The rapidly escalating surge in COVID-19 infections across the U.S. is once again overwhelming our hospitals, taxing overworked doctors and nurses, and worrying physicians who haven’t yet recovered from the pandemic’s debut in 2020.
The only exit strategy out of this vicious cycle is vaccination, said Garold Minns, MD, Sedgwick County’s public health officer, who urged Sedgwick County commissioners this month to reinstate a countywide mask mandate. Physicians are key, he said. Minns is urging doctors to step up their involvement in educating and encouraging their patients to get the vaccine.
“We’re the ones who are supposed to believe in science and in doing the things to slow disease down,” Minns said. “Please ask yourself, what have you done to help slow this down? What more can you do on the committees you sit on, the patients you talk to or the boards you’re on? Don’t look to the health officer to be the only one doing it. What can you do?”
Sedgwick County’s positive test rate is trending back up toward 10% and hospital ICUs are full again with COVID patients. Earlier this month, hospital chief medical and clinical officers from Wichita and surrounding hospitals convened in a virtual roundtable to sum up how COVID-19 cases were again wreaking havoc with resources while creating statewide transport issues and exacerbating staffing challenges.
Hospital beds are at capacity in Wichita, and doctors are treating younger patients with even more severe symptoms than were seen in the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. Most COVID patients seeking hospital care are unvaccinated. Ascension Via Christi reported about 95% of its COVID-positive patients were unvaccinated while Wesley Healthcare reported 97%.
“We have, unfortunately, seen more deaths in this recent rise,” said Sam Antonios, MD, chief clinical officer for Ascension Via Christi. “That is concerning to our staff. We really want to urge the community to take steps so this doesn’t continue. These deaths for the most part are now preventable.”
The delta variant, a more contagious version of the original COVID-19 virus, now accounts for 80% to 90% of new COVID-19 infections, Antonios said. COVID-19 positive cases in Sedgwick County have skyrocketed to more than 1,000 this month, up from 131 in June, county health data shows.
Hospitals are feeling the strain. Earlier this month, as a snapshot, Wesley Healthcare reported 96 positive and suspected COVID-19 cases with 39 in the ICU and roughly 15 on vents.
“The data shows this has shifted to a younger age group, particularly the 34-55 age group,” said Lowell Ebersole, DO, chief medical officer for Wesley. “They are comprising 31% of hospitalizations since May, as well as 30% mortality. In short, patients are unvaccinated, sicker and staying longer at our facility.”
As COVID-19 cases rise, hospitals are seeing critical patients on hold in the emergency rooms for hours waiting on ICU beds, impacting the movement of both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients who need critical care. Hospitalists are stepping into the ERs to care for patients waiting on beds.
Data from Motient, software funded by KDHE that tracks hospital bed capacity throughout Kansas, began indicating a shortage of available beds throughout the state by the end of July. It has caused significant delays in placing patients with critical needs, including heart attacks and strokes, Motient founder Richard Watson, MD, said.
“We are now more critical than we were even at the height of the surge,” Watson said. “It is significantly affecting our ability to transfer people who have very time-critical conditions.”
Minns is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He said he desperately wants to stem the advance of the delta variant, but he also has no desire to see the entire city shut down again. By far, the best way to control that is through vaccination, but until that happens, Minns strongly recommends people mask up in public spaces.
“I know shutdowns hurt people. I know shutdowns lead to unemployment. I know all that, so I don’t want to go there,” Minns said. “But masks don’t hurt anybody. They do not shut down businesses. They do not cause illness. It’s an inconvenience and can be an annoyance. But I’d much rather be annoyed than a patient in the hospital. All you have to do is put it on. We need you, physicians, to help share this, and to encourage people to get vaccinated.”
Hopefully, vaccine messaging will get easier with the FDA approval on Aug. 23 of the first COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine, known as the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, will now be marketed as Comirnaty for the prevention of COVID-19 disease in individuals 16 years of age and older, FDA officials said. The vaccine also continues to be available under emergency use authorization for people 12 and older, and for the administration of a third dose in certain immunocompromised individuals.