Chief medical officers across the Kansas City metro are predicting a grim winter ahead, as COVID-19 cases spike once again and the highly contagious Omicron variant arrives in the region.
Hospital leaders held a dire video conference online Friday morning warning that those who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine, in particular, are most in danger, calling this winter a potential “death march of the unvaccinated”.
University of Kansas Health System chief medical officer Dr. Steven Stites said case numbers in the area have risen above where they were in the fall.
“As the weather got cold, masks came off and we still have a lot of unvaccinated folks,” he said. “We set ourselves up for danger and that danger is real. It’s present, and it’s at our doorstep.”
Dana Hawkinson, KU’s director of infection prevention control, said the University of Kansas Health System currently has 45 COVID-19 infected patients, 13 of which are in the ICU and 9 of which are on ventilators. Seven of those 45 patients are fully vaccinated, he said.
“To put that in perspective, two weeks ago we had 31 active (COVID-19) patients and one month ago we had 18 active patients,” he said.
Rising numbers region-wide
Hospitals across the area reported similarly sharp increases, with a majority of COVID patients being unvaccinated.
Dr. Lisa Hayes of AdventHealth Shawnee Mission said that hospital had 37 active COVID-19 infected patients at the end of the day Thursday.
Seven of those are in the ICU and six are on ventilators. Four of them are fully vaccinated.
“And I’m sad to report that since the beginning of December, there have been 13 deaths,” she said.
HCA Midwest Health, one of the Kansas City area’s largest providers which operates Overland Park Regional Medical Center, reported a total of 151 positive cases across its metro facilities.
HCA chief medical officer Kimberly Megow said that represents 14% of the total inpatient volume.
As of Friday morning, 30 of HCA’s COVID patients were in the ICU and 12 were on ventilators. Only three were vaccinated.
“We are experiencing quite a bit of stress in the system, as all of the hospitals are in this area,” she said.
Due to high patient volumes and staffing difficulties, many health care leaders on the call Friday reported a lack of available hospital beds.
Megow said HCA Midwest currently has 43 patients waiting for beds.
“Unfortunately our death rate is over 11% for COVID patients,” she said. “Just to give you a little perspective, we’ve had more than a tripling of our volume in the last three weeks, so it is very alarming. We’re trying to keep a close eye on that and do the best we can with making beds available.”
Children impacted, too
The spike in COVID cases includes the Kansas City metro’s pediatric population, much of which remains unvaccinated as those under 5 years old are not yet eligible for vaccines.
Dr. Jennifer Watts of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., said that facility has seen a “dramatic increase” in positive cases in the last couple of weeks.
“In our testing — which includes all of our ambulatory settings and our drive-thru testing clinics — we went from 200 positives just two weeks ago to over 400 positives,” Watts said. “The impact on kids and their entire families and being in school, it has a large impact beyond the hospital setting too.”
Health officers across the board urged viewers to wear masks and be considerate about holiday plans this winter in the face of the spread of transmission, which now includes both Delta and Omicron variants.
On Thursday, Kansas health officials identified the first confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the state: a fully vaccinated person in Franklin County, just southwest of Johnson County.
The health leaders on Friday also encouraged those who are fully vaccinated to get their booster if they can.
They said the fully vaccinated patients they who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 largely have not received theirs.
“All of us want to let our guard down and have fun, but this is not that time and this is not that place,” Stites said. “Here we are in the holiday season where we want to have expression of how much we love and care. The reality is the best gift you can give someone right now is that you respect and follow the rules of infection control, because you want them to be here for the next holiday season.”