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Kansas City Hospitals At ‘Tipping Point’ As Beds Fill Up With More Than Just COVID Patients

The availability of hospital beds and ventilators are running low as Delta variant cases climb and area hospitals begin to turn away transfer patients.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The availability of hospital beds is running low as Delta variant cases climb.

Local hospitals are turning away transfer patients as they face a dwindling number of beds and staffing shortages.

Kansas City hospitals are filling up as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the region.

Beds are full at the University of Kansas Health System, which has announced it will no longer accept transfer patients.

“I think we're at a tipping point, and if we don't take it seriously we could easily end up back where we were in November,” Dr. Steven Stites, KU's chief medical officer, said at the system’s daily briefing.

Stites said KU is turning down between one and six COVID patient transfers a day, amounting to about 100 patients in the last two weeks.

The hospital is hitting its capacity as the highly-contagious delta variant migrates to Kansas City from southwest Missouri. Stites said the new wave is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” with less than 10% of the COVID patients in the hospital vaccinated.

With no beds available, Stites said doctors are beginning to put patients into non-standard floors called "alternative care areas."

Unlike the shortage last fall, Stites said bed space is limited not solely because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

He said the hospital has seen an increase in patients with routine illnesses since the region dropped mask mandates and social distancing measures.

“What we should be fearful of is that we won't be able to give care to those who need it — COVID, or not COVID, or cancer or heart attack or stroke, because we don't have enough beds in the city,” Stites said.

Beds are also filling up at Truman Medical Centers/University Health, where officials said they had to hold nine admissions in the emergency department.

Steve Hoeger, TMC’s director of safety and emergency management, said the hospital is also seeing a rising number of patients with infections besides COVID.

A TMC spokesperson said the center had 35 COVID patients at both its campuses on Thursday, or more than half the number of COVID patients in January, when COVID cases were beginning to peak.

Hoeger said many patients had let acute and chronic health care conditions go unaddressed for months during the pandemic.

“That may be part of what we're seeing right now, is people just got sicker and sicker from not having those needs met. And we're seeing the repercussions of that,” Hoeger said.

Hoeger said the hospital is “very full” but is still accepting transfer patients. While Truman is not a major referral hospital, he said it's likely to see more transfers if other large area hospitals continue to turn them down.

“High-Volume” emergency departments

Hoeger also works with hospitals across the region as co-chair of the Mid-America Regional Council's Health Care Coalition.

As part of their ambulance diversion program, hospitals can change their status to “high volume.” The status lets emergency responders know that care might be delayed and that they can route patients to alternative destinations when appropriate.

The program can be suspended if more than half the hospitals are considered “high-volume.” Hoeger said MARC has never had to suspend the program before but has now done so nearly every weekday for the last three weeks.

According to MARC data, only 82 intensive care unit beds are available in the region. Most of those have been taken up by patients suffering from illnesses other than COVID.

If capacity across the region continues to worsen, Hoeger said, it's likely hospitals will have to begin postponing non-emergency treatments again.

“If we have to cancel surgeries, procedures, office visits, then we're just going to see the same type of situation six, eight months from now. There are long term ramifications to try to make adjustments to have available bed space,” Hoeger said.

Another problem hitting local hospitals has been staffing shortages.

KU, for example, is licensed for 979 beds and 24 bassinets but only had staff for 871 units as of June 30. Stites said the shortage resulted from a combination of staff getting sick, leaving for higher-paying travel nursing jobs and just being burnt out.

Hoeger said that was the case at Truman as well and for health care workers across the region.

“Our staff are tired, they've been working long hours, most of the hospitals are working short-staffed, and we continue to lose good nurses, respiratory therapists and others to higher paying agency staff,” Hoeger said.

To address the problem, Hoeger recommends that people use hospital emergency departments only for serious health issues and turn to their family doctor or to urgent care for non-emergencies.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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