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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Local hospitals straining under omicron: 'We are really really busy'

Missouri is currently experiencing the 10th highest rate of COVID hospitalizations in the country. The omicron-driven spike in cases is straining providers across the state, including at MU Health Care in Columbia. Dr. Laura Hesemann is a member of the system’s incident command team. She spoke with the Health & Wealth Desk about what MU Health is seeing.

Dr. Hesemann: We are really really busy. Our record high for COVID patients was in December of 2020, our single day high was 102 patients, and as of right now — I’m looking at the dashboard right now — and we have 98 patients in house, who are either COVID positive currently or are still recovering from their COVID illness.

Health & Wealth: What we’ve seen from omicron elsewhere is it’s more of an upper respiratory infection, and therefore the symptoms are often milder; is that what you’re seeing here?

Dr. Hesemann: What we’re seeing with patients that we’re admitting is fewer of them need ICU level care. Our numbers are going up despite it being omicron just because even though fewer patients with omicron need hospitalization, the sheer number of patients who have the omicron variant means that more patients are showing up to the hospital. And that’s because omicron is just so much more contagious. So for any one individual who gets COVID right now — most of it is omicron — if I got COVID today, my risk of needing to be hospitalized with the omicron variant is lower than it was a couple of months ago when it was mostly delta. But the population as a whole— we have so many patients who have it that we’re going to have increasing numbers in the hospital.

Health & Wealth: A question I hear a lot is ‘how many ICU beds do we have’ or ‘how many hospital beds do we have for COVID patients,’ but it’s a little tough to say exactly because things are always shifting, right?

Dr. Hesemann: It’s always a moving target. We never really want to say we’re out of beds, because the other thing that plays into it too is making sure we have capacity for emergencies that come in. If somebody is having a heart attack, if somebody’s having a stroke, they need a bed in the closest hospital no matter what. So [for] those patients we will always find a way to take care of them. So that’s one of the things that is weighing on my mind personally right now is I want the public to understand the staffing challenges that we have. if they come into the [Emergency Department], is there going to be a delay in the emergency room? Yep, there probably is because the E.R. is really busy and we don’t have the staff that we would like to have. But what I really don’t want people to hear is “oh my gosh the E.R. is really busy, I’m having chest pain, I don’t want to have to go to the E.R.” If you’re having chest pain you need to go to the E.R. We want to make sure that people are still getting care for those urgent issues.

Health & Wealth: What are your expectations for the next month or so?

Dr. Hesemann: I think it’s very reasonable to presume that things are going to get busier in the next few weeks and that this is going to stick around for a few weeks anyway. I think the whole month of January is going to be heavy, it’s going to be difficult, but if what we have seen in other places holds true for us, this surge should be shorter than in the past.

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.