Patients Dying Waiting for Hospital Treatment as Sick Staff Limits Available Beds

With hospitals in Kansas struggling to handle patient capacity with limited staffing as more health care workers are getting sick from COVID-19, emergency rooms are filling and people are dying waiting to be treated.

Dr. Richard Watson, the founder of Motient, which helps Kansas manage patient transfers, said patients in emergency rooms are drying at a five-fold increase as they waited to be moved to a different medical facility.

"Those patients are upwards 20 hours plus in the emergency room and then passing while waiting for transfer to another facility," he said.

The state is struggling with a surge of COVID-19 cases, and hospitals across the state are dealing with staffing problems as health care workers are calling out sick with the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said his hospital had 640 staff members call out sick. He said his hospital is treating three times the number of COVID-19 patients they were a month ago.

"This is hands down the toughest surge the medical community has had to face since the pandemic began in 2020," Stites said.

Dr. Jennifer Watts, the chief emergency management medical officer at Children's Mercy hospital, said she had 327 staff members out sick on Tuesday, but the number keeps increasing.

"It speaks truly to not challenging situations, but true crisis situations," Watson said.

Kansas Hospitals
With hospitals in Kansas struggling to handle patient capacity with limited staffing as more health care workers are getting sick from COVID-19, emergency rooms are filling and people are dying waiting to be treated. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Hospitals across the state painted a dire picture Wednesday of worsening conditions as the highly contagious omicron variant collides with a delta surge. They urged public officials to require masks and impose emergency declarations that could free up more resources, saying they are struggling to keep up with the demand for testing and that surgeries are being delayed and clinics canceled.

Stites said his hospital is treating 128 COVID-19 patients and has deferred nearly 130 surgeries, including one to remove cancerous lung nodules, after staff members called out sick.

Kansas once again reported a record high for the average number of new cases a day over seven days, 4,311 for the seven days ending Wednesday, according to state data.

Salina Regional Health has been limiting surgeries because of a staffing crunch that has made it difficult to keep up with the surge in patients and demand for testing, said Dr. Robert Freelove, the hospital's chief medical officer.

He said another hospital official recently sent him a note expressing thanks that the Salina hospital had accepted a patient who was having a heart attack. The official told Freelove that two patients had died in the past two weeks while waiting to be transferred.

"We didn't have room," Freelove said. "Nobody had room and those patients died non-COVID-related deaths that probably could have been prevented."

HCA Midwest Health is treating a pandemic-high 250 COVID-19 patients at its Kansas City-area hospitals, said Dr. Kim Megow, the chief medical officer. She said the emergency departments are slammed and at least 190 workers had called out sick so far Wednesday.

"And as we track that we see no end yet, no peak," she said, adding that the hospital is canceling surgeries. "So it's still really climbing just almost vertically if you look at the charts."

Megow said an emergency declaration in Kansas as well as Missouri would be "extremely helpful," noting that it would allow hospitals to exceed their licensed capacity. She said it also would provide a pathway for the state to request help from the National Guard.

Children's Mercy is treating a pandemic-record 30 COVID-19 in-patients, nearly a third hospitalized in intensive care, said Watts.

Lawrence Memorial Hospital has close to 50 staff members who are sickened with COVID-19 and is canceling surgeries, said Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious diseases physician at the hospital and the deputy public health officer for Douglas County. She said drive-through COVID-19 testing is booked out and that staff is burned out.

"It is heartbreaking to look at that situation and think that we have to deliver substandard care," she said, "just to try to piece together, you know, care for our patients."

Stormont Vail Health in Topeka is helping smaller rural hospitals across the region manage some patients in their emergency departments as it deals with a rise in cases and staff absences that has limited its ability to accept them.

"It's just not possible to transfer those patients anywhere," said Dr. Kevin Dishman, the hospital's chief medical officer.

Hays Medical Center declined 300 transfers over the past month, said Dr. Heather Harris, the medical director there.

"That breaks my heart," she said, noting that small rural hospitals with no specialists are caring for patients they are ill-equipped to handle. "Care is already being put at risk."

Ascension Via Christi is treating 110 COVID-19 patients at its Wichita hospital alone, said Dr. Sam Antonios, the chief clinical officer. He said hospitals need help.

"Right now, I think a lot of health officials feel like they don't have a lot of authority, and that is something that I think the state could consider," Antonios said. "So flexibility, regulatory flexibility, but also providing some support to public health officials."

Governor Laura Kelly has been monitoring the hospital capacity situation, said her spokesperson, Sam Coleman. He said she is reviewing short-term measures and longer-term solutions that would require legislative action.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.