Kansas hospitals buckle, schools pull back amid virus surge

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Hospitals across Kansas are buckling as coronavirus cases swell, leading many schools to scale back in-person learning and one county to intensify plans for a possible field hospital.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment added 5,939 cases to the state’s pandemic tally since Wednesday, bringing the total to 134,533. The state’s seven-day average of new cases now stands at 2,718, nearly four times higher than it was a month ago. The number of COVID-19 related deaths also rose by 84 to 1,410.

“Case increases are the worst we have seen since the pandemic began,” Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly told local officials and legislators during a call Friday as the state’s seven-day average for new hospitalizations and deaths jumped to record highs. “Our hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. Health care workers are burned out.”

In rural western Kansas, ten of the 25 beds at Kearny County’s critical access hospital are filled with COVID-19 patients, and the number of people seeking testing at the adjoining clinic has doubled over the past week to about 80 per day, said Dr. Lane Olson, a family practice physician who works there.

“We are getting a lot of positives,” he said. “And we know that as we see an increase in positives, typically hospitalizations follow seven to 10 days after that.”

He said nurses had to make multiple calls Tuesday before the University of Kansas Hospital, which is about 360 miles (579 kilometers) away in Kansas City, Kansas, agreed to take one of his coronavirus patients whose oxygen levels were falling. They subsequently made several more calls to find an air transport company that could fly her there.

The hospital doesn’t have the capacity to put patients on ventilators but can manage some patients on BiPAP machines, which are similar to the devices used to treat sleep apnea. With just three or four nurses per shift, even that is a stretch, he said.

“We call it our mini ICU,” he said. “Things we would never have dreamed of keeping here, we are keeping here because we know if we can keep people here as long as we can, maybe we can keep some of the burden off of the tertiary care centers.”

In Topeka, the emergency department at Stormont Vail Hospital has taken over a back hallway and a waiting room, with some patients waiting hours before they can be moved to a regular room. The overall number of COVID-19 patients has hovered around 90 all week, but it’s been a constant churn. Sixty coronavirus patients have been admitted since Monday and six have died, said spokesman Matt Lara.

Those figures have area officials looking more intensely into turning an events center into a potential location for a field hospital that could house overflow COVID-19 patients, said Errin Mahan, acting director of Shawnee County Emergency Management.

“Who knows in a week what is going to happen with the virus,” he added. “It is a very fluid situation.”

In nearby Douglas County, where the University of Kansas’ main campus is located, a health order took effect Friday that reduced the mass gathering limit to 10 people from 15.

Meanwhile, with growing numbers of school employees isolated because of infections or quarantined because of exposure, districts have been forced to make changes. Several in the Kansas City area, including Shawnee Mission, Olathe, Blue Valley, De Soto and Spring Hill, announced plans to move instruction entirely online for middle and high schoolers after Thanksgiving break, while allowing younger students to continue learning in classrooms.

The Wichita district, which is the state’s largest with about 47,000 students, halted plans to bring older students back for hybrid in-person instruction amid the surge. The district also warned elementary parents this month that classes may be shifted online because more than 1,000 employees are quarantined, spokesman Susan Arensman said.

The Topeka district also cited staffing issues in making the switch to remote learning this week.

Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas NEA, said he is “absolutely” concerned about what will happen after Thanksgiving.

“Everyone needs this time to be together,” he said. “But the virus thrives in that condition.”

Districts already were struggling. Amid the pandemic, they have seen their enrollment tumble, falling statewide by 15,670 students to 476,432 as some parents opted to homeschool their youngsters or keep them at home an extra year before starting kindergarten, according to preliminary data from the Kansas State Department of Education.

The enrollment drop means districts will loose out on some of the extra money they receive for things like teaching students who are learning English as a second language or who come from poor homes. Districts will avoid larger hits, however, if their enrollment rebounds by the fall.

Lawrence was anticipating a loss of $1 million to $1.5 million in state funding, said Kathy Johnson, the district’s executive director of finance. She said the district did have some reduced transportation expenses because it began the year entirely online but also has seen sanitization costs rise.

“Hopefully the virus goes away enough that people are comfortable coming back to school,” she said of next fall. “That’s the challenge; we’re not really sure.”


John Hanna in Topeka contributed to this report.

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