Tammy Benewiat (pronounced BEN-VEE-AT) was getting ready to leave Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in rural Kansas when she thought she saw her husband Daniel wink at her through the window.
But Daniel was unconscious, sick with COVID-19 and hooked up to a ventilator to breathe for him. Still, Tammy waited a little while longer in the hospital’s parking lot, where she’d been for hours, peering through the glass to see if he might come around.
“He always winks at me and I just think maybe, maybe if I give it one more second, maybe he’ll wake up,” she said.
After pounding big US cities in the spring, COVID-19 now has engulfed rural and small-town America, seeming to seep into the country’s every nook and cranny.
Cases and hospitalizations are spiking nationally, but the Midwest has been especially brutalized. Reported case rates are more than double that of any other region in the United States, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run data provider.
Daniel, a truck wash owner, continued working through the pandemic, but always wore a face mask and took precautions against infection, Tammy said. She thinks he might have caught the virus at a doctor’s appointment ahead of scheduled knee surgery. But, like an increasing number of Americans, they just don’t know.
According to Reuters’ interviews with medical care providers and public health officials in region, many hospitals are severely lacking in beds, equipment and – most critically – clinical staff, including specialists and nurses.
Hutchinson Regional has 190 beds and only 18 in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Due to staffing shortages, ICU charge nurse Kristy Sourk has been working night shifts, which she doesn’t normally do.
“We are still having to take care of the same sort of patients that they do in a larger facility with less hands on deck at times. So staffing has definitely been a struggle for us at times, with a lot of people working extra hours,” she said.
As cases spike in many conservative states and counties, medical workers say they often face a challenge just in convincing patients and local leaders that the disease should be taken seriously and isn’t a Democrat-perpetuated hoax.
Some medical officials and hospital staffers find it hard to reconcile the resistance to taking precautions with the sickness and suffering they see.
“We’re a very divided area here. Even people that are health care workers don’t always believe in the mask. They may believe in the illness, but they don’t believe in the masks to help prevent the spread,” Sourk said.
The physical and emotional fatigue felt by healthcare workers can be even harder when the patient is a close friend or colleague, as is common in small rural communities.
Kevin Hoover has been a registered nurse at Kearny County Hospital in rural Lakin (pronounced LAY-KIN), Kansas, for 20 years. He often sees friends, neighbors and family members come through the doors. One of his golfing friends is being treated for COVID-19 in the hospital.
“In talking to him, you can just, you know, sometimes you can sense the fear because of the unknown,” Hoover said.
Facilities like Kearny, known as “critical access” hospitals, weren’t made for this. Often sparsely funded, they mainly provide basic or emergency care to residents who live long distances away from bigger medical centers.
Dr. Drew Miller, the hospital’s chief medical officer, was recently unable to find an ICU bed in a larger hospital for a 30-year-old COVID-19 patient whose condition was growing critical. By the time a bed opened the following day, the young man required resuscitation. He survived, but it was tough for Miller, who knew the man’s family well.
“Everybody’s tired and worn out, but yet the need is as great as it has ever been and I think we need to be ready to work more than we’ve ever worked before,” he said.
“It’s a heavy privilege as a health care provider to walk through this kind of stuff, this time, with our community and take care of the people that we know personally and love as they are affected by COVID.”