A small town dragged its feet on COVID-19 mask mandates. Now residents are paying the price.
Written by B87FM on December 11, 2020
DODGE CITY — Within the midst of a worsening pandemic, as coronavirus instances climbed, elected leaders in a former frontier city well-known for its gunfights confronted a selection.
They may move a masks mandate on the urging of well being specialists, or reject the measure blasted by some as a violation of their private freedoms.
The 5 commissioners of Dodge Metropolis, Kansas, a politically pink cattle group of some 27,000 individuals, had resisted such measures all summer season and into fall. Like different components of rural and small-city America, Dodge Metropolis had largely returned to regular after shaking off the pandemic’s first wave.
However then a second wave hit Dodge Metropolis. Individuals began getting sick once more.
By the point commissioners handed the masks mandate on Nov. 16, greater than 1 out of each 10 county residents had contracted the virus. At the least a dozen of them had died.
COVID-19 has unfold quick and lethal in Dodge Metropolis and different small cities the place residents ignored public well being pointers and refused to put on masks. Many individuals lived as they all the time had: going to work, procuring and visiting mates with out fear.
In communities the place mask-wearing has change into a political inflection level, the toll of the virus has surpassed even essentially the most terrifying early days seen in America’s large cities.
A USA TODAY evaluation discovered that in current months, the weekly charges of newly reported instances are highest in rural counties and solely barely decrease in different non-metropolitan communities.
The development began on Aug. 7, and inside two months, individuals in rural counties have been virtually twice as more likely to have contracted COVID-19 inside the final week in comparison with individuals who dwell in city areas. Counties with metropolis populations that complete 20,000 to 250,000 individuals — like Dodge Metropolis’s dwelling of Ford County — present an analogous hole, reporting 54% extra instances within the earlier week than metropolitan areas on common.
Since mid-November, the weekly charge of COVID-19 deaths in rural America has been larger than it has ever been in city counties.
“The agricultural communities have been sort of lulled into complacency, feeling they have been naturally blessed with open areas and large sky and that COVID-19’s a metropolitan downside,” mentioned Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary of the Kansas Division of Well being and Surroundings. “However the chickens have come dwelling to roost.”
Dodge Metropolis officers knew COVID-19 was critical from the beginning, mentioned Mayor Joyce Warshaw. But it surely wasn’t till the specter of flu season and the rise in nationwide instances that town fee felt compelled to move a masks mandate, she mentioned.
By then, Warshaw had been personally affected, as her daughter had contracted COVID-19. Warshaw’s aunt additionally lately died from the virus.
“We simply felt like we needed to do one thing so everyone was conscious of how vital it was for everyone to be answerable for one another’s well being and well-being,” she mentioned.
However weeks later, residents brazenly defy the mandate. And, as of early December, police had carried out nothing to implement it.
At Purple Beard Espresso on Gunsmoke Avenue earlier this month, there have been no indicators reminding individuals to placed on masks. Neither the employees nor most prospects wore them.
At Tacos Jalisco on Wyatt Earp Boulevard, indicators in English and Spanish alerted prospects to the masks protocol, however neither employees nor most prospects wore them inside throughout a current go to by USA TODAY.
Enterprise house owners who attempt to implement the masks mandate usually face resistance.
On the Ensueno Boutique on 2nd Avenue, proprietor Andres Lima, 61, mentioned he’s been requiring prospects and employees to put on masks because the summer season, no matter what the federal government required. His retailer has bilingual masks guidelines posted on the entrance doorways, and retailer clerk Esthela Cisneros is pregnant.
“It’s for the protection of the individuals who work right here and for the individuals who are available in,” he mentioned, talking amidst wedding ceremony robes and glowing quinceañera clothes. “Some individuals say ‘I’m not sick,’ however we inform them, ‘that’s not the issue. In your security, you could put on one.’”
As of Dec. 4, native police had issued no tickets for violations of the masks ordinance. The police division had obtained just a few complaints about individuals flouting the rule, mentioned Dodge Metropolis Police Chief Drew Francis.
Different complaints, he mentioned, have come from opponents of the mandate.
“Now we have taken a number of complaints from group members talking on to officers about their place that that is unconstitutional authorities overreach and desirous to know if the police division goes to permit itself for use to oppress the individuals,” Francis mentioned.
Steeped in Wild West lore, Dodge Metropolis prides itself on the unbiased cowboy ethos.
Within the 1800s, it served as a vacation spot for cattle headed for the railroad, attracting cowboys, gamblers, buffalo hunters and troopers. The town turned well-known for its saloons, outlaws and legendary lawmen like Wyatt Earp. It cemented its place in fashionable historical past when it served because the backdrop for the tv present Gunsmoke for 20 years.
Dodge Metropolis is essentially the most populous city in Ford County and one of many largest cities in western Kansas.
Virtually a 3rd of residents are foreign-born, 62% are Hispanic. The median family earnings is $52,000, about 10% decrease than state and nationwide averages, in line with current U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
The group is surrounded by cattle feedlots that offer Dodge Metropolis’s two meat packing vegetation, which make use of 1000’s of individuals. Alongside the primary road, Wyatt Earp Boulevard, car-parts shops sit alongside heavy-equipment dealerships and fertilizer depots. Massive fuel stations promote diesel gasoline to energy the regular stream of vans delivering cattle to the processing vegetation and hauling beef merchandise to shops nationwide.
COVID-19 was first found in Kansas in early March and, because the illness picked up steam, Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, ordered a brief, statewide stay-at-home order. Colleges closed. Companies shuttered. Individuals stayed dwelling.
Nonetheless, the illness unfold furiously by means of Ford County. On March 17, officers introduced the first case of COVID-19 in the community. Quickly, viral clusters that started in the packing plants led to an increase in instances that, at one level, made Ford County one of many worst hotspots in Kansas.
In Kansas — like many of the U.S. — the virus has disproportionately harmed non-white and Hispanic households. Statewide, the speed of reported instances is twice as excessive amongst Hispanic residents and the speed of deaths is 27% larger. (Kansas doesn’t publish race or ethnicity COVID-19 information at a county degree.) Particularly within the spring and summer season, quite a few outbreaks have been recognized at meat packing vegetation that rent many Hispanic staff, together with the 2 beef processing vegetation in Dodge Metropolis.
Metropolis commissioners started holding their conferences on-line in April and obtained common updates from native well being officers. Dodge Metropolis leaders promoted good hygiene, social distancing and sporting masks, although they stopped wanting a mandate.
The town fee resumed its in-person conferences on and off over the subsequent few months. Once they met in individual, they sat at tables with more room between the elected officers, who usually wore masks.
“Let’s have a look at sporting a face masking as our assertion that we’re working to make Dodge Metropolis one of the best place to be,” town wrote on its Fb web page on July 3. “Let’s lead on this response to beat this fast-spreading hazard to our group.”
However many individuals refused. And when the lockdowns of the spring expired, mobility monitoring information reveals many rural and small metropolis residents shortly resumed their regular lives.
In June, individuals in rural communities throughout the nation, on common, visited retail and recreation institutions at charges just like earlier than the pandemic, in line with Google cellular phone information. By early July, counties with small cities additionally have been again to regular ranges. City residents have been slower to return, with visits to retail and recreation websites averaging about 15% under pre-pandemic ranges.
And the week of Independence Day, 75% of rural residents and 73% of small metropolis residents left dwelling in comparison with 68% of individuals in metropolitan areas, in line with the evaluation.
Whereas Dodge Metropolis officers continued to stave off a masks mandate, residents on each side of the difficulty have been battling one another on a group Fb web page.
“I dwell in a free nation,” one individual wrote in July. “I can’t put on a masks. Stop being a silly crybaby liberal.”
“The conceitedness and ignorance is simply comical,” one other individual responded. “Like I mentioned, nobody is asking you to surrender a kidney. When you outline freedom by sporting a masks, you’re the silly crybaby.”
The decrease an infection charges earlier within the 12 months made it straightforward for officers, notably these in pink communities like Dodge Metropolis that supported President Trump, to brush apart the recommendation of docs, scientists and different well being officers. By early August, 77% of 105 counties in Kansas didn’t have a masks mandate, in line with a CDC evaluation of knowledge from the Kansas Well being Institute.
Diminished case counts over the early summer season months created a false sense of safety, Norman mentioned.
“It’s not distinctive to the agricultural areas, however the rural areas have been much less more likely to keep on with masks, social distancing, limits on restaurant patronage and the like,” Norman mentioned.
A current examine by the College of Kansas Institute for Coverage and Social Analysis discovered a 50% drop within the unfold of COVID-19 in Kansas counties that had a masks mandate in comparison with these with out. Final month, the CDC revealed an updated version of the analysis, reaching the identical conclusion: Mandates labored to cut back an infection charges and locations with out them noticed quicker case progress.
The political battle over masks has annoyed medical professionals in already stretched-thin rural hospitals, who’re seeing sick individuals flooding into ill-equipped services. Leaders of metropolitan care centers are also apprehensive as smaller services ask to ship their sufferers.
“Individuals are struggling and dying,” mentioned Dr. Angela Hewlett, medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on the College of Nebraska Medical Middle. “Individuals are persevering with to collect in teams and exit to eating places and bars. I’d ask individuals to cease politicizing the virus, cease politicizing the masks. This isn’t a political problem. That is life and loss of life.”
Like many others nationwide, Dodge Metropolis schools reopened in August, providing each in-person and digital lessons. About 95% of the 7,000-plus college students returned for in-person studying, mentioned Dodge Metropolis Public Colleges spokeswoman Kerri Baker.
The faculties applied quite a few security measures, akin to requiring college students and employees to put on masks, inserting hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas, spreading seats not less than six ft aside and disinfecting routinely.
However whereas face coverings have been required at faculties, native leaders nonetheless hadn’t permitted a masks mandate, so face coverings have been optionally available in different public areas. That meant extra probabilities for the illness to unfold from exterior the faculties to inside.
And it did.
Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, greater than 370 faculty district college students and employees examined optimistic for COVID-19, Baker mentioned. The soccer crew cancelled its final recreation of the season after three gamers examined optimistic and 6 others have been in quarantine.
Sabrina Frerichs — an elementary faculty trainer for the district — was among the many many victims of the second wave to hit Dodge Metropolis.
Frerichs awoke in the midst of the night time on Oct. 29, freezing chilly and with a fever. It got here out of nowhere, she mentioned, as had the ache in her abdomen that had been bothering her for days.
Inside per week of testing optimistic, Frerichs mentioned, she may barely eat or drink. She grew weaker, and her blood oxygen ranges have been falling.
The 39-year-old was admitted to the hospital, the place she stayed on oxygen for 4 days. When she got here dwelling — nonetheless exhausted and aching badly — she wanted to make use of an oxygen machine.
Frerichs’ husband and three daughters additionally got here down with much less critical instances of COVID-19. Solely Frerichs’ 14-year-old son has averted the sickness to this point.
“I fear concerning the burden financially that is going to tackle my household,” she mentioned, including she has been planning faculty classes whereas recovering at dwelling. “Insurance coverage will not cowl all the things. I fear concerning the long-term results on my well being.”
Relating to the masks mandate, Frerichs retains her opinions to herself due to the divisiveness in the neighborhood over the difficulty.
However since being recognized, Frerichs has continued to battle after-effects of the illness, together with tremors in her arms, intermittent tingling in her arms and ft, speedy coronary heart charge, palpitations and shortness of breath.
Even brushing her hair or getting dressed has been exhausting.
“I by no means thought covid did all of this,” she posted on Fb on Nov. 27. “Keep wholesome and secure please.”
The primary symptom for Karyn Garcia, a 29-year-old trainer’s aide within the faculty district, was blinding migraines. She thought it was stress, so she took Tylenol and continued working and caring for her two children.
Two weeks later exhaustion set in, together with shortness of breath, physique aches and fever. A check on the native expo middle confirmed she had COVID-19.
Garcia instantly went into quarantine along with her kids, neither of whom bought the virus.
This is not like simply every other virus, she mentioned. The bone-crushing weariness, the up and down fever — it simply feels completely different, she mentioned.
“It is scary, to be sincere,” Garcia mentioned.
Whereas Frerich has a physician close by, many rural communities and small cities struggling essentially the most throughout the present COVID-19 surge do not have hospitals and even medical clinics, forcing individuals to drive lengthy distances to get care or discouraging them from even making an attempt.
Hewlett, with the College of Nebraska Medical Middle, mentioned assessments may be onerous to return by in rural areas and the turnaround time for outcomes can take per week. By then, if individuals aren’t quarantining, the illness could have unfold.
“Our social bubbles are larger than we predict,” Hewlett mentioned.
Medical professionals in rural America are exhausted, she mentioned. They’re working a number of shifts and are worn down from sporting robes, gloves and N-95 masks for hours on finish. In the meantime, docs in personal apply are serving to carry the load by choosing up shifts on the hospital, Hewlett mentioned.
Dodge Metropolis’s Western Plains Medical Advanced has solely 10 ICU beds and 6 ventilators, however officers say they haven’t been at capability — but.
Southwest Kansas counties have a complete ICU capability of 22 beds at 18 hospitals for the area’s roughly 143,000 residents, state officials report.
On Sept. 1, these hospitals reported 17 ICU sufferers, together with 9 hospitalized with COVID-19. By Dec. 7, 18 of the 21 ICU sufferers have been being handled for COVID-19 and just one staffed mattress remained open. One other 63 individuals with COVID-19 stuffed different in-patient beds.
The state is sending ventilators to hospitals all through Southwest Kansas as a result of they’re seeing so many COVID sufferers, Norman mentioned. Because of that effort, state figures present the area has not but been near working out of ventilators this fall.
Some hospitals have run out of beds and are transferring individuals to Denver or different cities in Kansas, although the state doesn’t publicly observe these numbers. The flexibility of these bigger hospitals to simply accept new sufferers may run out as case numbers rise domestically and in surrounding communities that depend on metropolitan services for essential care.
“I don’t know how one can be a COVID-19 denier all of the whereas the hospital in your personal group is filling up and case volumes are going up dramatically,” Norman mentioned. “It doesn’t make any mental sense. I don’t perceive it.”
On Nov. 16, Dodge Metropolis residents filed into metropolis corridor, the place officers have been set to vote on the mask mandate.
Amongst them was Ford County doctor adviser Dr. R.C. Trotter, who in April urged residents to put on masks on a Kansas radio program. This time, he was urging commissioners to take motion.
Only one contaminated individual impacts everybody round them, he mentioned. And there may be long-term results from the illness, akin to harm to the mind, lungs, coronary heart and circulatory system.
“It’s not an invasion of your rights, no extra so than you possibly can’t drive as quick as you need on the highway, and you’ll’t drive with out your seatbelt and you’ll’t smoke on this room,” he mentioned.
Exterior the commissioner’s room, a few dozen protesters decried the proposed mandate.
Most residents who testified mentioned that the mandate could be an infringement on their rights, that it will be onerous to implement or that kids have been being psychologically traumatized by having to put on masks.
Casey Fitzgerald advised commissioners the pandemic had been overblown.
“I’ve been in the neighborhood for 12 years, served within the navy 21 years, nonetheless serving,” Fitzgerald mentioned. “You all know that is the land of the free. So I’m asking you to permit everybody right here to stay free and make the selection whether or not to put on a masks or not”
A couple of residents inspired commissioners to comply with the recommendation of medical professionals.
Laura Williams — who has a number of sclerosis and has quarantined herself 3 times after doable exposures to the virus — inspired commissioners to impose the mandate. No one needs a masks mandate or a shutdown, she mentioned. However the virus must be managed.
“When you don’t know any individual who has been examined optimistic, who’s been hospitalized, who’s been unwell, or, God forbid, died, you’re fortunate,” Williams mentioned.
Dodge Metropolis commissioner Joseph Nuci, who was the only real vote towards the mandate, agreed that masks, handwashing and different security measures assist sluggish the illness. However the mandate was a step too far.
“If we do that, then what’s subsequent?” Nuci mentioned. “Not permitting individuals to journey? Forcing individuals to clean their arms as quickly as they enter a restaurant?”
On Nov. 18, Gov. Kelly again ordered a statewide mask mandate. Counties throughout Kansas have been allowed to choose out of it, although, as a result of the Republican-led state legislature granted them the ability to take action of their summer season session as a part of a compromise negotiated with Kelly.
Some, together with Ford County, opted out. The three Ford County commissioners, all Republican, walked into their assembly on Nov. 24 and unanimously rejected the mandate.
Ford County is now within the minority of Kansas counties with no masks mandate. As of Dec. 2, 66 of 105 counties had a countywide masks mandate, though 1 / 4 of them specified they’d encourage compliance however not implement it, in line with a USA TODAY evaluate of data compiled by the state Division of Emergency Administration. One other 14 counties have handed resolutions recommending, however not requiring, masks use.
The blended messages from native leaders makes life tougher for enterprise house owners like Larry Prepare dinner, 64, co-founder and brewer at Dodge Metropolis Brewing on third Avenue. He mentioned he wished native leaders would do extra. Prepare dinner mentioned he worries each night about patrons who ignore the prominently posted indicators requiring prospects to put on masks.
“I had one buyer come within the different day, not sporting a masks, and I advised him he needed to,” Prepare dinner mentioned. “He simply stared at me. I stared at him. After which he mentioned, ‘I do not eat in commie institutions’ and left. It wears me out. I am simply exhausted the entire time.”
Whereas some in Dodge Metropolis proceed about their lives as if the pandemic didn’t exist, life has modified dramatically for some who’ve struggled with COVID-19. Many, like Karyn Garcia, have totally recovered and returned to work. Others are nonetheless affected by lingering results of the virus.
Frerichs is coping with neurological issues from the sickness. She has had bother strolling and speaking at occasions. She sleeps simply 4 or 5 hours an evening due to physique ache. She nonetheless wants oxygen. Generally, her left arm and proper leg twitch involuntarily.
She simply needs all the things to return to regular.
“I feel most individuals sick this lengthy marvel if it’ll ever finish or if they may ever be effectively once more,” Frerichs mentioned. “Effectively, I’m questioning.”
Norman, the state well being secretary, mentioned he’s hopeful that the Dodge Metropolis masks mandate will assist include the unfold within the broader county. However he worries that as the vacation season reaches its top and other people proceed to dwell near-normal lives, Kansas’ rural communities and small cities will see extra darkish days.
“These communities and counties that haven’t chosen to place in what I’ve known as ‘anti-contagion measures,’” he mentioned, “are simply denying actuality.”
Dodge Metropolis Globe Editor Vincent Marshall, USA At this time investigative reporter Jessica Priest and USA At this time information reporters Dan Keemahill and Dian Zhang contributed to this story.