Hospitals in rural towns battle the pandemic, face the challenge of remaining fully staffed

Posted at 12:27 PM, Dec 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-29 15:29:55-05

(KERO) — Rural hospitals are in a difficult spot right now. COVID-19 is hitting them harder than many metropolitan hospitals and staffing is far lower. As Scripps reporter Dan Grossman shows dire situations start to arise once some of those limited staff members start getting COVID themselves.

When the time comes to look back on what we've been able to accomplish most would only hope to have a resume as diverse as that of Kurt Papenfus.

"Oh as you can tell I've led a very eclectic life. The boys got to meet the Pope. One of my claims to fame is giving Rambo a shot in the butt."

There was also Everest, spending time with Neil Armstrong, and most recently going toe-to-toe with COVID-19, a battle that left Papenfus alone in an ICU for 9 days.

Being the only ER doctor at a rural hospital in Colorado it was a fight Papenfus was all too familiar with and one that affected far more than just himself.

Stella Worley is the CEO of Keefe Memorial, the 25-bed hospital where Kurt works along the Colorado/Kansas border. Kurt's illness sent her unit into a tailspin as they frantically looked for a replacement.

"Worst-case scenario is you would have to divert patients if there's no one in the door to care," said Worley. "We are a trauma level four hospital so keeping that physician on staff 24/7 is what we are required to do. And it is getting to be more of a challenge to have hired physicians out here in rural."

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information about 20-percent of our nation's population lives in rural areas, yet less than 10-percent of our nation's physicians practice there. It's a shortage that has plagued rural healthcare since even before COVID.

For Worley, it meant a search for an ER doctor that ended with a fill-in who had to drive 10 hours from Texas last minute to cover for two weeks.

"And I'm very worried about rural healthcare because rural healthcare is teetering on the brink right now."

According to CDC data COVID is killing rural Americans at a rate 3.5 higher than those living in metropolitan areas bringing this issue to a head. An issue that has led Kurt to see more of life's beauty outside of its eclectic experiences.

"If everybody wants to do a miracle right now just sit down right now and take a big breath in and a big breath out," said Papenfus. "If you're recovering from COVID like I am, and almost died, you just appreciate a lightbulb on a Christmas tree."