GENERIC: Kansas coronavirus, COVID-19

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Coronavirus hospitalizations have fallen in Kansas from their high last month and staffing is under less strain as the shaky vaccine rollout gains momentum, although overall case numbers remain stubbornly high.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment data shows that 889 adults were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases as of Tuesday, down 30% from a high of 1,282 on Dec. 2. It was the lowest COVID-19 patient count since early November, when the numbers began creeping steadily upward.

Dr. Lee Norman, head of the state health department, said a call he had this week with officials at small, rural hospital was “really encouraging.”

“There's ICU beds available. The majority of ventilators are available, and — very encouraging — the staff are coming back off isolation because of illness or quarantine,” Norman said during a Statehouse news conference. “It's really gratifying to see our health care workers get a little bit of a reprieve right now.”

Staffing also is less of a problem, with 11% of the state's hospitals reporting anticipated staffing shortages this week, down from as many as 45% predicting problems in November and December, according to data from the Kansas Hospital Association.

“I don't feel — and this is hopefully not premature — that we have seen as much of an increase post-Christmas and New Year's like some parts of the country have," Cindy Samuelson, a spokeswoman for the association, told The Associated Press. But she added: “There are some that think we are just early in the month of January."

Last year, the situation grew so dire that staff at small hospitals were spending hours on the phone looking for places to transfer their sickest patients. Some hospitals were doubling up patients and holding them in emergency room hallways while they waited for rooms to open up.

Kenny Wilk, of the University of Kansas Health System, said during a teleconference sponsored by the state's Hospital Association and the KDHE that things have started to improve in recent weeks, The Wichita Eagle reported.

“We have had a number of deaths, and that’s really hard on the staff,” Wilk said. “We’re sure hoping that peaks out. That’s been extremely difficult on the staff. But I think the combination of a little fewer patients in the hospitals, the vaccine’s coming across, and having more of our workforce available, you put all those things together and I think it (staff morale) is up.”

Dee Dee Dewell, an outreach representative for Ascension Via Christi, said Wichita hospitals have seen a small decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations, though there is still high demand for intensive care unit beds.

“We do have to still remain very vigilant in our practices,” she said.

The state added 4,539 cases from Monday to Wednesday, making its tally 252,041 since the start of the pandemic. It reported 100 more deaths since Monday, making the total 3,355.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday to extend the state’s coronavirus law to March 31. The law, enacted last year and due to expire Jan. 26, limits Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s power to close businesses and provides some protections from lawsuits to businesses, nursing homes and medical providers.

The committee's decision came a day after it heard about a dozen lobbyists for groups representing restaurants, businesses, physicians and others express support for extending the law.

But Tucker Poling, acting executive director for the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts, proposed no longer allowing health care workers licensed in other states to work in Kansas without authorization in the state. He said Tuesday that the law prevents Kansas professional licensing agencies from regulating them.

Even so, the committee passed the bill without including any amendments.

Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, announced that the Senate will debate the bill on Thursday.

The state reported vaccinating 84,555 residents as of Tuesday. That’s just under 3% of the population and an improvement from Dec. 31, when Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that Kansas had the lowest vaccination rate among states.

With vaccinations for teachers and school staff tentatively on the horizon, Education commissioner Randy Watson said schools can start looking at how they will “transition out of the pandemic.” He offered the assessment Tuesday while also warning the Kansas State Board of Education that students showed slight declines on free, but optional, interim fall assessments, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Andy Tsubasa Field in Topeka, Kansas, also contributed.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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