As NMC fills with COVID patients, community leaders plead for residents to slow the spread

by Adam Strunk

COVID-19 hospitalizations at Newton Medical Center have increased eight to 10 fold in the last two weeks, with the 102-bed local hospital averaging around 40 patients sick with COVID-19 during the last week.

NMC CEO Val Gleason provided an update on the hospital’s current status during a press conference at the hospital Friday, aimed at convincing residents to do their part to slow COVID-19’s spread.

“We are pleading with the community to please choose wisely,” she said.

She and the Harvey County Health Department called on residents and leaders to choose to practice personal responsibility in order to prevent COVID-19 hospitalizations from overwhelming the health care system or making other interventions, such as total school closings or shut downs, necessary.

“We don’t want to close schools,” Harvey County Health Department Director Lynette Redington said. “We don’t want neighbors and family members to get sick. We don’t want to go back to a stay-at-home order.”

Redington gave an outline of the constantly increasing cases in the county that have outstripped her office’s ability to track and contact trace.

“We have over 1,200 cases that have been or are being investigated; we have 336 cases that are active, and I got to say, let’s get the word ‘cases’ out there and say ‘individuals,’” She said. “These are families and people being infected by COVID-19.”

A chart on Nov. 20 shows current number of COVID-19 cases and their status in Harvey County.

 

The county released information after the press conference had cases increased to 369, a 275-case increase during the last week–an average of 39 new cases per day.

Redington said that many of those who get ill are being hit with a long-term and difficult illness.

“We also need to note that a lot of these individuals are not recovering within 10 days of the isolation period, and we need to get this stopped,” she said.

Redington said she also wanted residents to understand some medical resources were being tapped out.

“We just want to remind folks staff are getting stretched both at the health department and various medical facilities,” she said.

Newton Medical Center sits within south central Kansas, the hotspot in a state, which is in a hotspot in the country for COVID-19 cases.

Currently, the 33 hospitals in the region have 7 percent–or 21–ICU beds open to serve the population of approximately 750,000 in south central Kansas for any emergency or complication that would arise.
Four-hundred-three people in the region are hospitalized for COVID-19 or a suspected case. According to the Harvey County Health Department, 22 are county residents, though all 22 are not hospitalized at Newton Medical Center.

Newton Medical Center is also helping out with overflow, taking in residents not just from Harvey County but neighboring communities.

“We’re very much attuned that the large, tertiary centers are experiencing high volumes of patients,” Gleason said. “Where we can, we accept neighbors into our facility, because that’s what we exist to do. We exist to serve our community.”

Hospitals in Wichita are past capacity and onto their contingency plans.

How the hospital system works, rural hospitals sometimes transfer patients to more regional hospitals, such as Newton Medical Center, depending on the illness and the facility’s capability to provide adequate treatment. In turn, some more severe cases in Newton are transferred to Wichita hospitals, where more specialized treatment is available.

With Wichita hospitals full, Gleason said that’s impacted some coming into Newton Medical Center.

“In some cases, our hospitalist might say it’s taken longer to get transferred as the downstream centers are so busy,” she said. “That’s a risk that smaller community hospitals such as Newton do contend with. You’ve heard the news coming out of very rural areas in Kansas for the last couple of weeks that they’re really having a hard time out there.”

She noted that those hospitals were having to sometimes transfer patients hundreds of miles away to Denver, Omaha and other places.

She said that the hospital wants to maintain room for residents who need treatment.

“What we’d like to do in Harvey County, we’d like to take care of you at Newton Medical Center. We’d love to take care of you when you have appendicitis, gall bladder disease, and emergencies. We’d rather not take care of COVID-19 patients in our facility, which is why we’re encouraging you to follow all the health measures.”

Capacity isn’t the only issue for area hospitals; staffing is also causing problems.

The Kansas Hospital Association reports 58 percent of hospitals in the region expect critical staffing shortages in the next week. That can be because of needing more workers to treat the influx of patients or due to workers out sick or in quarantine.

Gleason said that hospital staff has been very hard working, flexible and dedicated to meet the community needs. She said, however, that the pandemic is somewhat of a marathon, and the hospital would be grateful for relief when that comes, such as vaccinations for medical professionals.

“We are concerned about the sustainability of our staff,” she said. “We’re trying to do quite a bit to support our staffs. We realize, as every hospital leader realizes and understands, there are limits to certain tolerances. You bolster your staff. You show extra love and consideration. Our staff is very responsive to that, but it’s a concern we all share.”

To help proactively meet upcoming challenges, the hospital is attempting to organize a campaign to residents, encouraging them to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

At the event, projected on a screen, loomed the faces of other community leaders and representatives from the county, the City of Newton, area school districts and various other organizations, who were in support of the message. They attended the event over a virtual Zoom meeting to keep the capacity in the Newton Medical Center cafeteria, where the event was held, at a minimum.

Gleason said presenting a united message from all Harvey County leaders was important to help provide a unified voice aimed at promoting mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and other methods aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Redington echoed the sentiment.

“We felt it necessary they come together with the holidays around the corner and a larger surge possible,” she said. “We wanted to provide a united and singular voice to help our communities understand how important their daily choices are in slowing the spread of coronavirus so they can get back to normal.”

Those choices: wearing a mask when around other people, washing hands thoroughly and often, social distancing and staying six feet away from people, avoiding large gatherings, cleaning frequently touched services, and staying home if you are sick or have COVID-19 symptoms and calling your doctor.

“Science shows us we can do a few simple things to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” she said. “It is a choice, so choose wisely.”

A chart from the Kansas Hospital Association shows statewide capacity on Nov. 20.