Stretched health care system hoping to avoid Thanksgiving spike.

By Adam Strunk

For health care workers, now it’s a waiting game.

“We’re all holding our breath till after Thanksgiving,” Newton Medical Center Emergency room doctor Sheryl Dobson said.

Dobson gave an update during a Harvey County Health Department press conference Tuesday about what life was like working in the hospital’s emergency room during the COVID-19.

“I worked this past weekend and I saw several patients this weekend who had no COVID-19 symptoms over Thanksgiving and they did gather with family, but over the weekend became ill,” she said. “They had been with family unmasked and in close proximity with others on Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, this means there’s a significant chance they’ve infected the loved ones that they were around.”

A Thanksgiving spike on top of the already sharply increasing numbers could cause more problems for patients and health care workers, as well as a shortage of resources.

The most recent report by the Kansas Hospital Association stated there were 31 ICU beds available in the region or an 11 percent capacity.  Using the KHA numbers, that would mean the 122 COVID-19 patients in the region’s intensive care units would occupy 43 percent of available ICU beds.

Dobson said they’ve felt the ICU shortage already at NMC. She said the hospital relies on Wichita hospitals to transfer patients that need more critical or advanced care. She said her biggest concern for the future was people could be impacted by a lack of space at larger hospitals or see increased wait times, as sometimes, NMC faces challenges finding places to transfer people in need of more critical care.

“There have been times when the Wichita hospitals have had no available ICU beds and it’s resulted in us having to transfer patients sometimes hundreds of miles away for care when in non-COVID times they would have been able to be cared for just down the road in Wichita,” Dobson said. “This presents a huge hardship for patients and their families. This is one of the reasons we emphasize taking steps to keep you and your loved ones safe because we are seeing this happen.”

Harvey County continues to see cases sharply rise with 256 new cases added in the previous week and now 494 people classified as an active case (currently contagious and often sick with COVID-19.)

That number represents nearly one third of the 1,546 cases the county has accrued over the entire duration of the outbreak.

Hospitalizations are at 25 residents and last week, 14 new people were hospitalized.

Currently, the disease has claimed the life of 15 county residents.

“We may have a few more deaths coming, but they have not been confirmed to have COVID-19 as the official cause of death,” Health Department director Lynnette Redington said at the conference.

Dobson gave summaries of the kind of patients they were seeing in the emergency room, as well as those patients’ health.

She said that a substantial number of patients showing up had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, from the normal cough and fever to gastrointestinal issues and general fatigue.

“The number of the people who come in with one of those complaints is huge,” she said. “We take enhanced precautions with anyone who has those symptoms. We do extra PPE and extra measures with those.”

COVID-19 patients have ranged from those who have had mild problems to those who had severe symptoms, requiring breathing assistance.

“Some are so sick they need help with a breathing machine and some people unfortunately do end up dying from it.”

According to information provided at the press conference, COVID-19 patients that are admitted to the hospital are staying there longer, as well. Instead of a 2-5 days stay, they’re staying sometimes 10-14 days, which has aided to regional hospital space issues.

In the ER, Dobson said outside of COVID-19 patients, those they’re seeing are in worse shape than normal, because of people deferring treatment for other ailments, avoiding regular visits to their doctor and getting prescription refills, as they are afraid of contracting the disease.

She encouraged people to still see their doctors and take care of medical needs as doctors’ offices and the hospital take extreme measures to make sure patients are not exposed to COVID-19.

“Don’t delay emergency medical care if you are having a medical emergency, whether you have COVID, whether you think you have COVID, whether you think you don’t have COVID. If you are having chest pain, difficulty breathing, if you are confused or notice someone around you is confused, these are all medical emergencies. We stand ready to serve our community with medical needs

During the conference, Dobson asked people to take precautions and avoid contracting the disease. That included the same regularly given advice of distancing and wearing masks, especially around people you don’t live with. She also encouraged people to come up with alternative plans to holiday gatherings to avoid further spread of the disease. She also said many patients she’s seen with COVID-19 didn’t have fevers and people shouldn’t assume they don’t have COVID-19 just because they lack a fever.

She finished by asking the community to take the disease seriously and do everything they can to limit its spread.

“It’s real and it’s here,” she said. “I hope describing what I see with my own eyes can help people maybe bring it home. I would rather have them be able to take pause from sharing these stories, than those lessons to have to come from one of their loved ones being hospitalized or dying from this disease. I think a lot of people have mild cases. Thankfully, most do. They feel like it’s not a big deal. But enough people don’t and it causes very severe illness and death.”

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