Rural Kansas hospitals are struggling to transfer patients as COVID-19 numbers surge, with some patients left stranded in emergency rooms for a week while they wait for a bed.
Space also was in short supply last winter and again over the summer when the delta variant first hit the state. The situation improved slightly this fall, but now is worsening again, according to Motient, a company contracting with Kansas to help manage transfers.
And it isn't just rural hospitals looking for beds. Overwhelmed hospitals as far away as Minnesota and Michigan have been calling looking for beds in larger Kansas hospitals. Often there simply isn't room.
Dr. Richard Watson, founder of Motient, said Friday that the long-distance transfers and long waits for beds are sadly becoming commonplace as the pandemic ends its second year.
“There aren’t any more crazy stories," he said. “It’s already as crazy as it can be. When you are talking about moving people from Minnesota to Kansas City for treatment. It’s like Mayo Clinic in reverse."
Jesse Thomas, also of Motient, said that the percentage of hospitals needing help with transfers is higher than ever. He said Monday that it is taking an average of eight and a half hours from the time a smaller hospital starts looking for a bed in a larger hospital to when an ambulance or air transportation arrives, up from about five hours this summer. He noted that the 8 1/2 hours doesn't include the transport time to a new facility and stressed that half of patients are waiting even longer.
“When you see a patient that needs a higher level of care and the system doesn’t have the capacity for it and the patient waits for days," he said, “it is difficult for that patient. It is difficult for their family. That’s just becoming frequent and that is the crazy part because it used to be rare and now it's not rare."
Forty patients were on the board waiting to be transferred on Friday. Some have been languishing in emergency departments while they await transfers for days, sometimes more than a week, Watson said.
Watson said larger hospitals don't want COVID-19 patients unless they are really sick, adding that some are only accepting COVID-19 transfers if they need to be on a ventilator.
“They know that their beds are at a premium and they have to hold them for the people who need them," Watson said, adding that COVID-19 patients who just need oxygen wind up stuck. He said the shortage of beds and staff to care for patients also is stranding patients suffering from other health issues, such as heart attacks.
He said staffing shortages in nursing homes also are contributing to the bed shortage because it means there is no place to send patients who are improving but still need extra care.
“You can’t put somebody in that bed if they can’t clean it out," he said.
Dr. Jackie Hyland, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System's St. Francis campus in Topeka, complained about the problem nursing home shortages were causing on a recent call with Kansas and Missouri hospital officials.
“It causes a backup all the way through to our emergency room and holding emergency room patients there, preventing them from getting admitted to a hospital bed," Hyland said.
Watson said he has never seen a problem like this on such a broad scale.
“You may have a patient here or there that’s having a difficulty and the hospital may be in a tight spot, but to have the whole system with people just locked in place for days at a level of care, they really need to move out of, that’s a different world for us,” he said.
Watson said he anticipated that the capacity issues would only grow worse over the holidays.
“People expect there to be a different story," Watson said. “But you know, here we got it: It’s unvaccinated people. Omicron moves through. Nobody’s paying attention. They all want it to go away for Christmas. It’s not going away. Hospitals are full, getting fuller, probably worse than it was three or four weeks ago, maybe even a month ago, and yet we are still struggling with the messaging to a group of people who are in disbelief that there’s anything happening. I’m not sure how it works."
A handful of omicron cases have been detected in the state in recent days. The latest two were announced Monday in Wyandotte County in the Kansas City area. Health officials there said the infected people were fully vaccinated adults under the age of 40.