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Small Rural Idaho Hospital Faces Potential COVID-19 Spike After July 4th Celebrations


Like a lot of small towns, Grangeville, Idaho, has been struggling economically through this pandemic. The town decided to go forward with its Fourth of July celebration, which includes a three-day Border Days event. But the festivities made the town's 16-bed hospital a little nervous about the possibility of COVID-19 cases spiking like they have lately in other rural areas. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the Idaho mountain town of Grangeville, population 3,200, signs in windows on Main Street advertise that Border Days is on. Local business owners like Joel Gomez are preparing for the potential of thousands of tourists to descend on town.

JOEL GOMEZ: It's going to be a little risky there because, I mean, I feel like we're going to get hit with the corona after this.

SIEGLER: Gomez owns the Trails Restaurant and Lounge, one of the street dance venues. And he's moving everything he can outside, taking reservations and spacing out tables. Border Days organizers say they're taking similar COVID precautions. Now, people here are generally taking the virus seriously. There have only been three confirmed cases since March. And after two months of being closed, Gomez says his business is barely hanging on.

GOMEZ: It's one of those things that you have to survive. You got people out there, and they try to, you know, feed their family. We are in the same boat, you know? And you have to do what you got to do.

ABNER KING: It's pretty hard to do an egg toss in a socially distancing manner.

SIEGLER: Abner King is CEO at the 16-bed Syringa Hospital and Clinic up the street. He says his staff is ready should there be a spike in COVID cases in a couple weeks. Syringa has no intensive care unit or even a ventilator. But they've been preparing and taking precautions since early March.

KING: Yeah. We prepared for a flood, and then we were hit with a drought.

SIEGLER: And they haven't treated a single COVID patient.

KING: That's the tough part about this because you get all ready for this big emergency, and then nothing happens. And then you have to fight complacency a little bit.

SIEGLER: And the irony is that small-town hospitals like this are now on the brink of going broke during the pandemic. Across the country, 12 rural critical access hospitals like this one have closed since the start of the year. At Syringa, King says people just stopped coming into the clinic, even the ER. Revenue dropped in half.

KING: Even without the pandemic, it's - there's not a lot of room for surprises and errors.

SIEGLER: One of the main reasons the hospital has stayed afloat since March is because of federal stimulus money. It's helped pay for the construction of a temporary isolation ward for COVID patients.

KING: We've had a handful of rule-outs.


KING: Good morning.

SIEGLER: Past the small nursing station and down toward the end of a short corridor, you can see a makeshift wall of heavy-duty plastic beneath the fluorescent lights.

KING: We have more air-handling units so that we can put more rooms as negative pressure.

SIEGLER: And King says a separate chunk of federal money - $1.8 million in payroll protection loans - has been a lifeline for avoiding layoffs. That money is running out in the next few days. But King says fortunately, business has recently picked back up as non-COVID patients are starting to return to the clinic and hospital. Now, this is big because in small towns like Grangeville, the hospital is often one of the biggest employers.

MELISSA HOLMAN: I mean, it's been stressful because it's just the unknown.

SIEGLER: Melissa Holman is a nurse in the Syringa clinic. She's back at work now after taking a voluntary furlough for 2 1/2 weeks. Her husband is a rancher, so they've been struggling to juggle caring for their two kids. And she's not convinced schools will reopen here as planned come fall.

HOLMAN: And that could bring another hardship again for our family on trying to cover child care and home schooling, along with maintaining a full-time job.

SIEGLER: Holman is watching as the coronavirus cases are rising steeply elsewhere in Idaho and worries about a similar fate in her community soon.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Grangeville, Idaho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.