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At two-year mark of pandemic, Kansas doctors remember first patient and appetite for information

The flag is lowered Wednesday in front of the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka to recognize the...
The flag is lowered Wednesday in front of the Kansas Judicial Center in Topeka to recognize the 8,000 Kansans who have died from COVID-19. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)((Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector))
Published: Mar. 12, 2022 at 3:11 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (Kansas Reflector) - When the first Kansas patient to be treated for COVID-19 arrived two years ago at The University of Kansas Health System, doctors weren’t sure how to handle the new and scary sickness.

Steve Stites, chief medical officer for KU Health, was working that Saturday morning, trying to figure out how to prepare for the inevitable arrival of a novel coronavirus that was making news in New York City and Seattle.

“So I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go in.’ And we had these spacesuits that we wore. They’re really our hazmat suits. And we didn’t know what to do,” Stites said.

The woman had returned from a microbiology conference in Boston, which turned out to be the first super-spreader event in the United States. People who were packed closely around a table had gotten on planes and flown across the country.

“I just remember the look in her eyes and how afraid she was because we just didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Stites said. “We didn’t have any therapy. Those were tough days.”

For the past two years, Stites and Dana Hawkinson, medical director for infection prevention and control at KU Health, have provided daily video news briefings about the pandemic. On Monday, the two-year anniversary of that first patient’s diagnosis, they talked about the early days of the pandemic and where things stand now.

Earlier this week, Gov. Laura Kelly ordered the lowering of flags to recognize the grim milestone of 8,000 deaths in Kansas attributed to COVID-19.

The Kansas Department for Health and Environment has recorded 8,006 deaths from the virus, including three added between Wednesday and Friday. The toll has slowed considerably in recent weeks, with 60 deaths recorded so far for all of March. That’s half the number of deaths recorded during the same period a year ago, shortly before vaccines became widely available. A month ago, the state was recording an average of 238 deaths per week.

Nearly all of the deaths recorded during the delta and omicron surges of the past six months involve unvaccinated individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 64.6% of Kansans ages 5 and older are now fully vaccinated, including 71.3% of Kansas adults. Those figures trail nationwide numbers by about 4 percentage points.

Hawkinson said the past two years have been “a whirlwind.” When the first patient arrived, he had just returned from an infectious disease conference where doctors had talked about COVID-19 “because it was starting to obviously exacerbate and blow up around the world.”

“It escalated quickly,” Hawkinson said. “I do remember it vividly. And it really hasn’t slowed down too much. It has gotten better. Certainly we are seeing now it has improved.”

Steve Stites and Dana Hawkinson prepare for the first video briefing about COVID-19 after the...
Steve Stites and Dana Hawkinson prepare for the first video briefing about COVID-19 after the arrival of the first patient two years ago. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from University of Kansas Health System video)((Kansas Reflector screen capture from University of Kansas Health System video))

The health system began to receive so many questions from news reporters, it couldn’t possibly answer them all. Video from their first daily briefing shows Stites sanitizing his hands at a desk next to Hawkinson, a coffee cup at his side.

“I don’t even know what’s in that coffee mug, cause I don’t drink coffee,” Stites said during this week’s briefing.

They didn’t know at the time how long the briefings would last.

“We had all these brave ideas that things were going to calm down after a few days and that things were going to be all good,” Stites said. “And in fact, what happened was that there was this insatiable appetite out there for some kind of knowledge about it.”

Early on, doctors spent a lot of time focusing on things that turned out to not be important, Stites said. They eventually learned that surfaces weren’t as important as air.

Stites said he wishes he had done a better job of explaining the importance of wearing a face covering.

“I think we could have ended up not watching nearly as many people die,” Stites said. “Even today, I sometimes struggle to explain the importance of trying to take care of each other when we have these severe outbreaks.”

History suggests the pandemic will last 3-5 years, as was the case after the 1918 influenza outbreak. Stites said he is “relatively optimistic,” especially with the emergence of good treatment options.

Still, Hawkinson said, it would be naïve to think there won’t be another surge. The best protection is to stay up-to-date with vaccinations and, in high-risk situations, wear a mask.

“We have to remember that individually, now, it is really up to everybody to try and protect themselves, reduce their chance of going to the hospital,” Hawkinson said.

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