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The Consequences of One Rural Doctor Catching the Coronavirus


The town of Cheyenne Wells, Colorado has seen better days, now that its only ER doctor has come down with the coronavirus. Kurt Papenfus first experienced flu-like symptoms around Halloween and has been out of work ever since. That has put added pressure on virtually every healthcare facility in the area as major cities like Denver and Boulder face the bulk of new infections.

Like many rural parts of the country, the area mostly avoided the worst of the pandemic during the spring and summer, but infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are now rising in nearly every corner of the state. The “third wave” of the pandemic has become a test for many rural communities, and there aren’t many solutions in sight.

The “Medical Director of Everything”

Papenfus had a lot on his plate before eventually coming down with COVID-19. He is the lone ER doctor in Cheyenne Wells, a town of 900 people. “I’m chief of staff and medical director of everything at Keefe Memorial Hospital currently in Cheyenne County, Colorado,” he said.

He had been managing the area’s response to the crisis before he started experiencing symptoms himself at the end of October. He believes he caught the virus after taking a flight out east. He recalls feeling safe on the flight after taking all the necessary safety precautions. He meticulously chose his seat so that he would be the last one on the plane and the first one off.

But as soon as he landed in Denver, he boarded the train at the terminal. It soon started filling with passengers, with some people just inches from his face. It was then that he realized he was in danger.

“There are people literally like inches from me, and we’re all crammed like sardines in this train,” Papenfus recalled. “And I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, I am in a superspreader event right now.’”

Just a week later, he started coming down with symptoms, including a nasty cough, intestinal symptoms, and a headache. Living in the rural town of Cheyenne Wells, he decided to drive himself three hours all the way to Denver. He even had the local sheriff follow him from behind to make sure he made it safely.

“I’m not going to let anybody get in this car with me and get COVID, because I don’t want to give anybody the ‘rona,” he said.

After taking an x-ray of his chest, the hospital told him he had pneumonia. But that was just the start of a long series of unfortunate events.

All Hands on Deck

Papenfus ended up staying at the hospital for nine days before returning home to recuperate.

Keefe Memorial Hospital couldn’t afford to lose their number-one provider. The facility scrambled to find a replacement for Papenfus, but there just wasn’t enough staff to go around as new infections continued to soar across the state.

“He is the main guy. And it is a very large challenge,” said Stella Worley, CEO of the hospital. “Time is life sometimes,” referring to her rapid attempt to find a replacement for Papenfus. Without a permanent ER doctor, patients throughout the area will either face longer wait times or be transported to another facility.

Without a replacement for Papenfus, Worley said she would’ve had to transport patients nearly 40 miles to Burlington, the next closest facility able to treat serious cases of COVID-19.

In addition to Papenfus, six other employees at the hospital came down with the virus out of a total of 62. “It’s not just the doctors; it’s the nurses, you know. It’s hard to get spare nurses,” Worley added. “There’s not a lot of spares of anything out that far.”

Papenfus would also work a shift at Lincoln Community Hospital in Hugo, CO, thus his diagnosis created headaches for that facility as well. It briefly had to stop taking patients recovering from the virus, but administrators say they are now ready to receive them.

Traditionally, Keefe Memorial Hospital would send its sickest patients to hospitals in major cities with more resources, but even the state’s largest hospitals are getting overwhelmed – so much so that the state has created a new command system to transfer patients around the state to free up additional beds. However, there’s only so much that can be done when every facility is getting hit from all sides.

Just two hours east of Cheyenne Wells in Gove County, Kansas, the emergency management director, the local hospital CEO, and more than 50 medical staff members have all recently tested positive. It’s unclear if these recent infections are related to Papenfus’ diagnosis.

Fighting the Virus in Rural America

Studies show the rural areas tend to be vulnerable to the coronavirus, considering there are fewer medical resources to go around. According to Brock Slabach of the National Rural Health Association, 61% of rural hospitals do not have an intensive care unit.

Residents are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. As it turns out, they are also less likely to wear masks.

Concerned for his town, Papenfus is trying to urge his fellow rural Americans to stop the spread. “The western prairie isn’t mask country,” he said. “People don’t wear masks out there; bank robbers wear masks out there.” He says rising infection rates should speak for themselves. “It’s a huge wake-up call.”

During his time recovering at home, Papenfus had to go back to the hospital after a stint of nightly fevers, but this time he arrived by ambulance. Considering his rocky recovery, he knows he won’t be back at work “for a while, if ever.”

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