jill Chadwick said most are being infected in the community, not at work.
She said the hospital also is identifying and delaying up to 20 surgeries per day to free up bed space as its number of coronavirus swells, hitting 124 on Tuesday.
In the Wichita area, Wesley Medical Center is treating an all-time high of 100 coronavirus patients and Ascension Via Christi St. Francis is caring for 130 COVID-19 patients. Wesley doubled its COVID-19 capacity in the past week and a half, and the entire fifth floor at St. Francis is now designated for coronavirus patients.
Jennifer Rogers, who manages two of the fifth floor coronavirus units at St. Francis, begged the community to step up and help in a blog that was posted Tuesday on the hospital's website.
“My eyes see a hospital that I don’t even recognize; staff who are tired, feeling defeated, and want to do more, but physically and mentally cannot," she wrote, adding: “Please help us fight before we see you in the hospital."
Hanna and Field reported from Topeka, Kansas.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.