A look at how many people are hospitalized in Kansas due to the COVID-19 virus

photo by: Associated Press

Buildings at the University of Kansas Hospital are seen, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Maybe you have numbers overload (eight hours of working a TV remote control to find there is still nothing on will do that to you.) But I know some of you feel like a key number has been lacking in all the reporting that has happened on the COVID-19 virus in Kansas.

How many people are hospitalized in the state due to the virus? several of you have asked.

The answer, at least on Wednesday, was four people. That isn’t information the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has been releasing as part of its daily briefing on statewide COVID-19 numbers. But on Thursday I asked KDHE if it was tracking the number, and spokeswoman Kristi Zears readily gave it to me. She said the department understood it was information the public may be interested in seeing.

“We are working to incorporate that into our updates moving forward,” Zears said via email.

I certainly have heard from some readers who want to know the number. They have pointed out that several states are touting the hospitalization rate as one of the most important pieces of data in monitoring progress or lack thereof.

New York state sounded some of its more optimistic notes recently. Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted on Sunday that the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 was doubling every two days; by Tuesday, hospitalizations were doubling every 4.7 days.

Yes, it is still bad news that the number of cases requiring hospitalization is growing, but it is good news — if it holds — that the growth rate is slowing. That may give New Yorkers some reason to be optimistic that their social distancing and other sacrifices are paying off.

But if you don’t have the data available, you can’t be optimistic. That’s why it is important to know that Kansas health officials are tracking the numbers and apparently are planning on releasing them to the public on a regular basis in the future.

But let’s turn our attention back to that number of four. First, let’s understand it. That doesn’t mean that only four people have ever been hospitalized in Kansas for COVID-19. The number represents how many were in the hospital for COVID-19 on that particular day. Some people, presumably, already have been treated and released. I, of course, don’t have that number, but when the state starts providing updates on hospitalizations, we’ll be able to see how quickly hospitalizations are rising or falling.

For the time being, though, at least one health leader is suggesting the number of four cases is encouraging.

“It is a pretty small percentage of people who are in the hospital,” Cindy Samuelson, vice president of member and public relations for the Kansas Hospital Association, told me. “That is a good story. We have people who are sick, but not very many who are sick enough to be in the hospital.”

I was talking with Samuelson because I was hoping to get another piece of data that some people have been seeking: the number of hospital beds that are available on any given day in the state of Kansas.

Some states have been releasing that number as part of their virus updates because a major concern has been that hospitals will be flooded with COVID-19 patients and will run out of room to provide care to other patients. Tracking the occupancy rate of hospitals in the state is one way to measure how close a state — or a city, if the numbers are broken out by city — is to that type of capacity problem.

Samuelson said the state’s hospitals did have a system in place that tracks those types of numbers in detail. It is the system that allows officials, for example, to make decisions about where to send patients if there is a multi-injury accident on I-70 or some other event that produces significant patient numbers.

Samuelson, though, said she couldn’t release those numbers to me, and she said it likely would be up to state officials to determine if they want to provide those statistics as part of their regular updates. For what it is worth, KDHE didn’t seem to have those numbers readily available, because the agency was the one that suggested I contact the hospital association.

But, at some point, we may get that type of data as well. At the moment, it probably isn’t critical to have. The fact that there were only four people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday is a sign that the state’s hospital system is not anywhere close to being strained as a result of the virus. Hospital leaders have acknowledged that too. Their concern about capacity is not what has happened yet but rather what may happen in the near future.

The hospital association also is working to get other types of data. For instance, the association will help gather data on the number of available ventilators in the state. “There are a lot of people interested in that number,” Samuelson said. The Kansas City Star reported earlier this month that 168 ventilators were available statewide, but it wasn’t clear how that number was determined.

Work already has taken place to track the number of negative air pressure rooms in hospitals, which are critical for quarantining patients. Again, that number hasn’t been released yet. A total number of intensive care unit beds in the state also was one that I wasn’t able to find readily.

But the Kansas Hospital Association did have some general hospital statistics that are worth reviewing. In 2018, there were 12,415 licensed hospital beds in Kansas. In terms of the number of beds that have staff available to attend to them, that number falls to 9,530 beds. Samuelson, though, noted that some hospitals had the space to have more beds than what they are licensed to have and could have their bed numbers boosted under emergency orders.

Tracking the capacity of hospitals across the state may become important in the future as hospitals in some of the larger communities might be strained. However, hospitals in other parts of the state might have empty beds. Would hospitals in those parts of the state be in a position to take COVID-19 patients to relieve strain in more populated areas of the state?

Samuelson wasn’t sure how that would work, as there certainly are some other considerations, such as the distance a patient would be from his or her home, to consider.

“If the entire KC metro area was full, they might start going north, east, south and west some,” Samuelson said.

But those are hypotheticals at the moment. As for the here and now, Samuelson said she was confident that hospitals in the state were on a firm footing to deal with the virus.

“There are many things hospitals have practiced for and, unfortunately, they are having to do them now,” she said. “But we are in a good place here because of the cooperation and agreements that we’ve had in place for a long time.”

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