The nation’s pandemic hotspots have shifted to rural communities, overwhelming small hospitals that are running out of beds or lack the intensive care units for more than one or two seriously ill patients.
And in much of the Midwest and Great Plains, hospital workers are catching the virus at home and in their communities, seriously reducing already slim benches of doctors, nurses and other professionals needed to keep rural hospitals running.
Nationwide, positive coronavirus cases started rising in mid-September as children and college students returned to school, more businesses reopened and more people started resuming daily activities outside of their homes. Wisconsin and other less populous states became the new hotspots.
This week, per capita rates of COVID-19 were highest in North Dakota, followed by South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Iowa, Arkansas and Illinois. Hospitalization rates also were rising in those states and others.
Health care experts expect that a seasonal spike in flu and pneumonia, combined with a steady rise in COVID-19 cases, will swamp many health care systems, particularly in rural areas.
Wisconsin recently opened a 530-bed field hospital on state fairgrounds in Milwaukee that was set up in the early days of the pandemic but sat unused until now. Last week, 50 beds were readied for patients, and the staff was working on transfers with hospitals that were hitting their capacity limits. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state tripled in the last 30 days.
In Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, no ICU beds were available last week, according to the University of Oklahoma. The lack of beds required medical professionals in those already understaffed hospitals to spend hours on the phone arranging patient transfers to other Oklahoma hospitals.
Fewer than 20 ICU beds were available in the entire state of North Dakota, according to state data. That meant patients had to be transferred hundreds of miles, in some cases to South Dakota and Montana.