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Overwhelmed Kansas City Hospital Officials: ‘We Need Masking Back’

Empty hospital beds and ventilators are nearly impossible to find in the KC metro as the delta variant surges across the region.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Empty hospital beds and ventilators are nearly impossible to find in the Kansas City metro as the delta variant surges across the region.

Seven-day averages of COVID-19 cases were higher this month than in November 2020, and hospitals are struggling to care for people. “Your hospitals are on the verge of a crisis now.”

Leaders of Kansas City-area health systems on Friday begged local governments to bring back mask orders to help relieve full hospitals, overwhelmed emergency rooms and hospital staffing shortages.

Dr. Steven Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health Systems, said KU doesn't like the term “mandate” and isn't trying to make public policy. But, he said, the hospital knows vaccination works for long-term protection from the coronavirus and masks work in the short term.

“We need masking back,” Stites said during a webinar with a dozen hospitals leaders and public officials. “We’re in trouble from a hospital standpoint so were asking for your help in masking.”

Even as local jurisdictions have shied away from mask orders, school districts are moving to implement them. Late Thursday, three local districts — Lee’s Summit, Shawnee Mission and Olathe — voted to require masks. Blue Valley said it will require masks for all early childhood and K-8 students, staff and visitors but will only "highly" recommend masks in high schools.

The delta variant has a much greater transmission rate than ever seen before, Stites said, and in addition to more patients, hospitals are experiencing staff shortages brought on by members falling ill or leaving their jobs.

So far, 2,458 people have died in the Kansas City area from COVID-19, Stites said, and case rates are higher now than last fall, at the height of the pandemic. The seven-day average of COVID-19 on Nov. 5, 2020, was 695; on Aug. 5 it was 737, he said.

Hospitals are full, which means patients other than those with COVID-19, are being placed in emergency rooms, which are also overrun, Stites said. At KU, almost a third of transfers were turned down because the system was already overwhelmed, he said. That's especially problematic because people suffering from heart attacks or strokes need an open bed immediately.

“Because hospitals are full and they’re just busy right now and you’re having patients coming back to care who have delayed their care, we’re all really busy,” Stites said. “And then you put the COVID on top of that, what it means is we’re struggling to get people taken care of.”

To help the strain on hospitals, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Friday announced he would triple the number of mutual aid ambulances in five regions of the state, including Kansas City. Thirty ambulances and 60 trained personnel were set to begin work as early as Saturday.

Parson said the additional aid helped in Springfield, which experienced high rates of coronavirus infections.

Health leaders are also concerned about what might happen this winter, especially when schools reopen. Dr. Jennifer Watts, director for emergency preparedness at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said a top priority is for kids to be in school.

“The best thing we can do to keep kids safe, those in school and out of school, is to cocoon them, have everybody around them vaccinated,” Watts said.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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