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Kansas City hospitals are full again, omicron has arrived and doctors are begging for your help

A photo shows a man receiving a vaccine at the Linwood YMCA.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Physicians are urging more people to get the COVID-19 vaccine as cases surge again.

As COVID cases surge, local hospitals are getting calls from as far away as Michigan and Texas seeking beds for patients. But Kansas City has its own crisis to deal with.

Doctors across Kansas City, Lawrence and Topeka banded together Friday to offer a sobering public message: They’ve seen COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations double, triple and continue to get worse in a matter of weeks.

Some hospitals are once again postponing non-emergency, non-coronavirus care to free up beds and health care workers for the region’s second dramatic surge in hospitalizations since the delta variant arrived last summer.

Hospitals are struggling daily to find enough nurses and scrambling to recruit health care workers from other countries.

Chief medical officers said the vast majority of the patients in local hospitals have not gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.

At a briefing for reporters and the public, they urged people to roll up their sleeves for a shot that shields themselves and their loved ones.

“For the past couple of weeks, all 100% (of people) in ICU, all 100% on ventilators have been unvaccinated people,” Raghu Adiga, chief medical officer at Liberty Hospital in Missouri, said of the situation at his facility. “We just want people to help us take better care of them.”

The delta variant continues to fuel most cases locally, but omicron has joined the mix in Kansas and Missouri. Doctors fear the swift surge of hospitalizations in recent weeks could set the stage for numbers in January and February that will surpass last winter’s crisis.

White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci says vaccines and booster shots protect most people against landing in the hospital with the omicron variant.

“We still have a lot of unvaccinated folks. We set ourselves up for danger,” University of Kansas Health System chief medical officer Steven Stites said. “That danger is real. … It’s at our doorstep. … We are in trouble.”

Other states face a similar predicament. Hospitals in Kansas City are receiving calls in search of open beds from facilities as far away as Michigan, Minnesota and Texas.

The KU Health System is so strained, it’s now turning down 70% to 80% of transfer requests.

And other local health systems described similar situations.

“We currently have 43 patients … in our ERs waiting for inpatient beds,” said Kim Megow, chief medical officer for HCA Midwest Health. “No beds available. And only 12 ICU beds across the market are available this morning.”

The situation echoes the virus’ earlier peaks last winter and this summer.

But staffing levels, hospitals say, have only gotten worse over the course of the pandemic.

The rush of hospitalizations since November has filled beds fast, but even facilities that still have space often can’t take in more patients because they lack enough nurses.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was like going off to war … the energy level was high,” said Elizabeth Long, chief medical officer for Olathe Health.

But since then, many health care workers have burned out and quit.

“We are definitely in a dire situation,” Long said. “We’re trying to even get foreign nurses in” but face immigration hurdles.

Megow at HCA Midwest Health called the situation more than a daily struggle – it’s an “hourly struggle.”

“We have gone outside of the country to hire nurses. We have pulled nurses in from other areas,” she said. “We have hired temporary and contract nurses.”

“Every hour, we are constantly monitoring how many nurses we need,” she said. “How many can we get? When can they get here? How long can they stay? What do we need to pay them?”

The KU Health System’s St. Francis hospital in Topeka was forced to push back several inpatient surgeries this month. LMH Health in Lawrence said it can’t accept any patients from outside of Douglas County.

More about the omicron variant

So far, daily hospitalizations remain below the peak they saw last winter, but have already climbed back to the levels seen during this summer’s intense and swift initial delta wave.

The omicron variant has been found in at least 37 states as of Friday morning. Public health officials had expected it to turn up in Missouri and Kansas fast, which it did.

Kansas announced its first confirmed case of the omicron variant on Thursday, in Franklin County south of Lawrence. Missouri first identified one two weeks ago in St. Louis.

Scientists are scrambling to learn more about the variant. The World Health Organization says omicron is moving faster across the globe than other versions of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s too early to say with certainty how omicron infections differ from delta and other iterations.

Anyone ages 5 and up can get vaccinated. The vaccines are free, and so are the booster shots available to people over the age of 16.

Vaccines prevent the vast majority of people from ending up in the hospital with COVID-19.

Still, even if someone who is vaccinated comes in contact with the virus and develops little to no symptoms, they could still pass the germs to loved ones and other people.

Wearing masks and exercising caution remain important.

Many places also offer free COVID-19 tests. In Kansas, you can find a free test by visiting KnowBeforeYouGoKS.com.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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