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COVID Fears Rural

On The Brink, Rural Hospitals Brace For New Surge In COVID-19 Cases

NPR, July 3, 2020

In the Idaho mountain town of Grangeville, population 3,200, signs in windows on Main Street advertise that Border Days “is on.”

Up the street, at the 16-bed Syringa Hospital and Clinic, CEO Abner King says his staff is prepared for a possible surge in coronavirus infections in a couple of weeks.

“It’s pretty hard to do an egg toss in a socially distancing manner,” he chuckles.

Syringa doesn’t have an intensive care unit or even a ventilator. Most patients in need of critical care are transferred to larger regional hospitals, which so far during the pandemic have not been overwhelmed themselves as first feared.

Syringa staff members have been preparing and instituting precautions for months, yet to date they’ve not treated a single COVID-19 patient.

“That’s the tough part about all this, because you get all ready for this big emergency and then nothing happens and then you have to fight complacency a little bit,” King says. “We prepared for a flood, and then we were hit with a drought.”

That “drought” has severely affected Syringa’s bottom line. The irony is that small-town hospitals like this one are now on the brink of going broke during the pandemic. King says people just stopped coming into the hospital, its clinic and even its emergency room. All elective procedures were canceled. Since the pandemic took hold in March, revenue here has dropped by half.

Across the U.S., rural “critical access” hospitals were already closing at an alarming rate before the pandemic. Twelve have shuttered since the start of this year alone.

“Even without the pandemic, there’s not a lot of room for surprises and errors,” King said.

One of the main reasons that the hospital has stayed afloat since March is because of federal relief money. Among other things, it has helped pay for personal protective gear and other supplies as well as the construction of a temporary isolation ward for COVID-19 patients.

By Sallie Han

Professor of Anthropology at SUNY Oneonta
Cultural, linguistic, medical anthropology; reproduction; gender; kinship; ethnography; United States. Former journalist (The Daily News, New York).

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