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10 Things KC Doctors Want You to Know About the Recent COVID Surge

‘This has been an ongoing marathon’

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Above image credit: Area doctors warn of hospitals filling up and want you to help stop the spread. (Collage: Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland)

Kansas City-area chief medical officers, infectious disease doctors and physicians united Dec. 17 to send an urgent message: help bend the curve. Their hospitals are full. 

They’ve seen coronavirus cases nearly triple compared to last year, spurred by the delta variant and, they predict, will be worsened by the omicron variant. 

Cases and hospitalizations are up, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review

Kansas City area hospital systems are reportedly overwhelmed, not just because of more COVID patients but also because they have less staff to care for sick patients. 

The latest variant is spreading more rapidly and ICUs are filling up. Some hospital floors, sources told Flatland, are operating with just two nurses during an overnight shift. 

One sobering message posted to the University of Kansas Health System Facebook page on Dec. 20 illustrates their urgency: 

As of 6:30 am:

68 total patients – 47 Active Infections, 18 ICU patients, 11 ventilators, 2 fully vaccinated

Last patient death: 12/18”

Here are 10 key takeaways:

#1 – Across hospital systems in Kansas City, roughly 80-90% of COVID admissions are unvaccinated. 

“Remember, this is truly a pandemic of the unvaccinated and it is a death march of the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System. “It’s not just about being hospitalized. It’s, ‘Who’s dying?’” 

Doctors noted that vaccinated people who are admitted because of the virus are not as likely to be placed on a ventilator, while chances of complications rise exponentially for unvaccinated folks who are admitted. So does the risk of death.

The doctors all said the vaccine plus a booster will help protect against severe infection, reducing the chance of complications.

Breakthrough infections can happen, according to a Mid-America Regional Council release

“When these breakthrough cases happen, the vaccines are highly effective at preventing the worst outcomes of COVID-19, including severe illness, hospitalization and death.” 

Plus, studies are showing that the booster further protects from infection.

To find a COVID-19 vaccine or testing location near you, visit PrepareMetroKC.org

#2 – There are more patients in hospital beds and emergency rooms, but not enough staff. 

“This has been an ongoing marathon of battling other conditions as well as COVID,” said Dr. Elizabeth Long at Olathe Health. “We are in this great pinch in that we don’t have the nursing staff to take care of these patients. They’re tired and they’re worn out. … We’re at a big crossroads. We all want to be done, but we’re not.”

Hospitals are seeing more folks admitted to the hospital for untreated health conditions, for winter viral infections and for COVID. They can’t keep up. 

“When we’re out of beds, we’re not out of beds just for COVID patients. We couldn’t find places to take care of trauma victims, stroke patients,” Stites added. “If our community chooses not to do that we will bear the consequences of it. 

“We can’t make more beds. All of our patients, all of our families will suffer.”

Many health care professionals are either retiring early or seeking opportunities outside of the health care system. For the past nearly two years, nurses and physicians have been battling the virus while juggling their own lives and working to treat their patients.

#3 – There’s a rise in COVID admissions among generally healthy and young pregnant people. This is also affecting infants. 

“We have seen quite a bit of really high acuity in those patients when they get COVID. We have had a number of them in the ICU. We’ve had a number of them have to deliver early and then the babies have to be in the NICU,” said Dr. Kim Megow, chief medical officer at HCA Midwest Health.

“Pregnant women can and should be vaccinated. We want to avoid an otherwise healthy person ending up in the ICU and having a premature baby.”

#4 – There’s a rise in admissions among folks, particularly veterans, with untreated illnesses. 

“The acuity among our non-COVID patients are higher,” said Dr. Elizabeth Long, chief medical officer at Olathe Health. “It is a stress on the whole system.” 

Long said during the pandemic many people “put off medical care.”

Dr. Ahmad Batrash, chief of staff at the Kansas City Veterans Administration Hospital, agreed. Batrash attributes delayed surgeries, doctor visits or important diagnostic treatment appointments. 

This issue has hit the veteran community the hardest.

“We’ve seen, really, a rise in acuity of our patients here,” Batrash said, citing a paper about the rise of cancer diagnoses during the pandemic. 

Non-COVID patients are being affected by COVID patients, both Batrash and Long said. And people who need treatment now aren’t getting what they need when they need it.  

“This is something real. These cancers don’t stop. That’s a big issue,” Batrash said. 

#5 – If a kid – who’s not yet eligible for a vaccine – is infected at daycare or school, that parent can’t go to work. What if that parent works in health care?

Doctors say this is causing a snowball effect as young children under 5 years old can’t get vaccinated against COVID. This is negatively affecting families who work in and outside of the health care field. 

Kids in congregate daycare settings may get infected and bring the virus home, which impacts the workforce – and health care – dynamics. 

If exposed or tested positive, parents and their children are forced to quarantine. That gets even more complicated if that parent works in a hospital setting. 

Dr. Jennifer Watts, chief emergency management medical officer at Children’s Mercy, emphasized that COVID doesn’t only affect their physical health but also their mental health, as well as development and nutrition status. 

This is why masking up in schools is important, she added.

“We do know masks work,” Watts said. “It scares all of us in the pediatric world that we’re going to see schools shut down and see so many kids out of school. We have a big plea to keep masking as much as possible.”


Interactive COVID-19 Tracker


#6 – Winter viral infections such as influenza are also on the rise.

People can die of the flu, said several infectious disease physicians. They said being mindful of influenza in light of the COVID pandemic is important.

The flu and RSV infections – which rose in August – are prevalent among younger children but can also affect vulnerable adults, especially seniors. Doctors advised repeatedly to get both the flu shot and COVID vaccines – this includes the booster for those who haven’t yet. 

“I watch people die of influenza every year,” said Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease physician, who recently saw her first combo COVID-Flu patient. She warned of the impending omicron wave as case counts of the delta variant continue to rise. Ultimately, her hope is to keep rates of the flu down to minimize complications.

“My other ask of my patients and community is to get your flu vaccine,” Watts added. 

For children who are not yet eligible for COVID vaccines, doctors advise they remain masked up and families be cognizant of public-facing activities.

Schrimsher also said to mask up indoors and outdoors to reduce the spread of all viruses. 

#7 Test the day of an event or gathering, infectious disease physicians advise.

Rather than test days before gathering with family or friends, test the day of the event. 

Clinics in Kansas City are offering free tests and primary care doctors can  also provide these tests. 

#8 Health care administrators, nurses and physicians are needing the public’s help to curb the spread of the virus. They are exhausted and need a break.

Dr. Lisa Hays, chief medical officer at AdventHealth, underscored this sentiment with a plea: 

“You come to us when you want to have a healthy baby, when you want to prevent a stroke, when you have a gunshot wound,” Hays said. “Trust us. We’re looking out for your best interest when we’re recommending these things like a vaccine and masking. 

“We are experts in preventing diseases. Just like when you trust us when you’re sick, trust us to prevent you from getting sick from COVID, too.”

#9 Despite mask mandates expiring, our community should continue masking up. 

“I think people are just tired and they want to be done with COVID-19,” Stites said. “The problem inside the hospitals is we’re tired of COVID-19. The problem is the way we’re tired is a little different.” 

Stites added that when people take their masks off it makes their jobs more difficult.

Dr. Raghu Adiga agreed and added that individual responsibility should expand to include those around us. Adiga understands that physicians aren’t the decision-makers but urged the public to see where he and his peers are coming from. 

“What (people in the public) see and what we see is a little different,” Adiga said. “We need to start looking at everyone else. 

“It’s not just ourselves. It’s our neighbors, it’s our family, it’s our grandparents. It’s everyone we see every day. We need to think a little bit more global.”   

#10 Infectious disease physicians advised altering holiday plans based on mixed-vaccination status among families and friends. Omicron is spreading rapidly, so assess individual and community risk, remain masked and test as needed. 

Schrimsher, an infectious disease physician, concluded: “I would be rethinking what you’re doing for the holidays. I would look for smaller gatherings, trying to stay with your own household. All the things we’ve been saying pretty much since day one.”

Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.

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