KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City-area hospital leaders are expected to call for new mask mandates, one top hospital official said Thursday, as the region grapples with an influx of COVID-19 patients that’s nearing a crisis point.
Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, used blunt language to describe the problems confronting hospitals across the metro, which boil down to too many patients and too few beds.
“We are past the tipping point. We are in trouble,” Stites said.
He described a Thursday morning call between area chief medical officers in which the hospital leaders were in agreement about mandates.
“I think you are going to find the chief medical officers are going to call for a reinstitution of the mask mandates and social distancing because we had that discussion this morning and we were all in favor of it because we’re in trouble in the hospitals,” Stites said during KU’s morning briefing.
A return to mandatory masking would mark a new turning point in the pandemic and amount to a stark acknowledgment the region has lost ground in the fight against the virus.
Kansas City lifted its mask mandate in May and Johnson County ended its own rules in April. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most situations.
But Missouri, along with Arkansas, is at the epicenter of a severe outbreak driven by the highly-contagious delta variant. Rising cases and hospitalizations, for a time centered in southwest Missouri, are spreading to more parts of the state, including the Kansas City region.
The rolling average of daily new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Kansas City area has risen from a low of 39 on June 8 to 94 on July 20, according to data from the Mid-America Regional Council, or MARC. Across the region, 82 ICU beds were available on Wednesday.
While COVID-19 hospitalizations in the metro haven’t reached their winter peaks, the current spike is placing additional pressure on the health care system because more people are hospitalized for non-COVID reasons now than in the winter. On Wednesday, Stites said the University of Kansas Health System was turning down transfer patients because its beds are full.
“We have a severe shortage of in-patient beds and that shortage is throughout our community,” Stites said.
He also raised the possibility of asking state officials to provide additional resources. Local officials in Springfield asked Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to fund an alternative care site to help treat the inflow of virus patients.
“We saw in Springfield, they tried to put a field hospital up — and maybe we could be getting close to that,” Stites said.
Hospital leaders, who cannot themselves issue mandates, will have to build support for the idea with elected leaders and public health officials in order to obtain a second mandate. Officials would almost certainly face intense blowback from some portion of their constituents against any new order, especially after going months without one.
Morgan Said, a spokesperson for Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, said Thursday that Kansas City Health Department Director Rex Archer had not approached the mayor with a recommendation for a mask mandate.
“We continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 variants and are in regular communication with our local and federal health experts, and will continue to rely on their guidance,” Said said in a statement. “We cannot emphasize enough the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine to protect all in our community — and encourage those who haven’t yet been vaccinated to make a plan to do so.”
On July 16, MARC issued a health advisory on behalf of chief medical officers in Leavenworth, Johnson, Wyandotte, Clay, Cass, Platte and Ray counties urging people to get vaccinations if they haven’t already done so. Those who don’t have a vaccine were recommended to wear masks in indoor places, according to the advisory.
MARC data showed that only 38.9% of those on the Missouri side of the Kansas City region had completed vaccination, which is lower than the statewide vaccination rate of about 40%. The data also showed the Kansas side of the Kansas City region did better with 48.2% completing vaccination.
In Johnson County, health officials have not signaled a return to a countywide mask mandate.
“Cases are increasing rapidly, driven largely by the delta variant. Johnson County Department of Health and Environment is concerned about this,” county health director Sanmi Areola said in a statement to The Star. “Our goal is to continue to make decisions that protect our residents using the options that are feasible and effective. However, we are not currently considering reinstating the mask mandate.”
In late April, Johnson County ended its mask mandate as new COVID-19 cases remained relatively low. Officials instead strongly recommend residents to get vaccinated, social distance and continue to follow other safety protocols.
“Our last direction by the (county) commission was that folks should follow the guidelines offered and outlined by the CDC. So whether it’s schools, business, etc., that encouragement remains,” Johnson County Chairman Ed Eilert said Thursday.
But Areola warned of spiking COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, saying that the increase is “eclipsing where we were in July through September of last year.”
More than 50% of eligible people are fully vaccinated in Johnson County. And Areola said the vast majority of new COVID-19 infections are occurring in unvaccinated residents.