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In Kansas, VA will take non-veterans as hospital ICUs fill up with COVID patients

Laura Kelly speaks after being sworn in as the 48th governor of Kansas in an inauguration, Jan. 14, 2019 in Topeka, Kan. (Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS)

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is opening up intensive care unit beds in Kansas to non-veterans in an attempt to boost patient capacity as the omicron surge places severe strain on civilian hospitals.

Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday announced a partnership with the VA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use beds, but gave few details about the numbers that would be available. Kelly also announced she is deploying the National Guard to assist COVID-19 testing sites and distribute personal protective equipment.

Adult ICU admissions are almost at their highest point of the entire pandemic, with 280 patients earlier this week. In the Kansas City metro, overall COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their highest point ever, averaging 268 new admissions a day, according to data compiled by the Mid-America Regional Council.

“We are at an inflection point with the Omicron variant, and the strain on our hospitals is taking a toll on our health care workers and patients — all while the virus continues to spread rapidly through our communities,” Kelly said in a statement. “The majority of hospital patients are unvaccinated. Please do your part by getting vaccinated and boosted today.”

The Veterans Health Administration operates three medical centers in Kansas, in Wichita, Leavenworth and Topeka. Kelly’s office said the VHA facilities are limited and available based on bed availability “at time of need and on a case-by-case basis until February 17, 2022.”

“We are seeing a record number of COVID-19 cases across the state, causing staffing shortages and hospitals to reach capacity. This partnership with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, to accept transfers from Kansas facilities, will help alleviate the stress on our hospitals,” Janet Stanek, acting secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said in a statement.

Tim Williamson, vice president of quality and safety at the University of Kansas Health System, said Friday that hospitalizations may be within a few weeks of beginning to come down. But for now, “it could be a rough couple of weeks.”

“Do we have calm waters ahead? Do we have rough waters ahead? We’re really trying to prepare for both of those scenarios,” Williamson said during the health system’s daily briefing.

Joseph Burks, chief of communications for the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, said in a statement that FEMA had approved the arrangement under the VA’s “Fourth Mission,” which includes supporting state and local public health and emergency management efforts.

Non-VA hospitals that want to transfer patients will submit requests to Kansas “Mission Control,” an electronic system that coordinates transfers among facilities.

“KS Mission Control will determine the best equipped and available facility (VA or non-VA) at the time. If KS seeks transfer to VA, the KS Mission Control will contact the our higher headquarters who will then coordinate with the local VA facility to provide the service,” Burks said in the statement.

Sen. Jerry Moran, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in a statement thanked the VA hospitals and personnel caring for Kansans as hospitals experience bed and staffing shortages. The VA plays an “integral role in our nation’s health care safety net through its Fourth Mission to support local hospitals and make sure patients have access to the critical care they need,” he said.

Kelly’s announcement came on the final day of a state of emergency the governor announced at the start of January aimed at loosening staffing regulations at hospitals. But she downplayed the possibility of a National Guard deployment because medically-trained Guard members were already working in their hometown hospitals.

Kelly didn’t address the possibility of deploying non-medical Guard personnel, however, and on Friday, she said 80 soldiers and airmen will support COVID-19 testing sites operated by KDHE. They will also aid with the shipment and delivery of personal protective gear, such as masks.

Kelly’s deployment will allow the state National Guard to operate under the federal emergency declaration for the next 31 days. The announcement came hours before the governor was set to sign legislation extending the suspension of hospital staffing regulations.

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(c) 2022 The Kansas City Star

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