by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s not exactly a story of “The Vaccines That Saved Christmas,” but it’s a hearty dose of hope just before the holy day.
On Dec. 17, COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Nemaha and Marshall counties in the northwest part of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Administration of the vaccines began with medical personnel and medically vulnerable people.
“Hope is a wonderful way to end this year as we go into a holiday season, to have that hope the Christmas season normally brings that we thought would be taken away,” said Ashley Kracht, director of public relations and marketing at Community Memorial Healthcare in Marysville in Marshall County.
“We have something to look forward to in the new year,” she added. “This is really encouraging for our staff.”
There wasn’t much hope just a few months ago. In fact, it was beginning to look downright scary.
Earlier this year, it looked like the Nemaha-Marshall Pastoral Region of the archdiocese had dodged a bullet during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus spread in the metropolitan areas and cities in the rest of the country, the virus seemed to largely ignore some rural areas.
Both Nemaha and Marshall counties recorded their first COVID-19 infections in June and their first deaths in early August. All through the spring and summer, the infection rate was very low.
“Throughout the spring, we were following the state’s quarantine guidelines,” said Kracht. “People were staying home. Businesses were closed. Everyone [who could] was working from home. Over the summer, we continued to see very little impact in our rural communities. Being it was summer, a lot of activities were outside.”
As the weather turned cold, people held more activities indoors. Over the spring and summer, many people had become somewhat complacent and didn’t take the precautions they did earlier.
But in mid-October, the two counties experienced a dramatic spike in COVID-19 infections.
“It’s a fairly significant increase in the last several weeks,” said Dr. Tony Bartkoski on Nov. 17. Bartkoski, a member of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca, treats patients at the Nemaha Valley Community Hospital and Seneca Family Practice, both in Seneca.
“Exponentially, we’re seeing far more patients in the clinic,” he said in mid- November. “We’ve had increase in patients at the nursing home contract this. We’ve seen a major increase in emergency room visits for COVID-related problems. That translates into either transfers to larger hospitals, if we’re able to, or admissions to the hospital.”
At one time, his 16-bed hospital had only one bed available. Larger hospitals in the area were struggling, too, and this made transfers to them difficult. In November, Bartkoski had to call 10 other hospitals before he could find one that could accept a local stroke patient.
In response to the infection spike, Nemaha and Marshall counties implemented mask mandates. Also, people returned to the precautions and practices they had undertaken earlier in the spring.
There was a fear among health professionals that Thanksgiving get-togethers would result in an infection spike, but that didn’t happen. If anything, the infection rates are now increasing only slightly in the two counties.
“Our numbers are improving,” said Bartkoski in mid-December. “That’s despite the people being indoors and around each other. The mask mandate and increased use of masks has certainly helped that. We’re still seeing significant admissions. I think we’re down to one bed again. It seems to go in 10-day cycles.”
Sue Rhodes, RN, administrator of the Marshall County Health Department, reported a steady but slowed increase in the rate of COVID-19 infections in December. The local hospital is not in danger of being overwhelmed.
“Right now, I think they’re doing OK,” said Rhodes. “They’re able to admit their COVID people. If they’re ill enough, they transfer them on. If they can keep them stable and they’re not very ill, they keep them here. It ebbs and flows, how many people they have in the hospital.”
Transfers of local patients to hospitals in larger cities, which are contending with large numbers of COVID-19 cases, are still difficult, said Kracht.
Despite the lower rates of infections and the arrival of vaccines, health professionals in Nemaha and Marshall counties are still cautious. They’re concerned that get-togethers for Christmas and New Year’s Eve and returning college students could cause another spike.
In other words, it’s not over until it’s over.
“The only thing people should remember is when we do get the vaccines, we shouldn’t give up on the prevention duties that we have,” said Rhodes.
It would be a mistake for people to become complacent because the vaccines are being administered.
“Obviously, the vaccines are limited right now, and are not like a light switch,” said Bartkoski. “They don’t work automatically. People still have to stay disciplined with precautions until we start seeing a significant drop and a bigger part of the population is vaccinated.”