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Hospitals Are Nearing Capacity As Coronavirus Cases Surge In Rural America


Health officials in rural America are struggling under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. In the Upper Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, they warn that hospitals are at or nearing capacity. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Here's how things look in rural America to Dr. Andrew Pavia, head of infectious diseases at the University of Utah Hospital.

ANDREW PAVIA: So the situation really has to be described as dire.

SIEGLER: Especially in the Northern Rockies and Upper Midwest states that weren't hit that hard when the coronavirus raged in American cities last spring. Pavia traces the current crisis to colleges and schools here opening back up, as did sports and most extracurricular activities. And states seeing the most new cases like Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota have generally not put many restrictions in place, nor is there much enforcement on large gatherings.

PAVIA: Because of the local politics, they're probably not as drastic or as firm measures as we really needed to turn the tide. So I think the situation in two to four weeks is going to be grim.

SIEGLER: Hospitalizations usually go up two weeks after a spike in cases, deaths a month later. And hospitals in cities like Salt Lake take in overflow patients from surrounding states which had shortages of specialists and intensive care beds before the pandemic. In North Dakota, COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 60% over this time last month. And it's not just ICU capacity that's stretched. This week, the state said it would begin allowing medical staff who test positive for the virus but are asymptomatic to keep treating COVID patients. Here's Republican Governor Doug Burgum.


DOUG BURGUM: This is particularly important for us to help get health care workers and keep them in the game at a time when health care workers is the key constraint in our ability to provide care for everyone.

SIEGLER: Burgum says some people still don't believe the virus is real. He pleaded for them to be compassionate anyway because hospitals are filling up.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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