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A 'tripledemic' of respiratory illnesses is quickly exhausting a short-staffed Kansas City hospital

The exterior of Children's Mercy hospital.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
At Children's Mercy, the number of patients doctors and nurses are treating for the flu has more than doubled in the past couple of days. Federal, state and local officials are pushing for increased urgency around the surge in respiratory illnesses.

Influenza cases continue to rise even as RSV and COVID-19 case numbers are plateauing across the Kansas City area. Children's Mercy staffers are picking up extra shifts as they treat more patients than the hospital can handle.

Jennifer Watts entered a media briefing Thursday a few minutes behind schedule.

Watts, the chief emergency management officer for Children's Mercy Hospital, came directly from assisting in the emergency room. There, Children's Mercy Hospital staff are working around the clock to help a growing waiting list of children suffering from several respiratory illnesses spiking around the country.

As of Thursday, Children's Mercy had 15 children on its waiting list — forcing an already understaffed group to pick up extra shifts to accommodate all those sick with the flu, RSV and COVID-19.

"It's exhausting and it takes time. It's a sacrifice," Watts said. "We're sacrificing family time to be here, to take care of all the kids that need us right now and will continue to do so because it's the right thing to do."

Ideally, Watts said they would transfer patients to another hospital — but there are no beds in the region right now, a trend for pediatric facilities across the country.

Influenza cases continue to rise even as RSV case numbers are plateauing across the Kansas City area. Watts said the number of patients being treated for the flu has more than doubled at Children's Mercy in the past couple of days.

For the week of October 30 through November 5 in Missouri, there were 1,738 laboratory-confirmed flu cases, compared to 1,280 cases the week before.

Topping off the so-called "tripledemic" is the threat of another COVID-19 spike. After two months of COVID-19 case numbers declining, the Mid-America Regional Council reported a slight uptick in the Kansas City metro, from 135 cases per day to 164 per day the week ending November 5.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties are at medium community transmission levels. Metro counties on the Missouri side of the border all remain at low transmission levels.

"We keep children in our emergency department and we wait until we have a bed available and get them beds as soon as they come open," Watts said.

Jennifer Watts, chief emergency management medical officer for Children’s Mercy, gives a media briefing Nov. 17, 2022
Noah Taborda
Jennifer Watts, chief emergency management medical officer for Children’s Mercy, said frequent hand-washing and getting vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19 would help reduce the waiting list.

Earlier this week, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services announced it will offer free testing for the flu, RSV and COVID-19 at several locations throughout Missouri until March 2023. There are more than 50 testing sites in Kansas City.

All it takes is one nasal swab to detect any of the three viruses, said George Turabelidze, DHHS's state epidemiologist.

"Although cases overall have not increased in severity, the increased volume has caused a strain on our health care partners," he said. "Ultimately, we need families to remember how important it is that they stay home when sick."

Turabelidze and Watts urged people to stay up to date on flu and COVID-19 vaccines to help reduce strain on state and local health systems. Those ages 5 and up are eligible for the Pfizer bivalent booster and anyone 6 years or older can get the Moderna booster.

Watts also suggested frequent handwashing.

While individuals can take steps at home to help lessen the load on doctors and nurses, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children's Hospital Association are asking for federal support. On Monday, the organizationspenned a joint letter to President Joe Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra asking them to declare an emergency to support a national response to the surge in respiratory illnesses.

The emergency declarations would allow certain Medicare, Medicaid or Children's Health Insurance Program requirements to be waived so health care providers can share resources and coordinate efforts, said Children's Hospital Association CEO Mark Wietecha.

"We implore (Biden and Becerra) to renew their commitment to pediatric health care and give us the resources necessary to control the ongoing RSV and flu surge with the continuing children's mental health emergency," Wietecha said. "Our system is stretched to its limit and without immediate attention the crisis will only worsen."

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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