‘People waiting on gurneys’: Doctors, nurses explain what it’s like inside Kansas City hospitals

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Full hospitals, exhausted workers and long wait times are scenes in hospitals across Kansas City, according to doctors and nurses.

More than half of the people hospitalized in Kansas City are there for reasons other than COVID-19, but health experts said every person hospitalized because of the virus is delaying care to other patients with serious illnesses and injuries.

The University of Kansas Health System said the issue isn’t just happening at one hospital. It’s happening at every hospital in the metro.

“The problem is that it’s not just a COVID patients who pay that price, every patient pays that price, because you can’t be seen in an expedited fashion in the emergency rooms, which is by very definition supposed to be taking care of the emergent problems,” Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said Wednesday.

According to the Mid-America Regional Council, there are just 90 ICU beds left in the entire Kansas City metro. The number dropped from 101 beds last week.

Doctors report hospitals are so full, they’ve had to turn away heart attack and stroke patients this week. They’ve also passed on treating people suffering from other injuries and illnesses. When that happens, ambulances drive around until they can find a hospital to treat the patient, according to doctors.

“It doesn’t allow us to get to patients with especially time-sensitive diagnosis, like strokes, and heart attacks, and sepsis. We can’t get to you fast enough. So I think we start to back up, and when we do that, care is delayed,” Stites said.

KU Health System said it can’t staff all of its operating rooms. Others hospitals are so overwhelmed, doctors said they’ve closed their emergency departments. But staff said that tactic doesn’t help the long-term issue.

“You can try to close to ambulances, but once a couple of hospitals close, everybody has to be back open again,” Stites said. “We didn’t suddenly create more rooms. We didn’t create more staff. We don’t have more doctors. We don’t have more beds. We have people waiting on gurneys in the hallways to be seen. And that’s where we are.”

The hospital is so short on staff that doctors find themselves doing things in regular hospital rooms that previously would only be allowed in ICU.

“We allow ourselves now to do more therapeutics that were once only given in ICU we’re able to do on the floor now. So I mean, it really just stretches out across the hospital as a whole from that ICU to the floors,” Dr. Chris Brown with University of Kansas Health said. “Everybody’s stretched thin.”

So why is it so different at Kansas City hospitals now than it was a year ago? Hospital leaders said it’s simple.

“In the fall of last year, there just weren’t as many people in the hospital. First of all, they’d been distancing and masking, and so other diseases weren’t as active like RSV and things of that nature. We didn’t have as many heart attacks and strokes. We’re just we’re just we’re just full. We’re full of all sorts of patients, and I think that’s what our struggle is across the city,” Stites said.

KU Health said it also canceled a lot of elective surgeries last fall, instead using resources and beds to treat patients hospitalized with COVID-19. It said other hospitals took the same approach. Doctors say they don’t have that option this time around.

“We have been reluctant to cancel surgeries because all of us across the healthcare industry have taken our easier surgeries and put them into ambulatory surgery centers, so they’re not in the hospital anymore,” Stites said.

The other struggle is that the number of nurses and support staff at hospitals has dropped dramatically throughout the pandemic. Hospitals said their employees are all stretched thin, and there just aren’t enough to go around.

“It’s like a snowball effect of the negative implications of too many people, no beds, not enough space,” Casey Pickering, ICU Nurse Manager at the University of Kansas Health System said. “Now they’re just being pushed to the point that they’re like, I thought that the end was in sight. And now it feels like the end is not in sight and the impacts that it has on their life.”

With the number of COVID-19 cases heading straight up, experts say it’s time to again band together and flatten the curve. They say the only way to do that is to wear masks and get vaccinated.

If you are looking for a place to get a COVID shot, text your zip code to GETVAX (438829) for information about the closest place to get a vaccination. The option is also available in Spanish by texting a zip code to VACUNA (822862).

You’ll receive a text with several locations in your area providing vaccines. You’ll also be told which vaccine is available, and information about making an appointment, or if you can simply walk-in for a shot.

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