JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri is reporting more than 4,000 new COVID-19 cases for the fourth time this week. With hospitalizations on the rise, mid-Missouri hospitals are struggling to find room for their patients.
Some hospitals in central Missouri are sending their patients to the metropolitan areas. The St. Louis Pandemic Task Force says 50 percent of COVID-19 patient beds are occupied with patients not from the St. Louis area.
It’s a challenge across the state for hospitals; they are running out of space.
“We’ve set a new record every day for the past 12 or 14 days,” Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Boone Hospital Center in Columbia Dr. Robin Blunt said. “In the last two weeks, there’s just been a dramatic increase.”
Blunt said Boone Hospital Center covers patients all the way from the Iowa border to the Lake of the Ozarks, and halfway to St. Louis and Kansas City.
“A vast majority of the people hospitalized in Boone County are not from Boone County, they are from our surrounding areas,” Blunt said.
According to the Boone County Health Department, of the 142 patients currently hospitalized in the county, only 29 of them are residents. Blunt believes not having mask mandates in the surrounding counties is to blame.
“Columbia has a mask ordinance and mandate and we’ve had one since May or June, but no other surrounding county has any expectation or mandates,” Blunt said.
Blunt says the hospital didn’t begin to see this surge in hospitalizations until last month.
“We did not get the spring surge that St. Louis and Kansas City area did,” Blunt said. “We started seeing just a small number of cases throughout the summer and no more than 10 to 12 patients at a time.”
Now, the hospital is sometimes transporting multiple patients to St. Louis or Kansas City a week.
“Now, if we are at capacity with our ICU, bed reasons or staff reasons, we can rarely find anything close and we are looking to St. Louis and Kansas City and frequently have to look at multiple places in those areas until we can find someone to take a patient,” Blunt said.
About 60 miles south near the Lake of the Ozarks, Chief Executive Officer of Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach Dane Henry said the rural 116-bed hospital has not yet hit full capacity.
“We are not having to transport patients at this point,” Henry said. “The only reason we would have to transfer a COVID patient to another facility is if we did not have the resources or the square footage or the staffing to deal with another patient.”
Henry said Lake Regional covers a large geography area of about 200,000 patients with the closest hospital about 40 miles away.
“Several months ago, when the pandemic first reached our community, we went out and we already had 12 ventilators, but we went out and rented additional ventilators,” Henry said. “We are well-staffed in the ICU and we are well-staffed in the upper respiratory therapy standpoint. Our staff is just tired, our doctors are tired, we all are tired. We just want to go back to a normal day of running a—well—fun and crazy hospital.”
Missouri Hospital Association said one of the largest challenges they are hearing is staffing troubles.
“There’s really not enough staffing to go around right now,” Vice President of the MHA Mary Becker said. “Nurses and other care givers for this patient population are really in short supply.”
Throughout the state, Becker says they are hearing of increases in cases and hospitalizations.
“Some difficulties or maybe increasing difficulties is to transfer patients from hospitals that may not have intensive care capabilities, so a little bit more challenging than normal,” Becker said. “You know at some point there has been discussion of creating alternate care sites, but the challenge there is really staffing.”
When asked if hospitals are overwhelmed, Becker says they are incredibly busy, and some would say they are overwhelmed, but don’t let that stop you from seeking medical attention.
“Hospitals are able to provide care, so don’t delay,” Becker said. “If you’re having chest pains or if you’re having a health issue, please seek care.”
Director of the Department of Health and Senior Services Dr. Randall Williams says the infection rate is now the same through all of Missouri’s regions.
“But I think what we are seeing in outstate Missouri, especially, is gatherings spreading the disease,” Williams said. “That I think that people in outstate Missouri saw it in urban Missouri—St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield—and thought, ‘that’s an urban disease.'”
Williams says back in March, April, and May, it was an urban disease because roughly 60 percent of the state’s cases were in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Springfield.
“So, what we are seeing is an increased number of hospitalizations throughout the state,” Williams said “We are seeing that in outstate and our rural hospitals because that creates problems because they often want to transfer their patients to a higher level of care.”
Just like the MHA, Williams agrees the state’s biggest concern in staffing.
“If you would have asked me back in April what I was concerned about, I would have said the number of ventilators and beds, but now I would tell you it’s the number of high-flow oxygen machines we can use and staffing,” Williams said.
Williams, MHA, and both hospitals wants to remind Missourians to wear a mask, wash your hands and socially distance.
“We are really encouraging people to think about the impact on hospitals and the care givers and try to be as diligent as possible in all of those cautionary areas,” Becker said.
“Take care of yourself,” Blunt said. “You’re not only protecting yourself, but you’re protecting everyone around you.”