‘No end in sight’ — KC-area hospital leaders beg for mask-wearing as COVID patient numbers top previous highs

Johnson County mask order

Leaders of 11 Kansas City-area hospital systems urged local residents to wear masks in public during a call Friday, but they stopped short of calling for mandates. Some hospitals say their COVID patient caseload is higher now than at times of peak transmission this past winter. File photo.

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Leaders of eleven metro hospital systems on Friday called for a return to indoor masking for everyone, due to a worsening coronavirus case load and impending bed and staffing shortages.

Many of the hospital officials from across the Kansas City region reported case numbers Friday that are worse than at the height of the previous pandemic spikes seen last winter.

“What you’re hearing from the chief medical officers today is we need masking back,” said Steve Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health System.

“Inside our hospitals and health systems, we are at a critical juncture. Numbers are rising rapidly and there is no end in sight to the rise unless we put public health measures in place,” he added.

Stites and other local officials from both sides of the state line expressed their concerns during a remote call attended by about 400 people. The call was sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

Mask-wearing urged, but no ‘mandate’ called for

The leaders’ recommendation was a step further than the step the Johnson County Commission took Thursday when it issued an order for masks to be worn indoors in schools for children up to and including 6th grade.

Some Johnson County public school districts have since added or expanded to their own mask rules, including Shawnee Mission and Olathe, which both last night approved policies requiring masks for everyone inside all their district facilities.

“What you’re hearing from the chief medical officers today is we need masking back,” said Steve Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health System. Above, Stites during a previous daily COVID-19 briefing aired by KU Health.

Blue Valley stopped short of that and still plans to leave masks optional in high schools while requiring them in grades K-8, in compliance with the county’s order.

On Friday morning, the hospital heads did not call for a “mandate,” however. Stites said he wants to avoid that word.

Indoor masking as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was effective in controlling influenza cases last winter and will have an impact on the spread of the more virulent Delta variant of COVID-19, said Raghu Adiga, chief medical officer at Liberty Hospital in Missouri.

The Delta variant is blamed for a surge of infections and hospitalizations locally, with these new cases coming mostly in unvaccinated patients.

Absent a government mandate, health care officials are asking for cooperation from employers and institutions.

“Indoor masking as CDC has recommended for all workplaces is absolutely essential in my opinion,” Adiga said. “How you achieve that is up to the leaders in those organizations.”

Johnson County hospitals see increase in COVID patients

Hospital officials said the coronavirus accounts for a sharp uptick in cases and admissions over even just a month or two ago.

In some cases, hospitals are seeing numbers equal to or worse than the height of the pandemic before mass vaccinations began earlier this year.

At Olathe Health System, there’s been a sharp uptick in cases.

“We were just cruising along at zero to maybe three, four Covid patients then and now we’re up to a whopping twenty-five,” said Olathe CMO Elizabeth Long. That includes facilities in Olathe and in nearby Miami County.

Of that, eight are in intensive care and two on ventilators, she said. And 19% of the COVID patients they have seen in Olathe have been vaccinated, she said.

“What we are seeing with those vaccinated patients is a decreased length of stay in the hospital as well as decreased acuity,” she said.

Westwood mask signage
Some Johnson County cities have adjusted their mask requirements, including the city of Westwood which is asking the public to wear masks in city facilities. Above, a photo of mask requirement signage outside of Westwood City Hall.

Vaccinated patients have been less likely to need intensive care, unless they also have some other type of chronic condition, she added.

HCA Midwest Health System, which includes Overland Park Regional and Menorah in Johnson County, currently has 145 patients who are COVID positive, with 46 in intensive care and 24 on ventilators, said CMO Darryl Nelson.

“The rate of rises have been unsettling to all of us,” he said.

Local HCA hospitals are at 94% overall staffed bed capacity and 95% in intensive care, he said.

“We’re managing so far but like everybody else we’re uneasy about the trends,” he said.

At AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, there are now 34 in-patients with COVID-19, compared with eight in early July, said CMO Lisa Hays.

On Friday, eight were in intensive care, with six on ventilators, and AdventHealth is experiencing staffing shortages throughout the hospital.

Non-COVID care impacted

Staff shortages are exacerbated by the fact that some hospital workers are coming down with COVID, too.

At AdventHealth, about three quarters of the staff is vaccinated. But in July there were 26 employees out with COVID – all but five unvaccinated, Hays said.

With such a high caseload, patients coming in for other emergencies may find themselves waiting in the emergency room for a bed to open up, and that will put a strain on emergency care as well, Stites said.

Heart attack and stroke cases depend on prompt treatment for a good outcome. The fact that many people waited out the worst of COVID last year to get needed treatment for other problems only compounds the problems for hospitals, he said.

That in turn has affected the ability to accept transfers from other hospitals.

At KU there were 1,500 requests for transfers in July but the hospital had to deny almost a third, Stites said.

“We are all really busy and when you put COVID on top of that, what it means is we’re struggling to get people taken care of,” he said.

As the surge worsens, things will deteriorate in the hospitals, he added.

“It’s safe to say your hospitals are on the verge of a real crisis here because we don’t have a lot more beds to give to this rising number of COVID patients we’re seeing,” Stites said.

During peak times last year, when local health care officials feared a surge, there were 270 COVID patients in hospitals. Today there are 376.

Worries for children

In Johnson County, mask requirements have lately focused on schools, some of which are starting next week. And there is evidence the new Delta variant is having health impacts on children, who are still too young to get the vaccine.

Jennifer Watts, director of emergency preparedness at Children’s Mercy Hospital, encouraged mitigation strategies like masking to keep in-person learning open.

Children’s Mercy reported nineteen kids in the hospital with COVID cases, the majority with respiratory symptoms. The previous high was thirteen during last fall and winter.

“The fact that we hit 19 today and were at twelve yesterday, we are climbing. And who knows where we are going to max out this round?” Watts said.