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Serving: KS
Doctor woman use infrared forehead thermometer gun to check body temperature for virus covid-19 symptoms with the isolation gown or protective suits and surgical face masks RyanKing999/Getty Images
WEAK LINK: Early childhood farming lessons taught me at a young age that the strength of something is measured by its weakest part.

COVID-19 puts spotlight on systemic weaknesses

From cracks in our safety net to pitfalls in our healthcare system, we must make repairs.

There’s nothing like a crisis to highlight vulnerability. I remember repeated lessons in my childhood as my dad insisted on getting equipment ready for harvest or planting season.

“What looks perfectly fine often breaks under stress,” he’d say. “Let’s put it under stress now while we have time. We can fix the weaknesses and ensure it won’t break when we need it most.”

When I got to college and professors brought up the argument that the strength of a chain is that of its weakest link, or the strength of a society is the resilience of the most vulnerable, I had early childhood education in what they were talking about.

“If the reel on the combine head has three broken fingers it doesn’t matter if the grain cart is perfect,” I’d think. “It doesn’t matter if everything else works and the augur to move grain into the bin is down. It doesn’t matter if everything else is rolling when suddenly the truck won’t start. It takes all the parts working together to get the job done.”

For too many decades, we have paid too little attention to the resilience of our systems, from health care to schools to caring for the elderly and the chronically ill. Now, we are under stress from the worst pandemic in a century. And stuff is breaking right at the time we need it most.

It’s one thing to say we need to “protect the most vulnerable” such as our nursing home patients. What the heck does that mean if the infrastructure is not in place to do it? Can we daily test the staff coming in? And get the results back before they report to work?

Can we isolate the sick from the healthy?  Can we test the kitchen workers and the janitorial staff daily? Can we provide PPE and training in how to use it to every person who comes in contact with a sick resident?

What do we do when an outbreak occurs in an assisted living home and we have to find the space in the health care system deal with it? When it is some unidentified 85-year-old grandmother in New York, it doesn’t have the impact it does when it is your grandma.

How is Kansas holding up?

So far, Kansas has fared better than many other states. We have two counties that have reported no cases since the pandemic began back in March. At least as I write this. A couple of weeks ago that was five counties. A month ago, it was seven. At the end of May it was 17. We might have continued with this look in rural Kansas had it not been for the problems that arose in the meat packing industry, which is another story.

Now, the virus still primarily remains a big problem in “hot spot” counties, most of them high-population counties such as Sedgwick, Johnson and Wyandotte or in meat packing counties such as Ford, Seward and Finney.

In my backyard, Sedgwick feels like a bonfire with new cases daily topping 100 and hospitals reporting that staff is stressed and exhausted and supplies of PPE being depleted.

“We have ventilators, we have ICU beds. What we’re running out of is medical staff,” one hospital administrator said. That comes as doctors, nurses, paramedics and EMTs are testing positive and being quarantined and others have become ill and even hospitalized.

On July 29, the owner of the new Wichita Wind Surge minor league baseball team died of COVID-19 before seeing even one game played in the new stadium the city had built for his team.

Yes, the actual death rate is “low” by percentage. I’d argue that for 349 Kansas families, it doesn’t matter that “most” people survive. Their loved ones didn’t. And it is important to remember that “survival” doesn’t mean “no problems.” More recent statistics say up to 75% of survivors have heart damage — potentially permanent heart damage. Some have kidney damage or liver damage that require lengthy, expensive aftercare or even organ transplant. How ready are we to deal with that? What does our health care delivery system need?  

OK, let’s take this to farmer terms. You are on the K-State wheat rust website. South Texas is COVERED UP in April. Do you think “fungicide,” or do you think “Ah, it’ll never get here”? Or even more comparatively, “They’re probably lying about it. It’s not that big a deal. It might not even be real.”

I would argue that Texas, Florida, California, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri are covered up. Note to western Kansas: Sedgwick County is covered up. One thing farmers should know for a fact is that disease spreads.

The notion that we can ignore it and it will go away is every bit as silly as ignoring a major new strain of rust in southern Texas. Nature will not be denied. Pathogens replicate.

We either face it. Or we don’t. Let’s not argue about reality. Let’s spend our time and energy on survival and on preparing to deal with the aftermath.

Yes, that might mean some sacrifice, some staying home when we want to go out, to wearing a mask in public places to admitting that some places are just too risky for spread to fully open up. And it includes taking a hard look at what broke under stress and what we need to clean up the mess from the break and fortify the system for next time.

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