Sacrificing for the “Normal”

St. Claire Regional Medical Center overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients

Last night, CNN did another story on the Covid situation in Morehead, KY focusing on the struggles of St. Claire Regional Medical Center to cope with the Omicron wave that’s now really digging in to Kentucky.

Dr. Aaron Parker Banks gets emotional when talking about the toll Covid-19 has taken on his tightknit rural community in northeastern Kentucky, where he works as the only physician at a clinic… [T]he state’s health care workers are once again bearing the brunt of the brutal surge.In rural areas such as Owingsville, Kentucky, where Parker Banks works, resources are stretched, with health care workers out sick themselves.”It definitely puts a strain on the system, on an already-strained system,” Parker Banks said. “Right now, we have probably a 40% reduction in staff currently, today, due to Covid or Covid exposure. With that, everybody else here has to pick up a significant amount.

I live 20 miles away from Owingsville in Morehead, KY and my wife is a family practice NP working for St. Claire Hospital in a Morehead clinic. The situation is surreal. There were 100 more cases in this county yesterday, yet over 50% of the population remains unvaccinated and hardly anyone is masked in the local stores and restaurants. Life is relatively normal “except” for the hospital where the intensity is peaking the same way it was during the height of the delta wave last September.

St. Claire Hospital is a big part of the community here in Morehead but the disconnect between hospital and community has been palpable and frankly disorienting. At the height of the delta wave, people were having outdoor neighborhood gatherings and would greet me as I walked by. My wife was working the Covid unit then and I remember a friend at a gathering calling out and being very surprised when I told him things were worse rather than better. In fact, people were still dying of Covid from the Delta wave in December two months after the wave crested. Anyway, I remember my friend moving back to the party and disengaging by thanking my wife for “her service.” The surface motivation might have been to express gratitude, but thanking my wife for her service was also a profoundly distancing gesture.

There are many possible layers for that kind of distancing–American optimism thwarted, avoidance, cooties, whatever. What I think about is the way “getting back to normal life” has been such a standard reference during the pandemic. In this case, it was like my wife and the hospital were sacrificing so other people could be “normal” while “normality” has not only required sacrifice from the hospital but from all the people who have been killed or seriously ill as a result of Covid. People themselves weren’t willing to sacrifice much to combat the pandemic, but were quite prepared for other people to sacrifice so they could “get back to normal” after each wave, thousands locally (12,000+ in Kentucky) and hundreds of thousands nationally. Few things have become more evident than the unsatisfactory character of the “normal” in the overwhelmingly white parts of rural America. Narrowing economic prospects, declining life spans for men and women, pervasive alcoholism, increasing rates of suicide, and the epidemics of meth, heroin, and opioid addiction all testify to the difficulty of staying afloat in areas like rural Kentucky. Yet people are still desperate to have it.