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  • Writer's pictureSherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

‘Our greatest challenge’: Latest COVID-19 surge threatens Kansas hospitals again as omicron looms

Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, and Catherine Satterwhite, a regional administrator for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, appear during a news briefing Wednesday on COVID-19. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector from YouTube)

TOPEKA — Steve Stites is nervous. Hospitals, he says, are “full, full, full.”

The chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System is monitoring a steep climb in COVID-19 hospitalizations, almost entirely from unvaccinated residents, while hospitals already are busy treating patients suffering from influenza and the respiratory syncytial virus.

Meanwhile, initial studies indicate the new omicron variant is far more transmissible than the delta variant, which was far more transmissible than the original COVID-19.

“I’m just gonna warn everybody: Things are on fire,” Stites said during a news briefing Wednesday.

The Kansas Department for Health and Environment reported 4,138 new infections, 20 deaths and 127 hospitalizations between Monday and Wednesday. The omicron variant hasn’t yet been detected in Kansas, but it appears inevitable the mutation will arrive soon if it isn’t here already.

“We have a lot of COVID patients and the numbers are rising rapidly just as omicron comes in,” Stites said. “And people do not have their masks on, and what else are they doing? They’re gathering indoors. This is a challenging time. This may be, I think this will be, our greatest challenge.

“Because we’re so darn tired of it. And we’re so darn tired of following the rules. And I think this has the potential to cause the greatest problem — and not just for COVID, but for all the other people who are sick and have a time-sensitive diagnosis where they can’t get care. I think our communities need to realize where we are, the dangers that we have in the hospitals.”

Catherine Satterwhite, a regional administrator for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, appeared with Stites at the briefing. She said she is concerned about the dramatic rise in cases of omicron in the New York region, where cases connected to the variant are doubling every two or three days. Typically, she said, the coast is an indicator of what will eventually move to the middle of the country.

The good news is omicron may lead to less severe illness. But the high rate of transmission is important, she said.

“I think it’s going to be really easy for people to say, ‘Oh, it’s not as bad because it doesn’t make people as sick as frequently,’ ” Satterwhite said. “But when we’re looking at a huge volume of people getting sick, there are still people that will experience severe outcomes.”

The KU Health system has 43 active infections, with 11 in intensive care and six on a ventilator. Only one of the 43 patients is fully vaccinated, and is not in the ICU.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 56% of Kansans are fully vaccinated, including 67.7% of adults.

“I think the moral of the story continues to be that vaccines work vaccines continue to work,” said Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health. “It is a pandemic of two populations of vaccinated and unvaccinated, where the unvaccinated are the vast majority of the people that are hospitalized and dying.”

Since Dec. 3, the average number of new cases in Kansas has exceeded the numbers reported during the delta surge.

The latest update from KDHE identifies large outbreaks of new cases at six public schools, including 35 cases in the Rossville district in Shawnee County, and three additional public school sports teams. There were also new outbreaks at nine long-term care facilities and four correctional facilities.

Nathan Bahr, an infectious disease physician, said health professionals emphasize the importance of wearing a mask because of the ease at which COVID-19 spreads from person to person.

“I can’t tell you how often you see people in situations that are very risky without masks and, man, if you want to protect yourself, and to a greater degree, protect the people you love and just people you don’t know but don’t want to hurt — mask,” Bahr said. “Mask. It’s so easy, and it’s it’s so effective.”

This article was used by permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at

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