Kansas hospitals stressed as coronavirus cases rise


Several dozen Kansas hospitals that serve Kansas patients reported Wednesday that they expect to deal with staffing shortages over the next week as the state continues to report an average of well over 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day.

The Wichita area’s two major health systems said Wednesday that almost 150 coronavirus patients were hospitalized, their highest numbers since the pandemic began. The Ascension Via Christi system is trying to bring about 60 nurses from outside Kansas into the state to help with staffing, and it has converted space into two new units for COVID-19 patients.

A surge in cases even prompted public health officials and the local Chamber of Commerce in Reno County in south-central Kansas to launch a 10-day campaign to be more diligent in following the county’s mask mandate and following other public health recommendations, such as observing social distancing and avoiding gatherings.

The state Department of Health and Environment on Wednesday added 2,988 confirmed and probable cases to the state’s count since Monday, a 3.3% increase that brought the pandemic total to 92,215. The state averaged 1,453 new cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday — not a record, but still more than double than the rolling seven-day averages reported a month ago.

Public health officials say Kansas is seeing such large numbers of new cases because too many people aren’t wearing masks in public, aren’t social distancing and aren’t avoiding gatherings. They contend that people are letting their guard down at family events such as parties, weddings and baby showers.

“When I see people without a mask, that’s what breaks my heart,” said Jenifer Phelps, nurse manager in a 20-bed Via Christi unit for coronavirus patients in Wichita. “So when I see that, the first thing in my mind is, ‘Well, we’re going to be — the unit’s probably going to be full next week.'”

The state averaged 33 new hospitalizations a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. The state health department reported 91 new hospitalizations since Monday, bringing the total to 3,984 since the pandemic reached Kansas in early March.

The state also reported an additional 41 deaths since Monday, to bring the pandemic total to 1,087. Kansas averaged 11 additional deaths a day for the seven days ending Wednesday.

The Kansas Hospital Association surveyed 143 hospitals that serve Kansas patients, including some on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metropolitan area. Forty-three of them, or 30%, said they expected to deal with staffing shortages within the next week.

“You might have have a physical bed or a physical ventilator, but you have to have the staff to be able to staff that,” said association spokeswoman Cindy Samuelson. “In some cases, the bed capacity challenge is really driven by a lack of staffing for that level of care.”

Robert Freelove, chief executive officer of the Salina Regional Health Center, said his hospital had 11 active COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday afternoon. The hospital has designated 29 out of about 35 negative pressure rooms for COVID-19 patients and can accept up to 44 coronavirus patients. The hospital can accept up to 16 critically ill COVID-19 patients, Freelove said.

But the Salina health center, with a nursing staff of about 600, is about 50 nurses short of full staff. Freelove said the shortage is “a little high,” compared to before the pandemic.

“Certainly things are more stressful,” Freelove said. “I don’t know if we lost anybody necessarily because of COVID, but certainly being a healthcare provider is a lot more difficult now than it was pre-pandemic.”

Phelps said caring for coronavirus patients can be both physically and emotionally draining. She said it sometimes requires one nurse for some patients — and it takes a team of a half-dozen staffers when a doctors want to turn patients from their backs to their stomachs so that they can breathe more easily.

She said the nurses’ 12 1/12-hour shift now typically begins with a prayer with a hospital chaplain. Phelps said a few weeks ago, a patient told her, “I’m just not going to beat this.”

“After leaving his room, I just cried, and then I of course didn’t want others to see me cry, but I couldn’t wipe my face, because I can’t touch my face,” she said.



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