Tammy Benewiat was getting ready to leave Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in rural Kansas – where she’d been standing outside peering into her husband Daniel’s room – when she thought she saw him wink at her through the window.
But Daniel was unconscious, sick with COVID-19 and hooked up to a ventilator.
“It was just that one eye that he always winks at me and I just think maybe, maybe if I give it one more second, maybe he’ll wake up, you know.” After pounding big U.S. cities in the spring, COVID-19 has now engulfed rural and small-town America.
Cases and hospitalizations are spiking nationally, but reported case rates in the Midwest are more than double that of any other region in the U.S., according to the COVID tracking project, up more than 20 times from mid-June to mid-November.
Many Midwestern hospitals severely lack beds, equipment and clinical staff, according to Reuters interviews with medical care providers and public health officials in the region.
Some are repurposing areas to accommodate COVID-19 patients or cramming multiple patients into a single room, and are asking staffers to work longer hours and more frequent shifts.
Hutchinson Regional has 190 beds and only 18 in the Intensive Care Unit.
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.” The physical and emotional fatigue is constant, and even harder when the patient is a close friend or colleague, which is common in smaller communities.
Kevin Hoover has been a registered nurse at Kearny County Hospital in rural Lakin, Kansas for 20 years.
He often sees friends, neighbors and family come through the doors.
“There's a gentleman here currently who I have known from playing golf.
He is a golfer that I know.
And in talking to him, you can just, you know, sometimes you can sense the fear because of the unknown.” Facilities like Kearny, known as "critical access" hospitals, weren't made for this.
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.” Still, medical workers told Reuters that denial about the disease or preventative measures is frustratingly common among public officials, community members and even patients.
As Nurse Kristy Sourk puts it: "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." All told, COVID-19 has claimed more than 256,000 lives in the United States.