Overwhelmed Kansas Hospital Runs Out of Space as Virus Death Toll Approaches 300,000

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In Kansas Hospital Runs Out of Space: Fatigue and frustration are setting in among frontline workers as hospitals across the United States convert chapels, cafeterias, waiting rooms, hallways, even a parking garage into patient treatment areas. The Rush County Memorial Hospital in La Crosse offers a picture of the depths of the Covid-19 crisis in rural America at a time when the virus is killing more than 2,000 people a day and drowning hospitals.

The number of people in hospitals presenting with Covid-19 has grown exponentially as the virus sidelines nurses, doctors and medical staff nationwide. However, the problem is particularly dire in rural communities like La Crosse because they don’t have as many places to send patients with regional hospitals full. Matters become worse recently when a doctor and physician assistant tested positive on the same day in November. This briefly left the hospital without anyone who could write prescriptions or oversee patient care. The hospital is full, but diverting patients isn’t an option because surrounding medical centers are overwhelmed.

A Last Line of Defense

The hospital’s radiology technician was forced to sleep in an RV in the parking lot of his rural Kansas hospital for more than a week because his co-workers were out sick with Covid-19, and no one else was available to take X-rays. Staff shortages have forced people like Eric Lewallen, a Gulf War veteran and alfalfa farmer who moonlights as a radiology technician, to mount a last line of defence. To keep the hospital open, he had no choice but to start living in his RV in the parking lot because he needed to be on site as the only remaining healthy staffer to perform X-rays. Lewallen said:

“I’m it, to keep a critical access hospital open, you have to have X-ray and lab functioning […] if one of those goes down, you go on diversion, and you lose your ER at that point. We don’t want that to happen, especially for the community.”

The out-of-control surge in infections has led governors and mayors across the U.S. to issue mask mandates grudgingly, limit the size of private and public gatherings ahead of Thanksgiving, ban indoor restaurant dining, close gyms or restrict the hours and capacity of bars, stores and other businesses. The nation’s largest in New York, with more than 1 million students recently suspended in-person classes amid a mounting infection rate, a painful setback in the corner of the country that suffered mightily in the spring but had seemingly beaten back the virus months ago.

Swamped With a Backlog of Patients

Texas rushed thousands of additional medical staff to overworked hospitals as the number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients statewide accelerates toward 8,000 for the first time since a deadly summer outbreak. In the worsening rural Panhandle, roughly half of the admitted patients in Lubbock’s two leading hospitals had Covid-19, and a dozen people with the virus were waiting in the emergency room for beds to open up.

Kansas’ Rush County Memorial Hospital had to close an attached clinic last November before reverting to a temporary staffing agency to keep the emergency room open after the doctor, and physician assistant tested positive for the virus on the same day. The nurse practitioner was also out on medical leave. Currently, a certified nursing assistant is quarantining, and at least two other nurses tested positive previously. The doctor and physician assistant returned after finishing their quarantine and were swamped with a backlog of patients.

Nowhere to Send Them

According to Michael Cooper, the hospital’s CEO, it was a stroke of luck that he could find anyone to fill in while they were gone, given the state’s hospitals’ level of strain. According to the Kansas Hospital Association, 42% of them are reporting staffing shortages. He said: 

“You go through your contingency plans, and in the back of your mind, you are thinking, ‘I am going to have to go on diversion and find a bed for these patients in a time where there are no beds to be found anywhere in the state […] that is the crisis that I was concerned about. If I can’t find a provider that can check on these patients, I will have to get rid of these patients. And there is nowhere to send them.”