Keely Connolly thought she would be safe once the ambulance arrived at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Kansas.
She was having difficulty breathing because she'd had to miss a kidney dialysis treatment a few days earlier for lack of child care. Her potassium was dangerously high, putting her at risk of a heart attack. But she trusted she would be fine once she was admitted and dialysis was begun.
She panicked when a nurse told her that no beds were available and that she would have to be transferred — possibly more than 450 miles away to Denver. She had heard a rumor about a dialysis patient who died waiting for a bed at a hospital in Wichita, about an hour down the road.
"'I don't want to die in the ER,'" Connolly, 32, recalled thinking. "I just wanted them to fix me, but then the woman came in and said, 'There are no beds.' I got really scared and I didn't know if they had time to get me anywhere else."
When a bed was finally located 65 miles away in Salina, Connolly, who has kidney failure, was relieved but worried: How long would she be gone? Who would care for her young daughter? How would she get home? What would it all cost?
Connolly was caught in a situation experts have warned about since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic: Covid-19 patients are overwhelming hospitals, squeezing space and staff needed to treat emergencies like Connolly's.
While it has happened in pockets throughout the country since the spring, the pressure on hospitals is widespread now — reaching into both urban and rural communities at an alarming pace, even as local officials and citizens continue to slam public health departments and pandemic guidelines. Traveling nurses are hard to come by as their services are in high demand nationwide and their pay has escalated beyond the reach of some smaller hospitals.
"This is the first time since I have been here that we've had a scenario where multiple hospitals, for longer periods of time, are experiencing some kind of shortages," said Cindy Samuelson, a senior vice president of the Kansas Hospital Association.
And it got worse after Connolly's emergency in mid-November. The 14-day rolling average positive test rate in Reno County, where Hutchinson is the county seat, reached 46% on Dec. 22, though it has since come down to 24% as of Jan. 4, said D.J. Gering, data analyst for the Reno County Health Department. The results did not include inmates from the Hutchinson Correctional Center, the local state prison.
By Oct. 1, four covid deaths had been recorded in the county of about 62,000. By Jan. 4, the death toll since the pandemic began had jumped to 105. For comparison, Gering said, Reno County had 19 deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza combined in all of 2019.
Hospitalizations at the 190-licensed-bed Hutchinson Regional Medical Center increased 800% from mid-October to mid-December then started to temper at the end of the month, said Chuck Welch, vice president of Hutchinson Regional Medical System.
"I hate to be overly optimistic until we are well past the possible holiday surge from Christmas and New Year's," he said in an email.
Operating between 90% and 95% capacity, the hospital is providing care to patients with a multitude of needs and still has room to expand. The problem, Welch said, has been staffing.
Competing for traveling nurses and specialists against larger hospitals to backfill positions open from sick or quarantining staffers has been challenging. When the hospital has been faced with increasing numbers of covid patients seeking emergency care, handling "normal" emergencies like Connolly's has been much more difficult, Welch said.
While staffers work to transfer patients as close to home as possible, with so many hospitals in Kansas beyond capacity, it has become more common than before to transfer as far away as Colorado and Nebraska. Such transfers require medical flights, which are typically not covered by insurance and can cost patients upward of $50,000, Welch said.
"It is collateral damage," he said. "It is something that has sort of been lost out of the narrative of these folks where everybody is relieved when we find them a bed. Everybody forgets about the downstream impact of the cost of those transports."
Connolly recovered after three days in the Salina hospital. But the question still looms about the costs for her emergency care. Connolly had left her job as a corrections officer at the prison in September because coronavirus cases began to spike inside. Without her employer-sponsored health insurance, Connolly now relies on Medicaid and Medicare Part A, which means she is responsible for more out-of-pocket costs for things like pharmaceuticals and ambulance services.
Connolly worries so much about her finances that she's been too scared to look at her recent ambulance bills. Being a single parent, living with kidney failure and undergoing dialysis during a pandemic are her primary concerns.
As with many underlying conditions, covid-19 appears to pose an extra risk for people with kidney failure and patients undergoing dialysis, said Dr. Alan Kliger, a nephrologist at Yale University and co-chair of the American Society of Nephrology's COVID-19 Response Team.
Data from New York and Europe early in the pandemic showed that about 1 in 5 dialysis patients who acquired covid died, he said. However, the complication and mortality rates have fallen in recent months, according to unpublished survey data from members of the nephrology society, Kliger said.
"It's still a high risk," he said.
For Connolly, the pandemic has also complicated her three-times-a-week 3½-hour dialysis schedule. For example, when her daughter's kindergarten class was told to quarantine for 14 days after an in-class exposure to the virus, she had to scramble to find babysitters so she could attend dialysis.
"I don't want too many people to watch her because of covid," Connolly said of her daughter, adding that she is lucky the girl's father is supportive. But he can't always step in, which means if Connolly can't find a sitter, she may have to skip or reschedule dialysis.
Connolly wants to get another job. But living in a county where so many refuse to wear masks and some elected leaders accuse the health department of providing false information about covid testing rates and statistics makes her afraid to be in public more than necessary.
"I want to work," she said. "I had a good job. I served my community. The reality of knowing how bad it is at the hospital — I have seen it firsthand. And now I am out and seeing people without masks and I am thinking, 'If I get this and I have to go back, I may not leave the hospital next time.'"
The reality, said Kliger, Welch and others, is that while the virus runs rampant, hospitals will struggle to keep up, which potentially endangers medical staffers and anyone needing hospital care — and the virus will continue to spread as long as people refuse to wear masks and disregard scientifically sound guidelines.
Connolly said she would love to see more empathy for people who have underlying health concerns like her from those resisting safety measures such as masks.
"Even if they think that it doesn't work, what if it does? What if it could? I don't really understand how wearing a mask is going to take so much out of your day, compared to someone who is immunocompromised and gets sick," said Connolly. "Or you lose your grandma, or your parent. That's going to affect your life a lot longer than wearing a mask for a little while."
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.