OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Exhausted and frustrated doctors joined Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly for a press conference Friday at Saint Luke’s South Hospital, urging unvaccinated people to reconsider amid the latest COVID-19 surge.
Dr. Andrew Schlachter, a pulmonary and critical-care specialist who serves as the medical director of the Marion Bloch Neurosciences ICU for Saint Luke’s Health System, issued a dire warning.
“I do not know a hospital or a system in our entire region that is not in or near crisis related to staff, available beds or both,” Schlachter said.
Kelly said more COVID-19 patients were admitted to Kansas hospitals Wednesday than on any other single day during the pandemic. She stressed that her concern isn’t a political calculation but reflects the reality of an ongoing public-health crisis.
Schlachter, who was born and raised in the Kansas City area and returned to practice medicine in the area after completing his residency in Chicago, agreed.
“I’m not here today to incite fear, argue politics or discuss data,” he said. “I do, though, want to give you a very real glimpse of what hospitals in our area, including mine, are dealing with. In short, Kansas City’s ICUs are in a state of crisis. Different though than in 2020, our units are filled with young, healthy and far too many pregnant patients.”
He said “almost the entirety” of patients currently in the ICU are unvaccinated people under the age of 60 and described the tragedy unfolding in hospital rooms across the Kansas City area dozens of times each week.
“Our teams have these last conversations,” Schlachter said. “We tell patients we will do our best, and we will never leave them alone. They will die, though, holding our nurse’s hand with families begging, but not able, to be there with them.”
He and his staff have listened to final phone calls between loved ones against a backdrop of frustration.
“Overwhelming, severe disease and death can be prevented through safe and effective vaccination,” Schlachter said.
Doctors and nurses who treat COVID-19 patients are experiencing “battle fatigue” and “are exhausted,” Schlacter said.
“There is a growing sense of hopelessness that is emerging in hospitals here in Kansas City and across the country — hopelessness because this is not ending, hopelessness because we are not feeling as if we’re being heard about how bad things are, and that we’re still seeing too many people choosing unwisely to remain unvaccinated,” he said.
Kelly urged unvaccinated Kansans to listen to the medical community about the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.
“I implore unvaccinated people to think about these doctors and nurses, your neighbors and your friends, your children and your teachers,” Kelly said.
Schlachter passionately argued for commonsense to prevail.
“This is my home; this is my community,” he said. “Taking care of you is what I have chosen for my life’s path. It is my purpose, and I don’t know how to do anything else better than that. Never, in my entire life, have we needed help more. Kansas City’s medical community needs your help. I need your help. All parents of children not eligible for vaccination, like mine, need your help.”
Dr. Dena Hubbard, a pediatrician specializing in neonatology at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said the situation is no less heartbreaking at the region’s main hospital for kids.
“Unlike during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, there are significantly more children being hospitalized for COVID-19 infections amid the latest surge,” Hubbard said.
That includes infants, unable to breathe on their own being placed on ventilators and mothers forced to deliver a baby prematurely before being placed on special machines or, in some cases, dying from COVID-19.
“I’m here today to ask Kansans and our neighbors in Missouri to do two things,” Hubbard said. “And I’m asking you to do them, not only for yourself, but for your friends, your family and your neighbors.”
She urged the public to get vaccinated — which is the best defense against severe disease, hospitalization and possible death — and wear masks around other people.
“It’s a small price to pay to save a baby's life,” Hubbard said. “We have a chance to end this pandemic and slow the spread of COVID and variants that are emerging.”
The bottom line: It doesn’t have to be this way, but the fact is that it's pushing the region’s health care system — and, perhaps more importantly, it’s health care professionals — to the breaking point.
“The situation in Kansas is cause for real concern,” Kelly said. “Over the past several weeks, COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations of Kansas of all ages have risen exponentially. It shouldn’t be like this, but COVID-19 infections are more rampant today than they were before the vaccine was available. Not surprisingly, nearly all the people admitted to our ICUs with COVID-19 related issues are unvaccinated. Our health care system is being stretched to the max.”