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Rural, regional Kansas hospitals strained by COVID-19 surge

View of the Hays Medical Center in Hays, Kansas
View of the Hays Medical Center in Hays, Kansas(Tiger Media Network)
Published: Dec. 2, 2020 at 3:59 PM CST
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SALINA, Kan. (KWCH) - While hospitals in cities reach critical points with strained resources, staffing shortages, and concerns about overcrowding, rural and regional hospitals in Kansas face challenges of their own. On Wednesday (Dec. 2), the University of Kansas Health Systems hosted a meeting via Facebook Live to discuss what smaller hospitals in the state are up against.

The topic of Wednesday’s meeting with doctors for Hays Medical Center and the University of Kansas Health Systems was “How to handle the surge of COVID-19 patients in Kansas hospitals.” In rural counties across Kansas, case numbers and positive test rates have surged since October.

Hays Medical Center Medical Director Dr. Heather Harris said currently, the hospital’s staffed beds are full.

“Our average census for probably almost the last month just for COVID patients alone has been in the mid-30s, which is about almost half of our staffed bed,” Dr. Harris said.

Dr. Harris said Hays Medical Center sees patients from about 40 Kansas counties, but last month, the hospital had to turn away more than 100 patients.

“Just for the month of November, we’ve unfortunately had to deny 103 transfers from other hospitals, which is why you guys are seeing those transfers from even further,” Dr. Harris said during Wednesday’s virtual meeting.

She said most of the COVID-19 patients at Hays Medical Center are from counties without mask mandates.

“We’ve got a couple of counties that still don’t have a mask mandate and three or four of those counties alone have been almost 30 of our in-patients,” she said. “So I think that the rural folks need to really be cautious as well as wear masks and try to social distance and don’t gather in big groups and try to protect yourselves so you don’t get sick.”

In Wednesday’s virtual meeting, nurse Kevin Myers, who oversees infection and prevention at Hays Medical Center said the hospital’s staff is exhausted.

“It’s definitely a lot of fatigue, tired and the comment you kind of hear, everybody says, ‘When’s this going to be over,?’” Myers said. “But the care and the resilience of the ‘I know I’m important. I know I need to be there,’ is definitely forefront in the staff.”

It’s a similar situation at Liberal’s Southwest Medical Center.

“We actually have 24 designated Covid beds. So six in the ICU, which we call the Covid ICU, and then 18 on the medical floor, which we call Covid medical,” Southwest Medical Center Hospitalist Physician Dr. Akshath Kamath said. “So right now, we actually have seven patients in the Covid ICU. We have 25, so we’re using a non-Covid ICU room for Covid patients just because we’ve had so many patients coming in.”

Dr. Kamath said since the pandemic began, Southwest Medical Center is among the smaller hospitals that have taken in patients from other counties.

“During COVID times, we’ve had patients from Buffalo, Oklahoma, Canadian, Texas, a lot of these other places that we usually did not get patients from,” he said.

Buffalo is about 82 miles southeast of Liberal. Canadian is about 90 miles south.

Dr. Kamath said almost daily, Southwest Medical Center has to turn away patients from other counties because the hospital is at capacity.

“It’s kind of a domino effect. If we get a call and at that particular time we know about a discharge, we can accept that patient. But if we get a call and we have a patient in the emergency room with COVID, we have to take care of our emergency room patient first,” he explained.

Dr. Kamath said with staff members at the hospital also getting sick, it becomes increasingly difficult to care for more patients.

“In the past month or so, we’ve had an issue where some of the nurses got sick themselves and had to call in,” he said. “And then finding nurses to take care of these patients that are already here, and in some cases, having beds open, but not having the staff to take care of (more patients).”

For now, the hope for healthcare workers across Kansas and beyond is for people to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and to follow guidelines to safeguard against the virus.

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