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With rural Kansas close to reopening, doctor remains nervous

May 1, 2020 GMT
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In this Wednesday, April 29, 2020 photo selfie provided by Dr. Beth Oller, Oller, a family physician, smiles while standing outside her medical clinic, just south of Main Street in Stockton, Kan. Oller began preaching social distancing well before her home of Rooks County confirmed its first coronavirus case and now she's nervous about the state reopening its economy too soon. (Dr. Beth Oller via AP)
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In this Wednesday, April 29, 2020 photo selfie provided by Dr. Beth Oller, Oller, a family physician, smiles while standing outside her medical clinic, just south of Main Street in Stockton, Kan. Oller began preaching social distancing well before her home of Rooks County confirmed its first coronavirus case and now she's nervous about the state reopening its economy too soon. (Dr. Beth Oller via AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Dr. Beth Oller would like Kansas to remain under a stay-at-home order a while longer, even as some neighbors in her rural northwest county are restless to see business return to normal.

Oller and her husband are family physicians in their late 30s in Stockton, a town of 1,300 people roughly halfway between Kansas City to the east and Denver to the west. They watched as the coronavirus pandemic crept ever closer from those two metropolitan areas, each some 300 miles (480 kilometers) away.

The first positive case in Rooks County was one of Oller’s patients, confirmed on Palm Sunday, April 5. A few days after Easter, the doctor’s husband displayed mild symptoms. He later tested negative.

Just before Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced plans to allow many Kansas businesses to start reopening next week, Oller worried that the restrictions are being abandoned too soon, with potentially deadly consequences. Meanwhile, neighbors worry that tight restrictions in a rural county with few coronavirus cases will kill their livelihoods.

“I think we need to extend the orders a bit longer,” Oller said in a Zoom interview, adding that she is prepared for a reopening that’s “not going to look like what those of us in the public health sector would love it to look like.”

Kansas reported more than 4,200 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Thursday — a jump of 500, or 13.4% in a single day — along with 129 COVID-19 related deaths. Rooks County, with about 5,000 residents, has had six confirmed cases and no deaths. The actual number of coronavirus cases is likely far higher because of limited testing.

Stan Morin said he can operate safely by wearing a mask and limiting customers to one or two at a time in his barbershop a few storefronts from Main Street in Plainville, the largest town in Rooks County, with about 1,900 residents.

The 78-year-old has cut hair there for nearly 60 years. People like to gather at his shop for morning coffee and political chatter. He’s had to shutter it and burn through savings while he and his wife live on their Social Security. He hopes the state’s economy starts to reopen next week.

“I’m just going nuts,” he said. “It’s hurt our economy, big time.”

Most infected people have mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two or three weeks, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, or death. Kansas confirmed its first case March 7.

Since then, Kelly has ordered the state’s K-12 schools closed. The Rooks County health officer issued a stay-at-home order March 27, ahead of the first confirmed case there. Kelly announced her order the next day.

She outlined a plan Thursday evening for a phased-in reopening of the state’s economy by June 15 with many businesses — but not bars, gyms or barbershops like Morin’s — allowed to reopen Monday, when her stay-at-home order has expired. Even businesses reopening first face some restrictions, and Kelly is allowing officials in each of the state’s 105 counties to impose stricter rules.

Some Rooks County residents saw the stay-at-home order as extreme. Glen Eickleberry, the 48-year-old owner of G&S Roustabout oil field services company in Palco, with roughly 270 residents, called the economic shutdown “ridiculous” and a “catastrophe” that has reduced his small firm’s business by 80%.

Adam Bryant, a 41-year-old state park ranger, has lawn-mowing and sign-making businesses in Stockton.

“I don’t know how anybody’s supposed to survive,” without the economy reopening, he said.

Oller was preaching social distancing on live Facebook posts weeks before Rooks County confirmed its first coronavirus infection. She and other doctors faced skepticism about the outbreak, and even local residents who accepted social distancing weeks ago are more than ready for the stay-at-home order to expire at midnight May 3.

Oller supported the shutdown. Her county’s only hospital, in Plainville, has 25 beds and no intensive care unit. She worried that a surge in coronavirus cases statewide would prevent her patients from being transferred elsewhere for treatment — the normal practice with serious trauma cases.

And a few days after Easter, she was struggling with the possibility of being a single parent to her four young children. Her husband was showing coronavirus symptoms and had isolated himself in a vacant rental home they own while waiting for his negative test result.

Even with only six confirmed cases as of Thursday, Rooks County had 1.2 for every 1,000 residents, putting it among the state’s top 20 counties. The state’s rate was 12% higher, 1.46 cases per 1,000 residents.

“Small business owners are suffering, and I know that,” Oller said. “But my fear is, we open things up too quickly and we just have to end up shutting them down again because we have huge surges of numbers.”

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