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KU Doctors Say 'This Is What We Had Feared' As Coronavirus Hospitalizations Smash Records

FILE - In this May 8, 2020, file photo registered nurses Beth Andrews, top, and Erin Beauchemin work with a patient in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Elaine Thompson/AP
Intensive care units, which are used to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients, are in increasingly short supply in Kansas City area hospitals.

Coronavirus hospitalizations are now several times higher than during the initial spring wave.

Hospital doctors in the Kansas City area have been urgently warning residents that COVID-19 is reaching dangerous and unprecedented new levels, potentially overwhelming their facilities.

Intensive care units, which have remained plentiful through most of the pandemic, are increasingly in short supply, with less than one in five currently available in the Kansas City region.

KU Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Dana Hawkinson said on Monday that the hospital’s capacity to treat patients is less than bed counts suggest.

“This is what we had feared,” Hawkinson said. “We’re significantly concerned about capacity issues, vital drug issues, workforce issues. Since last week, our numbers have continued to go up.”

An average of 138 people infected with COVID-19 are admitted to area hospitals each day, the highest number yet since the advent of the pandemic. The number of people hospitalized with the novel coronavirus exceeded 2,000 in Missouri for the first time late last week, and Kansas hospitalizations reached 1,155.

More than a third of the 33 hospitals in the Kansas City area reported that they were anticipating “critical staffing shortages” this week.

By comparison, daily COVID-19 hospitalizations remained below 40 during most of the spring when Kansas City, Missouri, remained under stay-at-home orders.

Dr. Steve Stites, KU's chief medical officer, said Monday that though hospitals’ options for treating COVID-19 have improved since then, the outlook is now much worse.

“We are in more trouble now than we were then,” Stites said. “And the reason we’re in more trouble now is there is widespread community transmission of COVID-19.”

The rate of tests coming back positive in the metro area declined slightly since last week to 17.2%. But it remains far higher than the recommended rate of 5%, suggesting large numbers of cases are likely not being detected.

Stites said Monday that he was concerned that “COVID fatigue” on the part of the general public was preventing people from taking steps, including wearing masks and limiting social gatherings, that were needed to slow transmission.

“We’re just nervous about what the future holds,” Stites said. “People are not taking the same precautions they took back in March and April, which allowed us to bend the curve.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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