Recently, hospital Chief Medical Officer Lowell Ebersole, DO, grabbed some trash bags, PPE and other supplies and began emptying trash cans and restocking shelves in patient rooms in the medical intensive care unit at Wesley Medical Center.
He and other hospital leaders have begun helping with some of the more menial tasks on the hospital’s busiest units, taking some of the burden off overtaxed and understaffed departments as hospitals battle the latest COVID-19 surge.
The University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita arranged some volunteer opportunities for its first-through fourth-year students at the behest of Ascension Via Christi to help with anything from screening at the front doors to emptying trash or administering vaccines.
Hospital systems in Sedgwick County are struggling with staffing shortages and a continuing stream of COVID-19 patients – more than 95% of whom are unvaccinated – wreaking havoc in crowded emergency departments, straining resources and sidelining hundreds of health care workers who are falling ill with the latest virulent strain.
Hospital leaders are working tirelessly and creatively to keep units staffed and patient flow moving while omicron spreads like wildfire across the state.
“Hospital capacity across Kansas is razor thin,” said Sam Antonios, MD, chief clinical officer for Ascension Via Christi. “The number of COVID-19 cases in our communities have exploded, driven by the overlapping waves of the delta and omicron variants. As a result, our emergency rooms and urgent and primary care clinics are busier than ever with cases of COVID-19.”
The current surge in COVID-19 patients continues to strain available staffing and resources. The shortage of qualified health care workers nationwide, coupled with an exponentially growing demand for care, is stretching hospitals’ capabilities to the limit, frontline doctors say.
By mid-January, Wesley and Ascension had reached record numbers of COVID-19 patients. Sedgwick County’s 14-day average positive test rate also reached the highest level since the start of the pandemic.
Pulmonary and critical care physician Chloe Steinshouer, MD, paints a bleak picture. She regularly writes a COVID blog on social media, where she beseeches readers to “flatten the curve” by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask in public and engaging in social distancing.
“The hospital staff are overwhelmed, EMS services can’t keep up, schools are swamped with cases/exposures, and multiple industries are being crippled by a lack of healthy workers,” Steinshouer wrote on Jan. 13. “We are still seeing exponential growth in cases with increasing hospitalizations. … We don’t have the space or staff to take the tsunami of patients in the hospitals. This affects all health care and the system can no longer bend. It is breaking. People will die of preventable and treatable disease because of deluge.”
Hospital and health care workers have been on the front lines battling COVID-19 for nearly two years, and the pandemic has placed a significant toll on them, the American Hospital Association reported.
The staffing crisis is exacerbated by health care workers getting lured away for high-paying traveler jobs in other crisis states. Then there is the emotional toll. A year ago, health care workers were hailed as heroes. Today, many are fielding mistrust and even abuse by patients or their families.
“You’re putting yourself and your family in danger to take care of these people every day, and you have somebody questioning whether you’re trying hard enough to take care of them,” Steinshouer said in a Wichita Eagle story on Jan. 1. “And you’re working 12-, 14-, 20-, 24-hour days consistently and constantly for nearly two years.”
These health care workforce challenges are threatening hospitals’ ability to care for patients, the AHA reported. A Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll found that about 3 in 10 health care workers considered leaving their profession, and about 6 in 10 said pandemic-related stress had harmed their mental health.
“Some health care providers have had about all they can take and feel like they need to take a break for their own mental health,” said Garold Minns, MD, KUSM-W dean. “It’s been a very intense, long, drawn-out process, and I just think all of us have a breaking point.”
Hospital leaders say they are grateful for the continued collaboration among Wichita hospitals, physicians and other health care providers, and the grace they have shown one another that has become “one of the few bright spots during these extremely challenging times,” Antonios said.
“I could not be any prouder of our medical staff and everyone’s above-and-beyond contributions.”