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KC area medical officers plea for residents to curb COVID

Jeff Fox
The Examiner

Hospital leaders say the Kansas City area is not far from experiencing the spread of COVID-19 at levels seen recently in Florida and other hot spots. They urge people to embrace the basics of controlling respiratory disease – face masks, hand washing and social distancing.

“We have the power to change that outcome,” Dr. Steven Stites, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Health System, said in a virtual gathering of hospital chief medical officers and others Wednesday.

Dr. David Wild, of the University of Kansas Health System, said area hospitalizations are at their highest point of the pandemic so far. He said the area did a good job initially – when stay-at-orders were in place in the spring – of bending the curve of COVID case growth, but cases in the Kansas City area are now approaching exponential growth.

“And that’s not something any of us want,” Wild said.

The doctors took pains to say they were not advocating specific policies but noted that several local elected officials attended virtually. The meeting was convened by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. 

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, visited Kansas City recently and bluntly warned local officials that Missouri and Kansas are on track toward uncontrolled spread of the disease, greatly increasing the burden on area hospitals just as caseloads will be rising during the upcoming cold-and-flu season.

“You don’t want to be the Southeast. You don’t want to be Georgia, you don’t want to be Florida, but you are headed that way, and if you don’t do something it’s going to compromise your ability to deliver care,” Stites said Birx told area leaders.

Birx also drove around the Kansas City area, Stites said, and observed that people are still not masking up, not staying socially distant and not avoiding large gatherings.

Birx had recently been to hard-hit states such as Arizona, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, California and Texas.

“Those states were in the middle of uncontrolled spread of the virus, and they were implementing more vigorous measures to regain some control of the situations in their states,” said David Alvey, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.

“In her message to us, Dr. Birx related the tremendous stress that uncontrolled spread had brought to a state’s health-care system, to emergency medical providers, to community health-care providers, to business leaders, to educational leaders, to families,” Alvey said. “Dr. Birx clearly advised that Kansas and Missouri would see the same trends of spread and experience those same stressors unless we learned lessons that all the others were learning. And the most important of those lessons is this: Take control, implement measures to get to the green zone, or the virus will take you to the red zone.”

A testing positivity rate of 10 percent or more puts an area in the “red zone” – meaning high levels of spread and risk – according to the White House. Kansas is at 16 percent, and Missouri is at 13.4 percent, according to Alvey. As of Monday, the Jackson County Health Department put Eastern Jackson County at 14.8 percent, down slightly from levels seen in recent weeks.

“The virus has taken us to the red zone,” Alvey said.

He added, “We can get to the green zone.”

The crisis presents schools with particularly complex and difficult decisions. Dr. Raghu Adiga, chief medical officer of Liberty Hospital, said the schools cannot solve a problem such as COVID that the community as a whole so far has not stepped up to solve.

Kenny Southwick, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, said the area could be on track to be where it was in the spring, when schools abruptly canceled in-person classes.

“ … we need this community’s help,” Southwick said.

Stites and others stressed that masks, hand washing and social distancing make a huge difference. Hospitals, which are full of COVID cases on top of their regular patient load, are COVID hotspots, but spread of the disease in those facilities has been nil because those measures are universally followed, he said.

“That’s the reality of taking precautions,” Adiga said.

Officials also stressed that keeping a lid on COVID is important for schools and for struggling businesses.

“When you do it right, you can keep things open,” Stites said.

Officials also tried to shoot down a couple of persistent myths about COVID.

“Again,” Stites said, “it’s not influenza. It’s a pandemic, and it’s real bad.”

“Children are not immune to COVID,” Adiga said, adding that young people account for the most quickly growing area of new infections and hospitalizations.

“We’ve also witnessed some sobering young deaths from COVID,” added Dr. Mark Steele, executive chief clinical officer of Truman Medical Centers/University Health.

Dr. Larry Botts, chief medical officer at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, stressed that many of those who survive the disease are left with long-term damage to their health: Pneumonia can scar the lungs and limit breathing capacity. COVID can affect the heart and even the brain. It can lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome. It can lead to clotting, which can then lead to strokes and other problems. 

“Mask up, keep your distance, wash your hands,” said Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease specialist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, echoing the protocols for controlling respiratory disease.

“These,” Adiga said, “are the most simple things that we have known for a number of years.”