As COVID-19 cases rise dramatically across the Midwest, hospitals in Colorado and Nebraska are calling Kansas in desperate search of beds for new patients. But Kansas hospitals are asking them for the same.
November has brought on the strongest surge yet of the coronavirus across the region — and that’s before Thanksgiving gathers families together.
“The entire Midwest is on fire,” says Steven Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System.
Already, priceless hours slip away for deathly ill patients while doctors at smaller hospitals in Kansas place call after call seeking intensive care openings at larger facilities.
Searches can take several hours of calling around followed by hours-long ambulance rides.
“It’s not just COVID patients that can’t get transferred,” Stites said. “It’s a heart attack. It’s a stroke. It’s everything.”
In October, KU Health System turned away 140 transfers. The flood of requests has continued this month.
The calls for help come from across Kansas and Missouri, but also as far away as Arkansas, Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
“It’s a very scary situation,” says Justin Poore, a family physician in Concordia, Kansas. “We need help.”
Cloud County Health Center, where he works, called eight in-state hospitals for a recent patient. But people answering the phones in Salina, Topeka, Wichita, Manhattan and elsewhere all offered the same bad news.
The central Kansas hospital had to send its patient three hours by ground ambulance to Omaha, Nebraska. Because openings change daily, it had to repeat that search for the next patient, until finding them a spot in Lincoln, about a two-hour drive.
As it is, even if Kansans all stayed home starting tomorrow, the surge would likely continue for weeks because more cases are incubating and progressing to the point of hospitalization.
“We need our communities to wear masks,” Poore said. “We need our communities to stop these larger indoor gatherings.”
During most of the pandemic, he said, his county of about 8,700 people managed to avoid major COVID outbreaks. This month, it has seen 200 cases.
Statewide, Kansas just confirmed 18,000 in seven days. It’s among more than 20 states that have set fresh records for new COVID cases.
On an average day back in April, when Kansas was locked down, hospitals reported 104 hospitalized coronavirus patients to state health officials. The situation has worsened sharply in recent weeks, and the daily total topped 800 for the first time.
State health officials say some hospitals actually have open ICU beds. In effect, though, it doesn’t help because they lack enough nurses and doctors to function at full capacity.
Maj. Gen. David Weishaar told legislative leaders Friday that the Kansas National Guard isn’t pursuing the idea of field hospitals yet. There wouldn’t be enough health care workers to staff them anyway.
Some larger hospitals have opened overflow ICUs and scaled back elective care to make way for more of the critically ill.
Dozens of hospitals across the Midwest are postponing some elective surgeries to free up beds and protective equipment. Stormont Vail, the largest hospital in Topeka, is postponing some non-emergency surgeries that would take up beds overnight. KU Health System also has begun delaying some surgeries.
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving looms, with its prospect of even more people traveling and commingling. Across Kansas, tens of thousands of college students will head home from their campuses.
Stites fears Kansas City and surrounding areas are teetering on a cliff. Day after day, in video updates on Facebook, he begs the public to mask up for the greater good, and abide by social distancing.
“If you have a heart attack or a stroke, where are you going to go?” he pleaded recently. “If you’re in a car accident, you have a big trauma, and you need to go to the hospital, where are you going to go? If the hospital’s overwhelmed with COVID patients, where are you going to go?”
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.