May 15, 2020

Small Hospital that State Rejected Loses Two
on Staff to Virus with Higher Rural Death Rate

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Texas Death Trek
  County Rates Per 100,000 Population
Ranked on COVID-19 Death Rates
    Deaths Cases Tests
1 Cottle 71.1 288 649
2 Washington 62.8 499 1,624
3 Moore 50.7 2,417 2,869
4 Oldham 47.3 142 1,135
5 Hansford 36.5 274 256
6 Hartley 35.1 158 478
7 Panola 34.4 667 1,175
8 Walker 26.3 502 4,001
9 Shelby 19.6 655 2,285
10 Brown 18.4 134 268
11 Martin 17.8 53 1,120
12 Potter 17.4 1,178 3,529
13 Lynn 17.1 85 1,359
14 Lubbock 16.4 199 1,662
15 Crosby 16.3 34 119

The tiny Hansford County Hospital near the Texas Panhandle's northern tip knew that it would be in trouble as the month of May approached if any more people who'd been infected with the coronavirus were sick enough to need to be admitted there.

Officials at the medical center in Spearman thought they'd found a solution with a plan to use a motel that had been empty as a makeshift facility where it could isolate patients with COVID-19 from the people that it was treating for other ailments until the virus subsided.

But the state rejected the proposal that would have transformed the Nurseanickel Motel into a temporary ward for coronavirus victims in an unexpected decision that the hospital district in the county on the Oklahoma border appealed last week.

The snub sparked a frantic scramble for a backup strategy that's culminated in the separation of a single wing in half with coronavirus patients at one end and folks who are suffering from other maladies at the other.

The danger that the administrators and medical professionals could see on the horizon hit home like a gut punch on Thursday when the hospital announced that two of its employees had tested positive for the virus that's been terrorizing the remote part of the state where the hospital is based. Officials at the facility were still awaiting an answer on its second shot at a green light from the Texas Department of Health for the conversion of the Nurseanickel into a special coronavirus unit when Hansford County Hospital District CEO Jonathan Bailey broke the news about the virus spread to the staff.

The enormous strain that health care systems in the Texas cities have experienced in the first two months of the coronavirus siege has been magnified dramatically in rural outposts like Hansford County where 14 of the 15 people who'd been tested for the coronavirus heading into Thursday afternoon had turned up positive including two who died.

The hospital lost two workers who it needed on the front lines more than ever as the Texas death count reached its highest point in a single day since the virus surfaced here with 58 fatalities in a 24-hour span that ended at mid-afternoon on Thursday. Texas reported more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than it had in one day up to now as well with 1,448 positive tests in the same time frame.

Spearman is a 45-minute drive from the Moore County town of Cactus that's been the epicenter of the worst public health crisis in more than a century with the behemoth JBS beef and sausage processing plant as the central breeding ground for the transmission of the disease that's killed people in neighboring Hartley and Oldham counties as well.

While the Amarillo area has been slammed harder by the coronavirus than any other major Texas population center as a result of its proximity to the JBS slaughterhouse and other smaller meat packing operations. About half of Amarillo is located in Potter County - the state's 38th largest county that ranks eighth in Texas in confirmed coronavirus cases and 15th in deaths.

But Potter doesn't qualify for the top 10 in terms of coronavirus fatalities per capita in Texas where five of the counties in the Panhandle with higher death rates have a combined population of less than 19,000 when Moore County isn't factored into the equation

Cottle and Oldham counties are first and fourth respectively in the corona grim reaper toll on a per capita basis with one apiece. Perched at the foot of the Panhandle about 120 miles west of Wichita Falls, Cottle has a population of less than 1,400 including nine people who've been tested for the coronavirus and four who were infected with the respiratory disease that attacks its targets from head to toe.

One of the three people who've been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Oldham County was a 40-year-old woman who did not survive. But the Oldham resident who'd worked as a business analyst in the county seat of Vega didn't catch the disease while working on an assembly line or visiting a loved one in a nursing home or prison. She and countless others were apparently injected while attending a high school basketball tournament in Lubbock on the same day in early March that Austin Mayor Steve Adler cancelled the massive film and music festival South by Southwest.

Ranked as one of the top 2A teams in the state before the playoff game at South Plains College, the Vega Longhorns were victims of an upset that the Sundown Roughnecks pulled off four days before the female fan started coming down with the symptoms that would lead to her death.

The suspected outbreak at the event that was supposed to be a source of joy for young and old alike explains why Lubbock County had the highest rates of deaths and infections that were confirmed in the early stages of the coronavirus surge in Texas where the first cases were reported on the same day that the disease was passing through the bleachers at the schoolboy sports event. Potter is the only Texas county with a population over 100,000 that's recorded a higher number of deaths per capita than Lubbock.

Two hundred miles to the east in Wichita County that's anchored by Wichita Falls, the per capital count of coronavirus fatalities has been almost 11 times smaller than the Lubbock rate.

But the killing spree that got an early start in Lubbock had seemed to be fizzling before the disease struck and killed an employee for the city of Tahoka 30 miles to the south in Lynn County in the third week of April when Crosby County on the eastern edge of Lubbock County recorded two coronavirus deaths.

With Dalhart as the largest city, Hartley County on the New Mexico line northwest of Amarillo has matched Hansford with two coronavirus fatalities including the first that was recorded in the final week of April when a resident who'd been quarantined with a family member died at home. Nine of 17 people who'd been tested for the virus in Hartley County had the disease.

Washington County which ranks 89th in population in Texas arguably has been devastated as much or more than anywhere else in the state with the 14th highest number of deaths from virus infections and the second worst per capita. A nursing home in Brenham about halfway between Houston and Austin had been identified as the source of the outbreak that's claimed 22 lives there.

Washington has a higher rate of fatalities from COVID-19 than Moore County, which has had the most confirmed cases by far in the state. But Washington County has 10,000 more residents than Cottle, Oldham, Hansford, Hartley, Lynn and Crosby counties combined.

While the numbers are astronomical in the urban areas compared to their rural counterparts, the vast majority of people in the major Texas cities don't actually know anyone who has died from a coronavirus infection. That's not the case in the places in the hinterlands where most folks know everyone in town.

One death in a town the size of Paducah as the Cottle County seat is all it takes to have the entire community grieving.

Revelations about a COVID-19 infiltration of a staff at a hospital in a town as small as Spearman where less than 3,500 people live creates a while new challenge for an administrator like Bailey in Hansford County where he sought to assure the community on Thursday that the facility was doing all it could to keep it as safe as possible.

"We have followed all required notification and testing protocols for individuals with whom they had close contact since May 4," Bailey said of the members of the medical and clinical staffs that tested positive. "We cannot be definitive about the source of the infection but remain confident in our personal protection standards for all employees and patients."

But the Hansford County Hospital chief acknowledged that the facility had been anticipating an increase in coronavirus cases there as restrictions were eased amid the reopening of Texas that Governor Greg Abbott has been directing with a second phase set to begin on Monday.

The task has been complicated even more in the wake of the state's refusal to go along with the plan to shift the virus patients to the motel after the hospital reached out for help.


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