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Editorial, 12/24: Rural hospitals stretched and stressed by new wave of COVID
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Editorial, 12/24: Rural hospitals stretched and stressed by new wave of COVID

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First confirmed in the United States on Dec. 1, the fast-moving omicron variant now accounts for 75% of all COVID-19 cases in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the full force of omicron – which is far more transmissible but appears to be at least somewhat less severe – has yet to be fully felt in Nebraska, which has just a few dozen lab-confirmed cases thus far.

Which means many Nebraskans – particularly in rural areas where vaccination rates are much lower – are likely to contract COVID-19. And their hospitals, many already stressed by staffing shortages and/or financial difficulties, will face another perilous stretch in the coming weeks and months when the inevitable wave crests.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said at a press conference last week that rising COVID case and hospitalization numbers could lead to a statewide halt on elective surgeries. Though the number of available hospital beds – his metric of choice for determining directed health measures – fluctuates day in and day out, the general trend is that both medical and intensive care unit bed vacancies are declining.

As of this writing, only 12% of ICU beds are available, a dangerously low number given the expected rise in case counts and hospitalizations. And 31% of the total number of staffed beds in the state are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Many of those are being transferred from rural hospitals to larger facilities in Lincoln and Omaha that have the greatest number of acute-care beds. And when rural hospital beds fill up with COVID-19 patients, they’re unable to provide the care their community needs – at the expense of both emergency services and those elective surgeries, the latter a major source of revenue.

Nebraska has already lost one rural hospital this year in Oakland, along with several nursing homes in smaller communities across the state. A national report considers 15 Nebraska hospitals as vulnerable to potential closures, with five at high risk.

Critical-care access in Nebraska’s more rural communities is a matter of the utmost importance. Consider the impacts not just for health, but employment, the economy, community vitality, etc. And programs to ensure their continued success – both at the state level, such as a proposed pilot at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and in federal appropriations legislation – are thoughtful investments.

But the ongoing pandemic could threaten the survival of those rural hospitals that need to be protected, much less the needs of those communities’ residents.

Otherwise, the pandemic could claim the existence of hospitals that have worked tirelessly to save the lives of Nebraskans at a time when these facilities’ services were needed most.

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