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Columbia Hospitals Implement Surge Plans As Admissions Spike

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A month ago, there were fewer than 60 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Boone County. This week, there were more than 140. COVID-19 hospitalizations are up across the state, with more than 2,000 people admitted as of November 7, according to the Missouri Hospital Association.

The increase was enough to push BJC Healthcare to start deferring some scheduled procedures at hospitals in the St. Louis area. Columbia hospitals aren’t there yet, but it’s not out of the question.

Dr. Robin Blount is the chief medical officer at Boone Hospital in Columbia. She says when it comes to ensuring there's enough capacity to care for patients, everything is on the table.

“It has to do with staffing, capacity, number of beds, ICU needs, etc," Blount said. "We look at that and say, Can this is this something that could possibly be put off for six to eight weeks.”

As of Tuesday, Boone had 40 COVID-19 positive inpatients. Blount says the hospital is adjusting, but the numbers are unprecedented.

The hospital set up a dedicated COVID-19 unit in September that Blount says met demand for the past month and a half. Now, they’re adding more beds.

But caring for patients requires staff to work those beds, and caring for COVID-19 patients is especially taxing. “Some of these people are extremely ill, extended periods of time in the ICU, and our staff are very devoted to helping them,” Blount explained.

Long stays in intensive care units have become a characteristic of serious COVID-19 cases, and that stresses capacity. Hospitals are used to higher turnover in ICUs, but now Blount says Boone has had to look to St. Louis and Kansas City to find beds for some patients.

It’s not just Boone Hospital that's having difficulty, though. On Tuesday, Boone issued a joint statement alongside MU Health Care and Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital announcing they were each implementing surge plans.

Dr. Mark Wakefield is the Associate Chief Medical Officer at MU Health. He says it doesn't matter how many beds are have available if there aren't people to work them. “That has not happened to us yet, as far as I know, but it definitely is a potential,” Wakfield said.

Staffing is key to the system’s flexibility when it comes to taking care of patients. Wakefield says MU Health is able to convert beds to treat COVID-19 patients as needed, but coordinating and managing personnel to care for those patients is the hard part.

In the spring, when MU Health suspended elective surgeries, it was to conserve PPE, but Wakefield says the system has been able to build up its supply since then. "I anticipate if that’s necessary, we’ll not necessarily do a complete stop like we did in March," Wakefield explained. "We’ll have more capacity to do a graduated response; decide which cases can be deferred safely."

Wakefield says he anticipates admissions will continue to increase. While only a fifth of patients hospitalized in Boone County are county residents, the county has set records for new cases in the past week. Hospitalizations typically follow as close as 10 days.

When it comes to what’s driving the spike in cases, local health officials point to small gatherings and complacency. Ashton Day is a health educator with the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services department.

“From the case investigation we have done it suggests people are gathering more with friends and family," Day said. "You kind of let your guard down."

Day says the department has also seen an increase in school-age children testing positive in Columbia and across the county. The Columbia Public Schools board voted Monday to switch back to online classes later this month. But entering the holiday season, the broader challenge, of getting people to take the virus seriously, will remain.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.
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