The numbers of COVID patients at The University of Kansas Health System are holding steady today. 36 patients with the active virus are being treated, down from 37 yesterday. 16 of those patients are in the ICU, down from 17 yesterday. Nine of those patients are on ventilators, down from ten yesterday. 23 other patients are still hospitalized because of COVID but are out of the acute infection phase, the same as yesterday. That’s a total of 59 patients, down from 60 yesterday. HaysMed has six patients today, up from five yesterday.
Today, another episode of Open Mics With Dr. Stites. It’s a chance every Wednesday for Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System, to bring us up to date on all things COVID, and dive deep into other medical topics, as well as answer media and community questions. Today’s conversation was the impact COVID is having on rural communities. Guests were Dr. Michael Kennedy, recently retired Associate Dean of KU Rural Medical Education, Dr. Robert Moser, Dean of the KU School of Medicine in Salina, and Jodi Schmidt, Executive Director of the Care Collaborative.
Before getting to the main topic, doctors addressed several media questions, mostly around new masking guidelines just released by the CDC. The latest heat map published by the New York Times clearly shows Missouri and now eastern Kansas at the epicenter of the latest outbreak. Doctors say from a medical standpoint, masking indoors for all is absolutely needed in this area, which is why the city of Kansas City, MO is reinstating the mask mandate starting next Monday. They remind those vaccinated who are questioning the need for a mask that you can still transmit the disease. While vaccines are proven to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death, it’s still possible for vaccinated people to get the virus, though their symptoms will be much less. The health system is planning for a crunch of patients and the possibility of returning to the days of canceled elective surgeries and having to turn patients away. Right now they say the numbers are stable, but worry about a big increase in the next two weeks. To those frustrated because they have been doing the right thing, they say “hang in there.” Dr. Stites says to remember with freedom comes responsibility to our fellow humans. He says it’s easy to become frustrated by those who refuse the vaccine. But he says, “We’re all in it together at the end of the day. Instead of being angry, let’s be persuasive. Let’s talk and have a good, honest conversation.”
Jodi Schmidt says the Care Collaborative, which advises and supports healthcare providers and facilities in smaller Kansas communities, had to make a very quick pivot in order to focus their efforts on helping fight COVID in rural areas. Federal money has helped bring telehealth to smaller communities. They also began a remote patient monitoring program for high-risk homebound rural patients. Plus, they began a program which made it much easier for air ambulance providers to transport patients. She says COVID has been a challenge, especially financially, for many rural hospitals, and some have not survived. She adds data shows Kansas among the top three states at risk. In her words, “What happens in the Kansas City area may spread to our more rural communities so we’re doing all we can to continue to help those communities prepare by sharing the resources of our academic medical center with all of those across the state.” She says the Care Collaborative is very excited about the future of rural healthcare.
Dr. Moser said COVID was slow to come to rural Kansas, but really exploded when it did. He’s proud how county health agencies and rural providers ramped up their responses to help their communities with limited resources. They were aggressive in being among the first to use monoclonal antibodies to help those already infected and says telehealth has made a huge difference in connecting patients with vital healthcare. He addressed the question of whether folks in small communities are taking the town doctor’s advice when it comes to COVID vaccination. He says it’s no different than when they advise wearing a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle, or wearing a seat belt in a car. Not everybody takes the advice, but he feels some small towns are having higher rates of vaccination thanks to these one-on-one talks with someone they know and trust.
Dr. Kennedy recently retired from the KU Medical Center. He built up and oversaw the program that requires all fourth-year medical students to spend one month living in and working with a doctor in a small Kansas town. Many opt to stay and begin their medical careers in a place where they can really get to know their patients. He praised what he calls the extraordinary response of newly graduated doctors who spread across the state last summer to offer clinical help to small towns. He feels the biggest challenge is keeping some rural health systems financially afloat. He also calls the common myth that rural medicine is not as challenging or rewarding as an academic medical practice, “total bunk.” He says some of the most talented physicians have chosen a rural career because it can be intellectually challenging and tremendously rewarding. He half-jokingly says he retired at the wrong time because of the recent uptick in students who want to know their patients and develop long-term relationships in small communities, something they can’t always do in the big city.
Dana Hawkinson, MD, addressed a question being asked more and more about the need for boosters for the COVID vaccine. He says the belief all along has been we will need some additional dosing. He feels travel is safe, as long as you wear a mask and eye protection if you’re on a plane. He adds it’s important to know where you’re going and what the level of the virus is there, and warns international travel might be a challenge, especially for getting back into the country. He says it’s wrong to suggest the Delta variant is less lethal and less dangerous than the original strain. Because it’s more transmissible, it makes it more dangerous. He admits doctors get frustrated at the lack of vaccinations, but vows they will continue to give the factual message every day with correct medical and public health guidance.
Thursday, July 29 at 8:00 a.m. is the next Morning Medical Update. We have details of a free upcoming cancer screening, and we'll keep following this surge including new masking guidelines.
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