Staff absences plague schools, health care amid COVID surge

isolation rooms University of Kansas Hospital.png
Posted at 1:48 PM, Jan 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-10 14:48:29-05

MISSION, Kan. — Employee absences fueled by a surge in COVID-19 cases are straining Kansas hospitals, schools and emergency services and raising questions about whether some court trials might need to be delayed.

When students returned from break last week in the Wichita school district, 1,274 of the district's 47,000 students and 399 of the district's 7,600 employees weren't in school because they had been exposed to the virus. That's more than three times the amount of students and seven times as many staff members who were quarantining in late November.

There were also 172 positive cases among staff members, up from 13 in the week before the break. Some central office staff members with teaching degrees are helping out in schools, said Susan Arensman, a district spokesperson.

"We have to be creative," she said.

The situation has led the Kansas State Board of Education to announce that no in-person attendees will be allowed at its meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The number of patients continues to climb at the University of Kansas Hospital, hitting 162 on Monday. Among them, 119 are still in the infectious phase of the illness, a record amount for the hospital since the start of the pandemic. On top of that, 850 employees were out over the weekend, either isolating because they were positive or because they were waiting for test results.

"So it's obviously a big number. We've got to supplant those individuals at the bedside in every way that we can," said Chris Ruder, the hospital's chief operating officer. That means surgeries and clinics have been canceled and staff is being shifted to bedside care.

Ruder attributed the strain to the highly contagious omicron variant.

"It is putting us in the situation we're in currently today without the ability to provide care across our country and in areas that patients need," he said.

In the Kansas City area, some paramedics are working 80 hours a week because so many employees are out sick, said Chris Winger, an EMS battalion chief who supervises paramedics in Johnson County, Kansas.

"I can't emphasize this enough ... our crews are making huge personal sacrifices to make sure that when someone calls 911 that an ambulance is there," said Winger, who worked 78 hours last week.

Winger said some ambulance patients are being taken straight to the hospital waiting room.

"Emergency services is just very saturated right now," he said.

Since Dec. 1, Kansas has seen an average of 42 new hospitalizations a day, up from 27 in November, according to state health department data.

Last week, Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez expressed concern about continuing in-person court hearings as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

Valdez said in a news release that she was working to gather input from the public on whether they felt comfortable participating in in-person hearings amid the current surge of cases.

Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, said employers are having to make tough decisions and take precautions like requiring masks again.

"And the bottom line is if we don't do this and we let the spread continue, you're going to see the notes on the door that say, you know, we've had to close down because we don't have the staff," he said.