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The COVID-19 chasm: The pandemic hits the heartland

Middle America is seeing spikes in cases and the exhaustion of fending off the virus

The COVID-19 chasm: The pandemic hits the heartland

A store in downtown Lexington, Neb. (Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 tracking graph for Sedgwick County, Kan., looks like the steep incline at the beginning of a roller coaster. The city of Wichita and its surrounding county went from 143 active cases on June 1 to 2,442 on July 28, according to the Sedgwick County Health Department. By the third week of July, the percentage of people testing positive had soared to 12.8 percent from less than 2 percent on June 1, and the county’s top physician reinstated a ban on gatherings of 15 people or more.

“We anticipated an increase as the county opened up, but the dramatic rise so quickly was unexpected,” health department deputy director Chris Steward said.

Heartland cities such as Milwaukee, Omaha, St. Louis, and Tulsa, Okla., all have graphs that look like Wichita’s. A surge in coronavirus cases is hitting Middle America at the same time as a wave of quarantine exhaustion. Individuals and organizations are struggling to cope with the tension between wanting to stay healthy and needing to connect with others physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

“There’s some serious frustration,” said Dr. Ron Ferris, who runs a Catholic family medical clinic down the street from Wesley Healthcare hospital in Wichita. “We were expecting [the pandemic] to drop off. Now we’re surging. It really is discouraging.”

Death counts for COVID-19 in cities like Wichita have not spiked as much as the active case totals have. Still, everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who had the coronavirus, and no one wants to be responsible for spreading it to a friend or neighbor.

In Webster County, Iowa, the total number of infections is 12 times higher than it was June 1. An outbreak at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility caused part of that increase, but more than half of the county’s nearly 500 cases occurred outside the prison. Steve Roe runs a halfway house in the town of Fort Dodge where 26 men have quarantined since March. He recently started letting the residents go out to do yardwork for community members.

“We can’t live in a bubble any longer,” Roe said. “We just have to surrender all of it to the Lord.”

At the same time, Roe worries about passing the virus on to his wife and daughter, both of whom have autoimmune disorders. Throughout the pandemic, Roe’s wife has lived upstairs, while he lives downstairs, and they sleep in separate rooms. Three elderly friends have died of COVID-19.

“We just have to keep praying that God brings us through it,” he said.

Like elsewhere in the country, the pandemic disproportionately affects the heartland’s minority and immigrant communities. Data from the St. Louis County Health Department show the rate of infection among African Americans and Hispanics there is three times higher than among whites, and African Americans are dying at twice the rate of whites.   

Sean McRae Loftin/Genesis

Rev. Stanish Stanley (Sean McRae Loftin/Genesis)

The Rev. Stanish Stanley, an immigrant from Mumbai, India, serves as the executive director of the Christian Friends of New Americans, a St. Louis–based outreach to new immigrants and refugees in the area. He noted the cultures he serves—people from Bhutan, Bosnia, Congo, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Syria, and more—rely on physical affection and close proximity to establish strong relationships much more than most Americans do.

“The virus is breaking the bond of social togetherness,” he added—a bond new immigrants count on to help them settle in their new countries. The Rev. Angel Viveros in Lincoln, Neb.—which is also experiencing a surge—echoed Stanley’s concerns. He described his Spanish-speaking congregation as “physical, hugging, loud, and encouraging” and said that since the pandemic hit, “we keep our brotherhood by Zoom, by social media, by personal letters.”

The same kind of brotherhood exists among the Burmese Karen population in Garden City, a town in western Kansas where hundreds of refugees have settled and taken food-packing jobs in the past decade. Rene Eihsue came to the United States with his wife about eight years ago from Burma, also known as Myanmar, by way of a refugee camp in Malaysia. They earned their GED diplomas, gained U.S. citizenship, and had two sons, Joseph and John.

When Eihsue first heard news of the pandemic, he began wiping down all of his groceries before bringing them in the house, shaved his head as an infection prevention measure, and took a week’s vacation in April from his job at the nearby Tyson packing plant. “We don’t have family here,” Eihsue said. “We worry a lot.”

On his first day off, he developed a headache that turned into COVID-19, which he likely contracted at work. His wife became sick, too, as did people from at least half of the 20 or so Karen families he knows in Garden City. They all recovered, but Eihsue missed three weeks of work and hasn’t recouped all of his lost wages. He said members of the Karen community have kept in touch over the phone and at work during the pandemic, but they have not gathered as they used to.

“We follow the rules of Americans,” he said.

Those rules have their own cost, which Dr. Ferris has seen firsthand in Wichita. One of his patients suffered a job loss, had a mental breakdown, and got into a car accident, sustaining serious injuries. Hospice patients he cares for are spending their dying days in isolation. Parents have stopped bringing their children to his clinic for well-child visits, and elderly people are missing appointments that would help maintain their health.

“One patient—her mother’s older—and she said, ‘Dr. Ferris, I’m going to blame you if my mother gets sick and dies.’” Ferris’ own mother contracted COVID-19 in a care facility outside Kansas City and survived. Does Ferris think authorities should loosen the precautions and restrictions?

“That’s really hard, because if you relax on your measures … you’d be blamed for not doing enough,” he said. “Each person’s going to have to make their own call.”

Lynde Langdon

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

Lynde Langdon

Sarah Schweinsberg

Sarah is a reporter for WORLD Radio.

Lynde Langdon

Kyle Ziemnick

Kyle is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.