Deadliest place in America: They shrugged off the pandemic, then their family and friends started dying

Written by on December 12, 2020


COVID-19 has killed 20 individuals in Gove County, Kansas, which has solely 2,600 residents. Sharon DuBois misplaced her mom to the virus. USA TODAY

QUINTER, Kansas — Sitting within the entrance seat of a purple pickup as wind-whipped sorghum husks fly down Important Road like snowflakes, Ivy Charles fingers the white surgical masks slipped down beneath her chin.

“He was a puzzle piece who can by no means get replaced,” she says, tears welling into her drained eyes. “He was speculated to get higher. We weren’t anticipating him to die.”

Simply over a month in the past, the now-rampaging coronavirus pandemic tore via this rural city of 1,000 and surrounding Gove County, killing 20 residents. Amongst them was Charles’ father, Edward “Mac” McElhaney, 78.

Right here, the place most everybody is aware of most everybody else, the pandemic has killed farmers and their wives. The city’s unofficial historian. The beloved grandmother whose bitter cream chocolate cake with chocolate fudge frosting was at all times the speak of the social gathering. The mother whose piano-playing nonetheless echoes within the heads of her mates.

And it has drained the hearts of the survivors. Those that really feel responsible that they recovered. The ambulance employees battling to deal with their personal family. The exhausted physician who watched almost half his sufferers die. 

“It was overwhelming and unhappy and you do not assume you’ve got that many tears to shed,” says Charles, 46. “And also you do.”

As of Thursday, coronavirus has killed the next share of Gove County residents than some other county in america: One out of each 132 individuals has died.

Their intertwined tales illuminate the toll the pandemic has taken on communities throughout the nation as emotional debates over how one can management the an infection have unfolded amid mounting losses.

Even as we speak, mask-wearing stays controversia  in Gove County, and friendships are being strained as authorities wrestle to steer their neighbors to observe fundamental public well being tips, similar to avoiding massive gatherings.

President Donald Trump received the county with 88% of the vote in November, and most of the residents, together with the farmers who increase up corn and sorghum, are deeply skeptical of presidency and public well being orders, typically echoing the language Trump has used about mask-wearing and the pandemic’s severity.

Conservative church buildings just like the Dunkard Brethren — a Protestant religion introduced over from Germany — assist form social life, and the Greenback Basic retailer is the most important retailer for 50 miles in any path. Quinter, the biggest city, is 300 windswept miles west of Kansas Metropolis, and the paved streets surrounding it shortly give option to filth roads.

Many younger individuals transfer away once they can. Gove County’s median age is sort of 50 years previous, a decade older than the nationwide common. Among the many 2,600 residents, coronavirus discovered straightforward targets, particularly as soon as it labored its approach into the nursing residence.

In August, simply earlier than the wave of constructive instances started rising, Gove County leaders mandated everybody put on masks in public. They had been compelled to take away it two weeks later after a sequence of indignant confrontations with their constituents. Across the similar time, somebody anonymously reported the county’s COVID-19 data Fb web page as spam or pretend information, and it was quickly taken offline simply as public officers had been attempting to warn residents of the hazard.

The primary two deaths had been reported on Oct. 7, setting off a wave of concern amongst public well being officers and county managers. By Oct. 13, seven individuals had died, six of them contained in the nursing residence.

Some neighborhood leaders stay involved their neighbors nonetheless aren’t taking the pandemic significantly.

“We live via historical past proper now, and I fear what the historical past books will say about us,” says Ericka Nicholson, 47, who helps run the city’s volunteer ambulance service and survived the an infection.

Nicholson, 47, would not need to be seen as criticizing her neighbors, however she’s typically been the final acquainted face the nursing residence residents noticed as she wheeled them, dying, into a wierd hospital 50 miles from residence. 

“We’ve got to honor these individuals who handed so there’s a story to inform about us in 50 years,” she says. “The individuals who died in our long-term care facility, they’re our id. They’re why we’re right here. And they’re dying.”

A mom’s loss of life, a neighborhood’s loss

Sharon DuBois greets a longtime pal with a hug as the ladies step contained in the cluttered second-hand store she runs on behalf of the library. Kids’s toys and Christmas decorations are piled excessive. Choosing via them are a gradual stream of ladies, some within the skirts and bonnets or head scarfs that mark them as members of the conservative Dunkard Brethren church. Most, however not all, of the ladies put on face coverings.

DuBois is aware of she should not hug: COVID-19 killed her mom contained in the nursing residence a month in the past.

“I knew her time was coming shut, however I nonetheless grieve her loss deeply,” she says. “I’m grateful they’re within the palms of Jesus. However I miss them. And I am sorry we needed to lose them on this approach.”

Born in 1922, Margaret Lee Lewis met Winfred Inloes whereas she was educating second grade in Quinter. She was the daughter of farmers, and he or she married Inloes, the son of farmers, throughout his boot camp go away simply earlier than Christmas 1944. After the warfare, the couple had 5 children, together with DuBois, elevating them on a farm exterior city.

“From the time we may hardly stroll, she’d have us within the kitchen stirring one thing,” says DuBois, 73. “We had issues to do, whether or not it was harvest time or wintertime while you fed cattle or milked cows. It was only a easier time.” 

After her husband died of problems from a mind tumor in 2001, Margaret Lee Inloes lived alone for a couple of years earlier than ultimately transferring into the 42-bed Gove County Medical Middle Lengthy Time period Care Unit. The nursing residence very a lot felt like residence to her: Throughout had been neighbors who had additionally raised households and farmed the Earth, attended the identical weddings and funerals and library bake gross sales.

“She would not dream of going to the eating room with out her lipstick as a result of these had been necessary individuals to her— not simply the workers, however the different individuals there,” DuBois says. “Regardless that her physique and components of her thoughts had been sporting out, she was so grateful for all the individuals round her. It was necessary for her to be correct in your presence. I at all times thought-about it an indication of respect. She wished individuals to know she was respectful of that togetherness.”

Earlier than she handed, Inloes was the one who remembered names, who at all times made time to go to sick mates within the hospital, who volunteered on the second-hand retailer to earn donations for the library and the varsity, who confirmed as much as receptions together with her famend bitter cream chocolate cake with chocolate fudge frosting. One marriage ceremony, DuBois says, her mom made 9 totally different muffins.

“That was a giant a part of her life, to be a supporter of the neighborhood, an encourager. A lot of her work, I am discovering, was performed anonymously, no less than to our household,” DuBois says. “I knew her time was coming shut. However I nonetheless grieve her loss deeply.”

DuBois misses her mom, however she additionally mourns the neighborhood’s incapability to collectively mark the COVID-19 deaths. DuBois counts herself fortunate she was capable of say goodbye in particular person; the medical doctors gave her permission to see her mother earlier than she handed away.

That is why she nonetheless hugs her mates, regardless of the dangers. Due to the harm. 

“As a neighborhood, we’re used to creating peace with somebody’s departure from Earth. And we haven’t been in a position to try this,” DuBois says.

Coronavirus claims city historian

After a lifetime of farming exterior Quinter, Daniel Albert “D.A.” Crist knew nearly everyone within the space, together with Margaret Lee Inloes. Within the twilight of their lives, each had been dwelling on the nursing residence, sustaining social bonds constructed via worshipping on the Quinter Church of the Brethren and having children the identical age.

Most days, DA’s son, Dan Crist, would choose him up from the nursing residence and drive him again out to the household farm, the place the 2 males restored previous tractors and steam engines of the sort that after offered energy earlier than electrical energy arrived. As COVID-19 precautions tightened on the nursing residence, Dan Crist stopped choosing his father up, however would nonetheless go to repeatedly.

D.A. Crist was Gove County’s unofficial historian. Born in 1930 on the household farm, he lived away for a couple of years after school, operating an orphanage for 20 homeless boys within the early 1950s together with his spouse, Carole. He discovered to fly a biplane and in 1954 moved again to Quinter to work his father’s cattle farm till he retired. 

He was born the 12 months Mickey Mouse made his first look, when astronomers found Pluto and employees began constructing the Hoover Dam. He lived via each world wars, Korea and Vietnam, watched farming transfer from horses to tractors, noticed the primary people land on the moon. 

“Up till the virus hit he was sharp as ever,” says Dan Crist, 67. “He was simply tremendous after which they referred to as at 2:30 within the morning and stated he died. I used to be shocked.”

Provides DuBois: “He may title the dates, the occasions, the individuals. Already persons are saying, who’re we going to ask now? D.A. had a approach of telling the tales that you just simply wished to pay attention.”

Like many Gove County residents, Crist hoped believed the agricultural county’s isolation would insulate them from the worst. However Interstate 70 runs via the northern portion of the county, and many vacationers cease to gasoline up or seize lunch on the Dairy Queen. Crist says he is additionally disenchanted that sporting masks — as advisable by medical doctors — has grow to be so political.

“We had been sort of hoping it would not get right here. And it certain did,” Crist says. “Dad was capable of hint household bushes again many generations to when his ancestor Crists got here to America from Austria in 1747, looking for non secular freedom. He was typically requested how people had been associated, and will recall dates of occasions with out a second’s hesitation. We regularly requested Dad to share his tales so we may file them, however his tales had been spontaneous. Now that historian is now not with us.”

He was ‘the rock for our household’

Charles, who works on the hospital and nursing residence, tears up when she thinks of Crist, Inloes and the 15 different residents who died, a lot of whom had no probability to say goodbye to their households. 

At present, there’s an eerie vacancy on the nursing residence: vacant seats at lunch tables, acquainted faces lacking from the window, voices silenced. The ability has basically been locked down for months, so relations nonetheless cannot repeatedly go to the remaining residents. Maybe greater than anybody, Charles has shouldered probably the most grief: She misplaced her personal father and the 17 nursing residence residents she noticed day by day.

“It isn’t simply that everyone is aware of everyone, it is that everyone cares about one another,” Charles says. “It was like shedding 18 relations in a two-week interval.”

Charles’ father, “Mac” McElhaney, was dwelling at residence together with his spouse, her mother, when the 2 obtained sick. Her mom was hospitalized eight days after her prognosis, Charles says, however her father appeared tremendous.

“He was at Day 12 and we just about thought he had overwhelmed it,” she says. “He referred to as me about 4 hours later—  I nonetheless have the voicemail. He stated ‘I simply do not feel proper.'”

Born in October 1942, McElhaney joined the Air Drive in 1962, retiring 22 years later after he and his spouse, Ruth, had three children, together with Charles. The household moved to Boulder, Colorado, after which to Quinter in 1994. He joined the Gove Neighborhood Bible Church, and unofficially ministered to neighborhood members the way in which his father and grandfather had. Charles performed the cell phone recreation Phrases with Buddies with him day by day. After he died, she found he’d been taking part in with many different individuals, strangers who despatched her cash to pay for his funeral.

“He is at all times been the rock for our household— Biblically and total,” she says. “You assume he’s only a retired previous man who goes fishing and drinks espresso and doesn’t do something however in actuality he was nonetheless on the market touching lives.”

As McElhaney’s situation worsened, medical doctors determined he’d have a greater probability of survival on the greater regional hospital in Hays, Kansas, 54 miles east alongside Interstate 70. Working with different EMTs, Nicholson loaded him into “Massive Purple,” an ambulance designed to maintain the virus from reaching the driving force’s compartment.

“She informed him she promised him pie when he obtained higher,” Charles says. “He simply thought that if he went on the ventilator, he’d by no means come off. And in the end that is what occurred.”

‘The final piece of Quinter’

Coronavirus is not performed with Gove County. Residents are nonetheless being pushed to Hays or different greater hospitals for specialised therapy, and instances are more and more popping up within the smaller cities of Grainfield, Gove and Park.

The county’s sheriff, Allan Weber, stays hospitalized 300 miles west in Denver, the place he was flown by medical airplane on Oct. 18. Weber, 64, was reelected to his submit from his hospital mattress at Swedish Medical Middle in Denver on Nov. 3. He first examined constructive Sept. 28.

“The toughest half has not with the ability to see him. It has been pure hell. I cry day by day,” says his daughter, Andrea Dinkel, 40.

Dinkel says too many individuals are refusing to do their half to guard the aged from COVID-19. 

“To take a seat there and say they’re previous that they may die of one thing,” she says, “Effectively, they would not have died of the flu. My dad would not have been within the hospital for a month if this was the flu.”

Regardless of the efforts of native public well being officers and specialists, many residents aren’t taking the lethal pandemic significantly. Bearded farmers stride defiantly down Important Road previous indicators requiring them to put on masks. Faculty remains to be in session and church buildings are open. Somebody threatened to explode the house of a pro-mask county commissioner.

Nicholson, the ambulance employee, can be co-owner of a restaurant and brewery on Important Road, and he or she’s had prospects swear they’re going to by no means come again after she reminded them to put on a masks when choosing up meals. She would not need to wade into the center of a political dispute. She simply needs her neighbors to dwell.

“After we take individuals to a different hospital, I believe, are we the final piece of Quinter, of Gove County, they may ever see?” she says. “These individuals contributed to who I’m, and when I’ve to load them into an ambulance and so they cannot breathe, it is simply so onerous.”

‘A false sense of safety’ gripped residents

Amber Hargitt nonetheless remembers the sensation of dread because the deaths started. A former care assistant on the nursing residence who typically labored overnights, Hargitt, 30, now works for an area florist making and delivering preparations, together with funeral flowers. She nonetheless regrets not returning an surprising late-night name from one of many residents who handed away a couple of days later. 

“I had a sense of impending doom, truthfully,” she says. “There was in the future the place we had 4 names come to us. Both approach, you have a look at it, it looks like it was abruptly.”

Hargitt says she knew a lot of her neighbors would oppose sporting masks as a result of, nicely, that is simply how they’re. Throughout Gove County, the frontier ethos that prompted many conservative Christians to settle and stay there regardless of struggles courting to nicely earlier than the Mud Bowl of the 1930s has left many residents with an angle starting from skepticism to outright hostility towards authorities. The county on Nov. 24 handed a brand new masks mandate that’s solely evenly enforced, and the individuals who put on masks really feel the necessity to clarify themselves to outsiders.

“There’s additionally a major a part of the inhabitants that you just can not inform them what to do; they will not put on a masks, that it is not worse than the flu,” Hargitt says. “The flu is round yearly and we do not lose half the long run care facility from it. That is clearly not the flu.”

Hargitt says she needs her neighbors who dismiss considerations in regards to the virus would see the toll it is taking over the neighborhood and reply accordingly.

Hargitt’s personal father, she says, refused to put on a masks till the burials started mounting on the Quinter city cemetery that he helps handle.

“Numerous us are simply going via the motions attempting to do life as greatest we will,” she says. “It isn’t honest. It is all a lot without delay. It is onerous for us all to course of.”

For a lot of Christians right here, there’s a widespread acceptance that God takes you when it is your time. The Rev. James Thomas, who oversees Gove County’s Catholic parishes, stated he is telling his parishioners to remain residence in the event that they’re sick, however few individuals have been sporting masks whereas they’re singing and celebrating Mass. 

“In our retirement residence, the individuals who died had been aged and had underlying well being circumstances,” says Thomas. “They’d numerous well being points. That is the principle motive.”

Carol Kinderknecht, 71, owns the Christmas Castles retailer in Quinter, promoting nativity scenes, plastic angels and gingerbread homes. Her son is an optometrist on the town, and he or she stated she believes sporting a masks may give individuals carbon dioxide poisoning or contribute to eye infections. 

She says most people who’ve gotten sick with COVID have recovered.

“One factor they do not let you know is that a whole lot of these persons are of their 80s and 90s and are within the nursing residence and are already sick,” she says of the lifeless. “In a small neighborhood, you are going to know everyone. And also you additionally know they have been within the nursing residence for a very long time.”

Dr.  Scott Rempel, the county’s well being officer, shakes his head at how shortly and callously some neighborhood members write off the lifeless from the nursing residence. Rempel, 30, can be a workers physician on the hospital and serves because the nursing residence’s medical director. He and his workers struggled to avoid wasting the lives of people that would in any other case be alive as we speak, however for the virus.

He stated the pandemic’s late arrival in Gove County gave residents time to develop uninterested in the general public well being warnings, particularly when early statistics confirmed Black, Latino and indigenous Individuals are 4 occasions extra prone to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than white Individuals, and are greater than 2.5 almost occasions extra prone to die from it. Gove County is 93% white. Nursing residence residents account for about 40% of all COVID-19 deaths, in line with the Kaiser Household Basis.

“Rural America has at all times been insulated to some extent to the issues that plague extra city areas,” Rempel says. “I believe that gave some individuals a false sense of safety. I believe there was possibly a public notion we’d be OK. However in case you had requested any of the healthcare suppliers, we had been all apprehensive.”

Rempel says it is doubtless a workers member introduced COVID-19 into the nursing residence. In the course of the worst of the disaster, he and his workers struggled to search out greater hospitals  — the closest is 50 miles away — to which they may ship the sickest sufferers from Gove County, a problem that federal well being officers had been warning of for months.

‘The city wasn’t actually prepared for it’

Charles, the nursing residence employee, misses her dad day by day, from the candy texts he’d ship every morning to the “I like yous” and kiss he supplied her mother every night time. The rock of the household, “Mac” was the one nobody ever thought would get sick. She was at her son’s soccer recreation when the medical doctors referred to as to say her father was dying, and he or she rushed down the interstate to be with him.

“He was the one who held everybody up throughout dangerous occasions,” she says, choking again tears.

Like many Gove County residents, Charles is not one to inform her neighbors how one can dwell their lives. However trying again, she needs the neighborhood had taken coronavirus extra significantly, needs individuals had taken to coronary heart the warnings from well being specialists.

“When that first case occurred, the city about shut down as a result of everybody freaked out. However when it actually hit, the city wasn’t actually prepared for it,” she says. “You even hear the highschool children saying, nicely, it is simply previous individuals dying. However they had been a part of anyone’s life. They had been a part of the world. Some individuals say, nicely, if it is your time to go, it is your time to go. However COVID pushed that alongside.”

USA TODAY reporter Matt Wynn contributed to this story.

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