KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV)-- COVID-19 patients are filling up Kansas City hospitals and intensive care units once again.
Health care workers say it’s starting to feel like it did this past winter, when the virus was raging out of control.
Right now there are more than 80 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Saint Luke’s Health System, up from the 30s just one month ago.
The sickest of the sick are at Saint Luke’s on the Plaza, where Dr. Andrew Schlachter has worked in the COVID ICU for the entirety of the pandemic.
“It feels like a much longer period than a year and a half,” he said. “It’s been very hard.”
Schlachter is a pulmonary critical care physician.
The COVID unit on the cardiovascular intensive care floor of the hospital is still blocked off from the rest of the floor by temporary walls. Signs indicate visitation is restricted and precautions required. For patients with active COVID-19, staff must suit up in the most protective PPE possible.
“I’m an ICU doctor and I only see the sickest of any patient. My patients with coronavirus, many of them are intubated. Many of them are deeply sedated. Many of them need a significant amount of medicine to control their muscles and even paralyze them,” Schlachter said.
The COVID wing has patients as young as 30. Many of them with underlying health conditions, but also some who were perfectly healthy when the contracted the virus.
“With the unvaccinated population, we are seeing younger healthier patients with much more severe disease,” Schlachter said.
Dr. Schalchter says it feels a lot like it did in February. But this time, the majority of patients had access to a vaccine, and chose not to get it.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to patients making what could be their last phone calls. I watched a woman sending text messages to her sister yesterday and calling her son to tell them, ‘they’re putting the tube in and I hope I can talk to you again.’ And these are the voices that I hear at night when I try to go to sleep. And these are the noises and voices that haunt me as I try to continue to take care of these patients. And I wonder and ask why could you have not gotten the vaccine?”
Schlachter suspects the reason the COVID ICU is filled with younger patients, is that the younger population is less likely to be vaccinated and the delta variant can hit anyone hard.
“I’m seeing a whole lot of avoidable and preventable death,” he said.
When patients come into Schlachter’s care, they’re usually far past the point of having conversation. He doesn’t ask if they regret getting the vaccine, but he says families of those sick patients often continue to question whether COVID-19 is really the root cause of the their loved one’s illness.
“I try to remain calm and talk about what I know with objectivity, tell patients what we know to be true. Which is that coronavirus can lead to deadly disease and it is far worse if you have not gotten the vaccine,” he said. “it’s not my job to be asking about vaccines or about regret when someone is dying. It’s my job to do whatever I can to try and reverse the illness that has taken place.”
After seeing light at the end of the tunnel in the spring when vaccination rates increased and COVID cases numbers decreased, seeing the sharp spike is frustrating for all healthcare workers on the frontlines.
“In May and June I was like ‘okay, this feels like maybe we are getting back to a sense of normalcy.’ And then July… This month were like oh this feels way too familiar. And not in a good way,” registered nurse Rachel Johnson said.
Johnson has COVID patients from the same family dying on her floor, something that never gets easier to watch.
“In the last year, I’ve seen more deaths than the whole other seven years of my career combined. And I’ve also had to hold the hand of a dying patient with no family. That’s horrible nobody should have to do that or be alone. It just doesn’t feel fair it doesn’t feel right,” Johnson said.
She says with the vaccine so readily available, it all seems so unnecessary.
“Do what you can. Like I said even if it’s not going to affect you, it’s going to affect somebody,” she said.
And yes, the healthcare workers of the COVID ICU acknowledge the fact you can still get COVID even when fully vaccinated, but the chances of ending up in intensive care or dying are much much lower.
“No one wants to be my patient with severe coronavirus. My patients have a tube in their mouth, large IVs in their neck, large IVs in their arm. They are deeply sedated. They are sometimes paralyzed. They are sometimes put onto their stomach. We call that proning to help with lungs that have completely failed. Some of our patients need to stay in a coma for weeks if not months,” Schlachter said.
Dr. Schlachter can’t recall the number of patients he’s seen struggle like this, but he remembers their faces.
“The truth of the matter is there are far too many patients and they’re all inside my head. And I think about them often. Those we’ve been able to save and those who we have not,” he said.