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Kansas City’s latest COVID spike is stretching resources at hospitals

A red sign with a plus sign in the middle reads "emergency center"
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
During past COVID-19 surges at the University of Kansas Hospital, some patients had to begin their emergency treatment on a bed in the hallway. Cases are again trending up in Jackson and Johnson Counties, putting a strain on hospital resources — especially hospital staff.

During the pandemic, a mass exodus of employees left the medical field. Hospital leaders say they're finally starting to fill open positions with permanent workers instead of contract employees, but higher COVID cases have sent many medical workers home sick.

At Olathe Health, staff continue to rely on contract workers to fill vital roles left vacant by employees who left the field or retired amid pandemic pressures.

While they meet hospitals' urgent needs, these contract workers are expensive, and not a permanent solution. That’s why Elizabeth Long, the chief medical officer for Olathe Health, said the hospital is excited more people are eager to fill permanent roles — a critical development as the hospital deals with record-high numbers of patients.

“Certainly, I think wanting to attract the best talent that we possibly can continues to be a problem but I do feel like the curve is bending a little bit on that as far as having employed instead of contracted help,” Long said.

Across the country, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 were up 5% this past week. In Johnson and Jackson Counties, the number of hospitalizations over the past week rose 86% and 42%, respectively.

Still, total reported case numbers during this spike are far lower than in past waves and increasing at a slower rate — though many positive cases likely don't show up in the data due to the prevalence of at-home testing.

The rising case numbers are unfortunately leading to more employees out sick, temporarily undercutting some of the strides hospitals have made in staffing. Chakshu Gupta, the chief medical officer for Liberty Hospital, said 25 employees tested positive this month.

Gupta and other local CMOs all said they are keeping masking optional for patients and employees except for in certain cases.

“If you're going to a higher risk area, we encourage them to mask. If you are sick or exposed, then we ask you to mask for 10 days post-exposure,” Gupta said. “And, of course, I think it's a good idea if you have a sick patient and elderly patient with comorbidities, we certainly encourage masking there as well.”

Dana Hawkinson, director of infection prevention and control for the University of Kansas Health System, said the recently approved, updated COVID-19 vaccine should also provide some relief. That said, the health system, like local health departments, doesn't have doses yet.

“We are still waiting here at the health system,” Hawkinson said. “Hopefully within the next 10 days or so — but commercial pharmacies, (the COVID-19 vaccine) should be available at most of those.”

On the CVS website, appointments in the Kansas City area are currently available and scheduling through October 4.

Jennifer Watts, chief emergency management medical officer at Children's Mercy, also touted the possibility of a respiratory syncytial virus vaccine for kids. Currently, an RSV vaccine for those 60 years and older and one for pregnant women that protects a newborn infant are approved for use.

“That's who RSV typically affects and impacts the worst and is the most severe,” Watts said. "It will not be rolled out until everybody assures that it is safe and it is validated and tested, and we know that we can guarantee that we can recommend it to everybody.”

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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