Wichita ER doc describes COVID-19 frontline

By Blake Spurney

NEWTON—With hospitals in the region already near capacity, the health care system could get overwhelmed if COVID-19 cases continue their upward trajectory through the holidays.

“We’re staring up a mountain right now, is the best way I could put it,” said Dr. Mark Rogers, an emergency room physician in Wichita.

Rogers said COVID-19 patients had increased fivefold in the past two months. For a while, the number of patients being admitted daily doubled in volume every two weeks. With resources stretched thin, he said the system couldn’t handle another another such increase.

“I’m a little worried,” he said. “Our backs are against the wall. If it backs up after Thanksgiving, it’s going to be horrifying.”

Rogers said a shortage in available workers was compromising all levels of care. Upon starting a shift, he learns about how many nurses couldn’t make it to work, either because they’re sick or are in quarantine. The same thing is affecting those in house-cleaning and food preparation.

“If you don’t have the people to care for patients, you can’t care for them even though you have an empty bed,” he said.

Rogers said a COVID-19 patient from the panhandle in Oklahoma ended up in Wichita a couple of weeks ago because no space was available in northern Texas or in all of Oklahoma. The hospital quit accepting transfers two days later.

Dr. Kevin Ard, an infectious disease expert, said the mortality rate due to COVID-19 had declined with improved treatment methods and because the population of patients had gotten younger.

“Younger people are, as a group, less likely to have severe disease or die if they contract [COVID-19],” he said.

Rogers said physicians were just starting to understand some of the post-infection problems related to COVID-19. He said patients have anything from chronic fatigue to myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle.

Ard said he was optimistic that a vaccine would be available soon. He said distribution of a vaccine could pose an even greater challenge.

Rogers said he would be at the front of the line to get a vaccine when it’s available. He said he was worried about a certain portion of the population who won’t get vaccinated.

Rogers said about half of the emergency room patients were COVID-19 related, and he’s seen people as young as 2 weeks old and as old as 100. He said people were contracting the virus at weddings, church functions and family gatherings. He said he felt disheartened when he saw restaurant parking lots full of cars last week.

“The last couple of shifts I saw nurses crying, both shifts,” he said. “People are tired. They’re under a lot of stress.”

Rogers said COVID-19 was mirroring the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Cases of the Spanish flu were relatively low before the number exploded in the fall. He said people then also didn’t heed the warning of how serious it was.

“Epidemiologists would tell you that this has been fairly predictable,” he said.

Rogers said COVID-19 wouldn’t be out of control in the United States if everybody wore a mask and practiced social distancing. He noted that Taiwan, which has nearly 24 million inhabitants on an island, had fewer than 10 COVID-19-related deaths

Rogers said the response to COVID-19 in the United States should have been on a level similar to how the national pulled together for World War II. He said the nation should be drowning in COVID-19 tests, but there never was a national strategy for making them readily available.

“It’s really a disgrace,” he said. “It’s a sad statement where our country is right now.”