(AP) — Small rural hospitals in Kansas and Missouri are increasingly spending hours searching for facilities they can transfer patients to because they are struggling to cope with the surge in coronavirus cases.
As the region’s hospitals fill up with COVID-19 patients, smaller hospitals like the one in Holton, Kansas, are finding it difficult to treat patients who don’t have the disease but still need care.
“People don’t just stop having heart attacks or those sorts of things,” said Carrie Saia, CEO of the hospital in Holton, which is about 30 miles north of Topeka, Kansas. “I just worry that we’re going to be so consumed that we’re not really able to care for some emergency that comes in.”
A spokesperson for William Newton Hospital in Winfield said it was caring for seven COVID patients as of Monday morning. Five of its eight COVID-med/surg rooms were occupied; both COVID-ICU rooms had patients.
One of three regular ICU rooms was occupied; 10 or 12 regular med/surg beds had patients. A special COVID labor and delivery room was still available.
Hospital CEO Ben Quinton said there is a real possibility of hitting capacity, which is why the hospital converted three beds to COVID beds during the weekend.
“We have also prepared for additional surges beyond the one we are currently in,” Quinton said. “We’re sourcing additional staff and preparing patient rooms with negative air pressure and HEPA filters to keep people safe.”
The problem could get worse and probably will, he said.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to take care of the patients who come through our doors. Our motto has been, ‘Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.’” he added.
An email to South Central Kansas Medical Center about its situation had not been returned as of deadline Monday.
The urban and rural health care systems in Missouri and Kansas are intertwined, with smaller hospitals identifying which patients need more advanced care and transferring them to larger facilities in bigger cities, the Kansas City Star reported.
But lately, smaller hospitals have been spending hours searching for beds for their patients in larger facilities in places such as Wichita, Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri.
When COVID-19 patients stress the capacity of smaller hospitals, it makes it harder to care for patients with heart attacks, strokes or other serious conditions.
“Those patients, when they come through our doors, honestly that’s a little more scary than COVID,” said Valarie Davis who is the administrator of Mercy’s smaller hospitals in Cassville and Aurora, Missouri. “We have to get them somewhere as quick as we possibly can.”
And rural hospital administrators increasingly worry about how the surge in patients is affecting their nurses and doctors.
“I’ve had one of the nurses literally break down right in front of me because of her concern for one of the patients, which is a wonderful thing but it takes a toll on the staff,” said Dennis Franks, CEO of the 25-bed Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center in Chanute, Kansas. “They’re working a lot.”
Hospital and nursing officials fear that if COVID-19 cases continue unchecked there won’t be enough nurses to staff new hospital beds in the near future in the Kansas City metro area.
“All the things we were worried about could be possible in March, April and May are actually happening right now, and that should be scary for all of us,” said David Wild, vice president of performance improvement at the University of Kansas Health System.
Latest case numbers
Kansas health officials on Monday added 4,425 cases to the state’s pandemic tally since Friday, bringing the total to 157,446. Data showed that Kansas averaged 2,198 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases a day for the seven days ending Monday. That is below the record average of 2,766 cases.
The number of COVID-19 related deaths also rose by 31 to 1,560.
In Cowley County, six new cases were added on Sunday for a total of 1,625, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
A week ago on Nov. 23 the county set a new high of 79 infections confirmed in a single day. In recent days the daily counts have fallen to 33, 17, 9 and 6, although Thanksgiving and the weekend might have slowed down testing.
It is too soon to see how Thanksgiving gatherings have impacted coronavirus numbers, but medical providers expect to see another rise in hospitalizations in 10 to 14 days once people begin showing symptoms.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported on Monday 87 new hospitalizations, bringing the total of hospitalizations to 5,105 since the start of the pandemic. The state’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 227 coronavirus patients were in ICU units, with 39 percent of ICU capacity remaining in Kansas.
More on nursing
High community spread means more nurses are liable to contract the disease, forcing them into quarantine. Child care also is an issue, says Kelly Sommers, state director of the Kansas State Nurses Association.
The Kansas Hospital Association’s dashboard on Friday showed 14 of the metro area’s 33 hospitals, or about 42 percent, reporting they anticipated critical staff shortages in the following week, KCUR reported.
“The obvious answer is to get some temporary people, traveling nurses,” says Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System. “But they’re just not as available as they once were because everybody’s scrambling for the same folks.”
Health providers anticipate the need for more COVID-19 testing following the Thanksgiving holiday, as testing numbers have more than doubled since cases began rising again in the Kansas City area.
Hospitalization numbers were also back up Monday after stabilizing over the holiday weekend, said Dr. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease expert at the University of Kansas Health System. The hospital is now treating 102 active cases, of which 46 are in the intensive care unit and 30 are on ventilators, KCUR reported.
“It looks like social gatherings, not so much school, but those other places where people are getting together where they aren’t really necessarily wearing masks as they should be, distancing as they should be, is really a concern,” Hawkinson said.
Hawkinson recommended that anyone who traveled or celebrated in a group for the holiday should act as if they are infected by quarantining and getting tested.
CourierTraveler Publisher David A. Seaton contributed to this report.