The president of Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Manhattan says his facility and others in Kansas are being overwhelmed by new COVID-19 patients.

Hospital president Bob Copple said the hospital was caring for 11 patients Thursday. Five of those patients were in intensive care, with three on ventilators. He said Kansas, and the surrounding region, is seeing a problem with hospitals reaching or exceeding patient capacity limits because of new virus cases.

“That additional load of patients really strapped the entire healthcare system in the state,” Copple said. “It’s become increasingly difficult to transfer patients out who need other forms of care.”

Copple said while the county reported the deaths of three fully vaccinated patients Wednesday, over the past six months 99% of the fatalities seen in the hospital because of COVID-19 were among unvaccinated people.

“The odds are really not in favor of the unvaccinated person,” Copple said.

Riley County Health Department director Julie Gibbs said during an online press conference Thursday that the toll of coronavirus-related deaths is now at 49 in the county since the pandemic began. Gibbs said health department staffers are monitoring 148 active virus cases locally, and they identified 146 new cases since last week.

The vaccination rate in Riley County is around 45% with nearly 22,000 people fully vaccinated locally. Gibbs said the health department’s vaccination rate goal is 70%. She said given the fact that Riley County is labeled a high-risk area by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people should “please consider wearing masks indoors, vaccinated or not, and to please consider getting vaccinated.”

“We don’t want our healthcare system to be overwhelmed, and right now we’re looking at the hospital situation,” Gibbs said. “Frankly, it’s not a situation we want to be in.”

Gibbs said her staff identified 70 cases of variants of concern, 56 of which are the Delta variant of the coronavirus. She said more than half of the breakthrough cases — or cases of the virus infecting an already-inoculated person — involve the Delta variant. This variant is known to be about 60% more transmissible than the original strain, as it features a mutation in the spike protein that allows the virus to spread more easily.

Health Department clinic director Aryn Price said the virus “wants to find a good balance between hiding from the immune system and transferring to the next person.”

Gibbs said new guidance from the CDC states people who are unvaccinated and test positive for the Delta variant of COVID-19 must quarantine for 14 days. Those who are fully vaccinated are exempt from quarantining unless another person in their household tests positive for the Delta variant. She said most of the cases county officials are seeing now stem from smaller gatherings, like Independence Day celebrations, as well as some summer travel. She said the same symptoms are still present with the Delta variant, including runny nose, headaches or body aches, and a loss of taste or smell.

Price said those who were previously infected with the virus are still encouraged to get a vaccine, as it can provide immunity “even after natural immunity starts to wane.” She said the effectiveness of the vaccine is being studied in a large sample size spanning much of the globe, and the choice to get inoculated against the virus “is a decision we have to make collectively for those who are at risk in our community.”

“There are people we are responsible for protecting because we don’t have a vaccine yet for the younger ages,” Price said. “We have children we’re responsible for protecting in our schools; this is a matter that needs to be taken very seriously.”

Copple said in the minds of health professionals, the 49 Riley Countians who are dead from the virus “died prematurely.”

“This virus has led to people dying earlier than they would have,” Copple said. “And I would share, that it’s not always a very pleasant death.”

Copple said he would challenge anybody who remains skeptical of vaccine effectiveness or COVID-19 in general to talk to the families “who have lost somebody and see if it’s okay.”

“So much of what we’re seeing now is avoidable and unnecessary,” Copple said. “This is a ‘respect of life’ issue, in my opinion.”

Gibbs said there are no current discussions with Riley County commissioners about implementing another mask mandate. However, the Manhattan-Ogden school district and K-State have reimplemented their indoor mask mandates, effective Friday and Monday, respectively.

Gibbs said she and her staff continue to meet with commissioners, along with officials from Kansas State University and the Manhattan-Ogden School District to provide updates on the virus situation.

The Riley County Health Department offers a walk-in vaccination clinic from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays at the health department building, 2030 Tecumseh Road. People also can call the COVID-19 symptom screening line at 785-323-6400 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.