‘We’re drowning’: COVID cases flood hospitals in America’s heartland

CALIFORNIA: Dr. Drew Miller knew his patient had to be moved.

The vital signs of the 30-year-old COVID-19 victim were crashing, and Kearny County Hospital in rural Lakin, Kansas, just wasn’t equipped to handle the case. Miller, Kearny’s chief medical officer - who doubles as the county health officer - called around to larger hospitals in search of an ICU bed. With coronavirus cases soaring throughout Kansas, he said, he couldn’t find a single one.

By the time a bed opened elsewhere the following day, the young man was near death. For a full 45 minutes, Miller and his staff performed chest compressions in a desperate attempt to save him.

Somehow, Miller said, the patient regained a pulse, and was dispatched in an ambulance to the larger facility about 25 miles away. Miller then prayed with the family, whom he knew “very well” from Lakin, a town of just a few thousand people.

“It’s truly a miracle he has survived,” Miller said.

After pounding big U.S. 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. According to Reuters’ interviews with more than a dozen medical care providers and public health officials in the nation’s heartland, many hospitals are severely lacking in beds, equipment and - most critically - clinical staff, including specialists and nurses.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are spiking nationally. But the Midwest - encompassing a dozen states between Ohio and the Dakotas - 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. From mid-June to mid-November, reported cases in the Midwest rose more than twentyfold.

For the week ending November 19, North Dakota reported an average of 1,769 daily new cases per 1 million residents, according to the tracking project. South Dakota recorded nearly 1,500 per million residents, Wisconsin and Nebraska around 1,200, and Kansas nearly 1,000. Even in New York’s worst week in April - with business closed and panic gripping the public - the state never averaged more than 500 new cases per million people. California never topped 253.

Hospital officials in the Midwest told Reuters they’re at capacity or nearly so. Most have tried to increase availability by repurposing wings or cramming multiple patients in a single room, and by asking staffers to work longer hours and more frequent shifts.

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. Now, “we have to plan on being able to care for whomever comes in,” said Miller, whose specialty is family medicine.

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.

Such viewpoints flow from the top. President Donald Trump often has held shoulder-to-shoulder rallies in the Midwest and elsewhere and treated masks as a matter of personal choice. Although Trump was not re-elected, about two months remain in his tenure, with little sign of change in his coronavirus strategy, even as the crisis grows.

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Some medical officials and hospital staffers find it hard to reconcile laissez-faire policies with the sickness and suffering they see.

“There’s a disconnect in the community, where we’re seeing people at bars and restaurants, or planning Thanksgiving dinners,” said Dr. Kelly Cawcutt, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. As health workers, she said, “we feel kind of dejected.” - Reuters html>