'The wolf is at the door.' Hospitals plead for statewide mask mandate amid COVID-19 surge
Missouri hospital leaders are imploring Gov. Mike Parson to require masks statewide as hospitals in Greene County and across the state report sustained high numbers of COVID-19 patients.
On Monday, Greene County hospitals were caring for 200 coronavirus patients — the highest number recorded to date — and officials in St. Louis warned that patient transfers from surrounding rural areas were in danger of overwhelming hospital capacity and staff.
In Kansas City and Jackson County, leaders restricted indoor gatherings to 10 people or fewer and lowered capacity at businesses in response to the “uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”
“The wolf is at the door,” Missouri Hospital Association President Herb Kuhn wrote in the letter to Parson dated Nov. 13. “A mask mandate may be unappealing to some, but it has become necessary.”
Gov. Parson, a Republican, has repeatedly declined to impose such requirements, leaving those decisions up to cities and counties.
Springfield and a handful of other communities in southwest Missouri have mask mandates, but leaders at Cox and Mercy, which serve more than 20 counties in the region, say the patchwork is not working.
On Monday, CoxHealth CEO Steve Edwards said on Twitter the hospital was reporting 133 inpatients with some predictions showing Cox could have as many as 180 to 200 COVID-19 patients in the next two weeks.
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To prepare for the continued surge, Edwards said in an interview on Wednesday the hospital was adding 36 beds at Cox South over the next few weeks. If even more capacity is needed, they could double up in each room for potentially 72 beds total.
Cox also installed a new vaporizer unit and oxygen tank to account for the amount of gas needed to care for some coronavirus patients.
At Mercy in Springfield, Chief Administrative Officer Erik Frederick said Wednesday 113 rooms were available for COVID-19 patients, but if that number gets higher, they would activate another unit currently filled with non-coronavirus patients.
Physical capacity is only part of the problem, though.
Each available bed needs to have people to staff it, and hospital capacity is always fluctuating.
Edwards said he got a call last week from a rural hospital CEO who had contacted hospitals in St. Louis, Springfield, Kansas City, Memphis, Tulsa and Little Rock to find a bed for a patient who needed immediate care for a life-threatening condition.
“We were scurrying to try to move some patients around when he called me back and said we committed the patient in Iowa,” Edwards said. “The way hospitals work, it’s possible that within an hour, a bed would’ve opened … but patients can’t always wait.”
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Frederick said the way hospitals are structured, when one type of patient is filling up beds, it can take away capacity to care for people with other life-threatening conditions.
"If you're sitting in one of these counties that doesn't (have a mask mandate or other health orders), let's pray you don't wind up with a heart attack or another urgent need because you're all coming to just one of two hospitals," he said. "That high number of a single type of patient, that affects everyone."
Katie Kull covers local government for the News-Leader. Got a story to tell? Give her a call at 417-408-1025 or email her at email@example.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.