County COVID situation is dire, leaders plead for help

By Adam Strunk

COVID-19 is now spreading uncontrolled through the county; regional hospitals are full and nearly 300 Harvey County residents are sick with the disease.

The dour news has resulted in the health department, the hospital and other community leaders begging county residents to please take heed and do what they can to slow the spread.

“Nobody wants to see a loved one severely ill,” an open letter signed by 15 leaders of cities, school districts, emergency response services and medical institutions stated as it implored residents to follow common sense safety measures of wearing masks, avoiding crowds and maintaining six feet of separation (See the opinion page for the full letter).  “Nobody wants businesses and schools to shut down because of COVID-19 clusters. Nobody wants hospitals to run out of resources or space to care for patients with COVID-19 or any other illness.”

New sicknesses are far exceeding recoveries in Harvey County, this week, with active cases jumping by 128 or 73 percent, to 297. That number is more than five times the number of active cases two weeks ago. 

Total Infections surpassed the 1,000 mark this week at 1,054. Twelve are hospitalized and Newton Presbyterian Manor reported three residents had died from the disease, bringing the county’s total to 12. Health Department Director Lynette Redington reported that more than 496 other county residents were in quarantine after being a close contact.

The Wichita Eagle reported on Nov. 16 that patients awaiting hospital rooms were being kept on gurneys in the waiting rooms at some city hospital emergency rooms.

Redington said Tuesday that she knew of Wichita hospitals reaching out for tents to handle the overflow.

“I do know that our Wichita hospitals are full. I haven’t talked specifically to hospital staff this morning, particularly our local hospital,” she said.
I know all of them are getting stretched. They’re getting stretched greatly. They’re going to serve you the best they can, but in regards to COVID, the beds are totally full and we need to quarantine and isolate ourselves when we have to.”

The reports are beginning to mirror scenes in other parts of the country where COVID patient overflows cause medical providers to have to triage patients, while deciding who receives care and who does not.
In south-central Kansas, according to the most recent available data published Nov.13 from the Kansas Hospital Association (KHA), the 33 regional hospitals have a combined 13 percent capacity remaining for intensive care unit beds or 38 available. Overall, 358 people in south-central Kansas are now hospitalized with COVID-19 or a suspected case; 103 are in intensive care units.

The need is expected to increase as hospitalizations usually trail infections by at least a few weeks and the numbers of infections only continue to increase. Harvey County, for instance, has more than five times the amount of active cases as it did two weeks ago.

Locally, Newton Medical Center Director of Communications Shelly Conrady said the hospital continues to have room to serve area patients, but that could change on a moment’s notice.

“We are still treating a higher volume of COVID-19 patients than we have in the past and are continuing to expand our ability to serve these patients as we bring additional negative-airflow rooms online,” she said.

Newton Medical Center not only serves Harvey County, but surrounding counties, as well, especially now that other hospitals fill up. Case are surging in Marion, McPherson, Sedgwick and Reno counties. McPherson’s percent positive test rate hit 24.5 percent, last week, meaning a quarter of those tested had COVID-19. Marion County commission this week voted down a mask requirement for residents, resulting in the county’s health care officer hanging up on the Zoom meeting in frustration.
More cases in the area mean more hospitalized and more labor required of the hospitals.

According to the KHA, 55 percent of hospitals in the region expect to experience critical staffing shortages in the next week. Part of this has to do with demand and part has to do with staff illnesses or quarantines.

Some Newton Medical Center staff are in quarantine, although Conrady didn’t provide an exact number, saying it was fluid.

She said the hospital tests as necessary following possible exposures.

“If a quarantine is needed, we evaluate the impact on a case-by-case basis and determine the best course of action to ensure patient care,” she said, saying that so far, the hospital has been able to meet the staffing needs caused by surges.

How the hospital handles possible staff exposures can mean a number of different actions. Staff members can be quarantined. That can result in certain non-emergency and elective services being limited to make up for less staffing.

It can also mean that a staff member exposed continues to work, depending on how critically important their position is.

“As you may know, some frontline positions are highly-specialized and cannot be easily covered by another staff person,” she said. “If any of those positions are affected, we work with the CDC to determine if a waiver is an option, if a service will be temporarily unavailable (i.e. a non-critical service like rehabilitation) or if an outside staff resource can be identified.”

Health departments provide waivers to certain first responders and essential medical staff from quarantine procedures, due to the importance of their jobs to public health and safety.

For instance, Newton Fire/EMS employees were exposed to COVID-19 last month, but continued working to make sure the city had emergency protection.

“Should we find ourselves in a situation similar to the one at fire/EMS, where a waiver is necessary, we work with the CDC and increase PPE precautions for interactions with that staff member to ensure safety,” Conrady said.

She added that the hospital is also working to create a secondary labor pool of retired and part-time medical professionals to help deal with any future shortages. She said the hospital will soon be asking for any area registered nurses or licensed nurse practitioners to serve as part-time or floating staff.

“Our goal is to have a pool of skilled nurses we may call upon if the disease burden continues to rise in our community,” she said. “This will ensure our ability to both care for our patients and support our amazing staff.”

She said the secondary labor pool would not serve in a front-line capacity, but instead, do tasks at the hospital to free up staff to deal with COVID-19 patients.

The County Health Department is also hiring more staff as its six dedicated to COVID-19 investigation and contact tracing are no longer able to keep up with the new cases.  The shortages have called on the county to ask people to call on close contacts to inform them, should they have a positive test.

As for what can be done, Redington said people should avoid unnecessary trips, avoid large gatherings, consider limiting in-person Thanksgiving to family members living within the same house and of course, wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands.

Harvey County ranked in the state’s top 10 this week for the most new cases.

Kansas added 7,234 cases since Friday, including 104 hospitalizations and 10 deaths.

Nationally, 247,000 have died from the disease and 11.7 million have been infected.