MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A big challenge for hospitals across the country is what to do when their own employees get sick with COVID-19 and they have to find healthy doctors and nurses to cover shifts. For rural hospitals, losing just one doctor can completely upend operations. A little town on the plains in Colorado is dealing with that right now. Colorado Public Radio's John Daley has the story.
JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: Cheyenne Wells is a town with just 900 people. Sixty-three-year-old Kurt Papenfus is the lone full-time ER doc at its 11-bed hospital.
KURT PAPENFUS: I'm chief of staff and medical director of everything at Keefe Memorial Hospital currently in Cheyenne County, Colo.
DALEY: Around Halloween, Papenfus flew back east to visit family. He says he was meticulous on the plane, sitting in front, last on, first off. But on landing in Denver, Papenfus boarded the crowded airport train back to the terminal, and soon alarm bells went off in his head.
PAPENFUS: There were people literally, like, inches from me, and we're all crammed like sardines in this train. And I'm going, oh, my God, I am in a superspreader event right now.
DALEY: A week later, the symptoms hit. He tested positive and decided to drive himself the three hours to the hospital in Denver.
PAPENFUS: 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 (ph).
DALEY: County sheriff's deputies followed his car to be sure he made it.
PAPENFUS: It doesn't just hit and run. This stuff keeps going and going and going.
DALEY: Besides Papenfus, another six employees out of a staff of 62 at Keefe Memorial Hospital had also recently tested positive. Dr. Christine Connolly picked up some of Papenfus' shifts, but she lives 10 hours away by car in Fort Worth, Texas. She says there's not a lot of surge capacity in places like Cheyenne Wells.
CHRISTINE CONNOLLY: It's not just the doctors; it's the nurses. You know, it's hard to get spare nurses. There's not a lot of spares of anything out that far.
DALEY: There are big hospitals a few hours from the town in the Denver area, but they're scrambling to keep staffed up and often can't send help. Small hospitals like the one here typically send their sickest patients to those big hospitals. But with so many people around the region getting sick, Connolly worries hospitals could be overwhelmed.
CONNOLLY: So it's dangerous when the hospitals in the cities fill up and when it becomes a problem for us to send out.
DALEY: At least two Colorado hospitals have hit capacity. Recently, health care leaders created a new command system to transfer patients around the state to make more room. And some little hospitals, which have tight finances, may benefit. But the CEO of a small one in nearby Hugo, Colo., Kevin Stansbury, says it wouldn't take much for his hospital to get derailed, too.
KEVIN STANSBURY: We have the staff to do that so long as my staff has - doesn't get ravaged with the disease.
DALEY: Brock Slabach with the National Rural Health Association says small hospitals are and have long been vulnerable. Sixty-one percent of rural hospitals do not have an intensive care unit, and a third of Colorado hospitals anticipate staffing shortages in the next week.
BROCK SLABACH: This is an unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in right now. I don't think that, in our lifetimes, we've seen anything like what is developing in terms of surge capacity.
DALEY: Meantime, Dr. Kurt Papenfus recently returned to Cheyenne Wells after nine days fighting COVID-19 in the big-city hospital.
PAPENFUS: The rona beast is a very nasty beast, and it is not fun. It has a very mean temper. It loves a fight, and it loves to keep coming after you.
DALEY: He's looking to get back to work if he has a successful recovery but expects to be out of commission for at least two more months.
For NPR News, I'm John Daley in Denver.
KELLY: And that story comes from NPR's partnership with Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.