A tent used as a lunchroom at the Quinter Junior-Senior High School in Quinter, Kan., sits on the school grounds in mid-October as part of the local school district's efforts to combat a COVID-19 outbreak that has hit Gove County in northwestern Kansas hard in late 2020.

A tent used as a lunchroom at the Quinter Junior-Senior High School in Quinter, Kan., sits on the school grounds in mid-October as part of the local school district's efforts to combat a COVID-19 outbreak that has hit Gove County in northwestern Kansas hard in late 2020.

Trevor Hughes likes to tell people he grew up on a dirt road next to an apple orchard in Vermont, where his parents received The Burlington Free Press every day. Hughes fell in love with the idea that journalists knew what was happening before everybody else and then could tell people about it.

“You could learn things and share that with the bigger world and help people make decisions about how to live their daily lives,” says Hughes.

USA Today national correspondent Trevor Hughes

Trevor Hughes

He worked for his college newspaper, The Daily Free Press, at Boston University before covering politics for three years in the city. “All of the politics in Boston are national politics, even though they’re local politics,” he says, citing Massachusetts’ history of producing politicians with big ambitions, from John Kerry to Mitt Romney.

The beat was interesting and nationally important, but Hughes felt it lacked meaning. “I eventually got frustrated because I felt like I was covering things that didn’t matter to ordinary people,” he says. “They would matter to people in the long run. But it was a lot of stuff that just didn’t feel like it had daily relevance to people’s lives.”

So he swapped one brand of frigid winters for another, moving to Colorado (so he could ski more often). But with his journalism connections rooted on the East Coast, he had to start fresh at a weekly newspaper and work his way back up. “I laid out the paper, took all the photos, even delivered the paper on occasion,” he said. “It really grounded me in what journalism meant on a day-to-day basis.”

Now a national correspondent for USA Today, Hughes has called Colorado home for nearly two decades. An enduring reverence for daily documentation of the human experience continues to orient his work — an ethos that clearly spills out in his December story about the “Deadliest place in America.”  Hughes reported on the ground from a small town in rural Gove County, Kansas, a conservative-leaning place that, as the subhead notes, “shrugged off the pandemic, then their family and friends  started dying.”

Hughes reported past the numbers and outsider assumptions to show how a small community grieves when those who shaped it are lost. With compassion, he explores what it feels like to live in a place where mask-wearing remained politically charged even as the pandemic ushered in devastation.

We discussed the ethical considerations embedded in his story, along with what it means to produce journalism that can resonate with Americans in every corner of the country. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of his story.

I’d love to hear how this particular county caught your eye. The COVID numbers were striking and sobering — but amid the onslaught of information and communities in distress, how did you pick this as the place to base that story?
USA Today has a long history of covering what we call “the superlatives” — the biggest, smallest, fastest. That’s how people often engage with stories. Something that’s middle-of-the-road rarely gets attention. But if something is the worst, that’s easy for people to grasp. My editor and I had been talking about this general idea of what communities were losing and how the pandemic was reshaping certain communities because of the number of deaths.

I worked with our data journalists to figure out what county had the worst per capita death rate. I didn’t care where it was. My goal was to find the community that had been hurt the worst and try to figure out if there was a story to be told that way. Gove County ticked a lot of boxes. It stood out to us because it had been so devastated. When you have such a small community with so many deaths, it can’t help but reshape the community.

It is a very explicit part of my job, based in Denver, to tell stories about people who don’t necessarily live in cities, and especially people who don’t live in East Coast or West Coast cities. I think national media has a tendency to parachute in and cover these communities paternalistically — in a ‘pat-you-on-the-head, aren’t-you-cute, you-rural-people’ sort of way. As someone who grew up in a small town, I find that offensive. So we try to find stories that resonate, that tell people something interesting about the world around them, and that are different.

What was the central question or tension that animated your reporting?
In one of the early interviews that I did for the story, a woman I was talking to said something along the lines of, ‘We’re losing the pages of our history.’ That was the way I ended up approaching the story. This is a community that was devastated. But at the same time, many of the people living in that community were still very skeptical — if not outright hostile — toward the idea that the coronavirus was a real danger or threat to them.

Tell me how you source stories like this, as an outsider coming to a new place. How do you gain trust?
I have always had a lot of success just stumbling onto the right sources. Walking down the street, stopping in stores, getting coffee, going to the local diner. I prefer to be very organic in that way. I appreciate the aspect of my job that is a treasure hunt — the idea that you don’t know what you’re going to find until you start looking. My editor very much prefers to have things set up in advance so she feels confident that we’re not wasting our time on a wild goose chase. For this particular case, we used a combination of both approaches.

How long did you spend in the field for the Gove County story, and were there some things you were worried about?
I was physically in Gove County for three days. There were high rates of COVID circulating not just in this county, but in Kansas overall. At the same time, there were relatively few precautions taken statewide, in terms of people wearing masks or closing restaurants.

It’s not my job to judge the decisions that people make. It was my job to tell the story of what the consequences of those decisions are.

As a relatively young, healthy person, I wasn’t necessarily worried that much about getting sick, but I certainly didn’t want to cause anyone I interviewed to become ill or for anyone in my communities to get sick because of my reporting, because I was moving around. I’ve been covering hotspots since the beginning. I was in Kirkland, Washington, when the outbreak first occurred. My company did a great job early on at securing a supply of N-95 masks, so I wore one all the time. I did some of those primary interviews sitting in my car, yelling across to the person in the car parked next to me. I really made sure to keep my distance from people. I basically ate all of my meals in the car. I slept in a hotel about 50 miles away and quarantined after I finished reporting until I could get a coronavirus test.

One of the things I heard a lot when I was in Gove County was that people didn’t want to be made to look like fools, or jerks, or uncaring — or that there was some sort of major community fight between people who believed wearing masks was a good idea and those who thought it infringed on their personal liberties. That was tough. But at the same time, when you’re trying to tell the story of loss and tragedy — and you’re interviewing people who are having the worst days of their lives — it is a heavy challenge to tell their story accurately and carefully so that their words speak for themselves. Rather than substituting my judgment or my perspective in the story, I wanted to make sure that people spoke for themselves.

You’re a correspondent based in Denver who writes about national events. How do you feel your orientation shapes your coverage, like which national stories you spot and which ones you pursue?
I often say that I’m happiest reporting a story where there’s no other journalist around. I prefer to be doing things other people aren’t doing. My editor and I have worked really hard over the past couple of years to figure out what stories we can do that are different than what everyone else is doing. A lot of the large news organizations have an unconscious bias toward city coverage because that’s where they are. And reporters tend to be city folk. I am not city folk. I grew up in the countryside; I kind of still live in the countryside. So I’m always looking for stories that are very personal. Every person’s story is personal to them, but what I look for are stories that will resonate because they are about an interesting person.

Who do you see as your primary audience and how would you describe that audience? Who do you envision when you write a story like the one that you did?
USA Today is unique in that what we write goes in USA Today itself, but it also goes in local newspapers around the country, like The Burlington Free Press, or the Salem Statesman in Oregon, or The El Paso Times. All the time as I’m covering stories and picking stories, I’m thinking, ‘How will the story resonate with people in rural areas and in cities?’ One of the things that drew me to working for USA Today in the first place – and this is always where I wanted to work — was that our journalism was always meant to be approachable to every person in America.

Growing up in Vermont, I had no idea how big a city block was. Newspapers would often make references, like, ‘This whale is as big as a city block,’ or, ‘This dinosaur was three city blocks long,’ and I’d have no idea what that meant. I’d like to think that growing up in a rural area means that I tend to ask a lot more questions about how things work specifically because I just don’t take them for granted.

I wanted the reader to experience the grief that my subjects felt, to maybe think, “What if this was my dad?”

What did you hope to achieve with this story?
Our goal was to help the rest of the country understand what it’s like to lose so many people in a short period of time. And at the same time, we wanted to share with the rest of the country the emotional impact that decisions made at a national or state level have on a very, very small community. We are all connected. The interstate runs right through Gove County. So thousands of people pass through every day. It’s easy to think they’re isolated, but they’re not.

We were really just trying to help people understand what it’s like on the ground for some ordinary Americans. We have done stories out of cities like this. We’ve done stories out of the suburbs like this. This just happened to be rural.

The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Hughes’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the gray quote boxes throughout the story.


Deadliest place in America: They shrugged off the pandemic, then their family and friends started dying

By Trevor Hughes

QUINTER, Kan. – Sitting in the front seat of a red pickup as wind-whipped sorghum husks fly down Main Street like snowflakes, Ivy Charles fingers the white surgical mask slipped down beneath her chin.

“He was a puzzle piece who can never be replaced,” she says, tears welling into her tired eyes. “He was supposed to get better. We weren’t expecting him to die.”

Just over a month ago, the now-rampaging coronavirus pandemic tore through this rural town of 1,000 and surrounding Gove County, killing 20 residents. Among them was Charles’ father, Edward “Mac” McElhaney, 78.

Here, where most everyone knows most everyone else, the pandemic has killed farmers and their wives. The town’s unofficial historian. The beloved grandmother whose sour cream chocolate cake with chocolate fudge frosting was always the talk of the party. The mom whose piano-playing still echoes in the heads of her friends. These details are really poignant. What made you decide to start with such a tight lens in your lede, with one particular character, and then zoom out quickly? My editor and I really wanted to focus on the impacts the pandemic has had on people, the individuals who have been affected. At the same time, since I and my editor both used to be wire-service reporters, we like to get to the broader point fast.

And it has drained the hearts of the survivors. Those who feel guilty that they recovered. The ambulance workers battling to treat their own relatives. The exhausted doctor who watched nearly half his patients die.

“It was overwhelming and sad and you don’t think you have that many tears to shed,” says Charles, 46. “And you do.”

I imagine that many of these interviews were emotional for the folks you were talking to — certainly the lede that you open with is an emotional moment. How did you think about how people might be coping after your interviews? And what were those conversations like for you? Many of the people that I talked to for this story were my parents’ age. I do this all the time, but in this particular instance — because my parents live in a rural area — I really thought about my parents a lot. I thought, ‘How would I want a reporter to talk to my parents? How would I want a reporter to treat my parents?’ I tried to go out of my way to empathize with what people were going through. I felt like I had really gotten to know the people who live there and what it meant to be part of the community. As for myself, I hate to say that I’ve had a lot of experience this year. The sad reality is that many journalists, myself included, have carried the weight of these communities all year long. We’ve all had to figure out ways to cope. My company has been providing mental health counseling to journalists like me. They’ve been very generous in making sure I take time off to recover. My boss asks me how I’m doing. We work in an industry now that recognizes the mental health of its staff is really important.

As of Thursday, coronavirus has killed a higher percentage of Gove County residents than any other county in the United States: One out of every 132 people has died. This is such a sobering figure. How quickly did you have to report out this story, as the numbers and trends continued to change with new surges? Was there pressure to get this story out while this county was still the epicenter? Given that the numbers were changing constantly, we had to accept that at some point that data point would be outdated. Unfortunately, because Gove County continued to have deaths, they remained the highest for weeks, giving us time to report, edit and publish.

Their intertwined stories illuminate the toll the pandemic has taken on communities across the country as emotional debates over how to control the infection have unfolded amid mounting losses.

Even today, mask-wearing remains controversial in Gove County, and friendships are being strained as authorities struggle to persuade their neighbors to follow basic public health guidelines, such as avoiding large gatherings.

President Donald Trump won the county with 88% of the vote in November, and many of the residents, including the farmers who raise up corn and sorghum, are deeply skeptical of government and public health orders, often echoing the language Trump has used about mask-wearing and the pandemic’s severity. What did you feel was most important to communicate about the relationship between people’s politics and their experience of the pandemic? In the course of our reporting on the pandemic, one of the things we saw was that conservative areas tended to be less willing to participate in community-based solutions like wearing masks, and there was an overall broad skepticism that the pandemic “was really that bad.” We wanted to show that this pandemic was affecting those areas, whether or not people there believed it.

Conservative churches like the Dunkard Brethren – a Protestant faith brought over from Germany – help shape social life, and the Dollar General store is the biggest retailer for 50 miles in any direction. Quinter, the largest town, is 300 windswept miles west of Kansas City, and the paved streets surrounding it quickly give way to dirt roads.

Many young people move away when they can. Gove County’s median age is nearly 50 years old, a decade older than the national average. Among the 2,600 residents, coronavirus found easy targets, especially once it worked its way into the nursing home.

In August, just before the wave of positive cases began growing, Gove County leaders mandated everyone wear masks in public. They were forced to remove it two weeks later after a series of angry confrontations with their constituents. Around the same time, someone anonymously reported the county’s COVID-19 information Facebook page as spam or fake news, and it was temporarily taken offline just as public officials were trying to warn residents of the danger.

The first two deaths were reported on Oct. 7, setting off a wave of concern among public health officials and county managers. By Oct. 13, seven people had died, six of them inside the nursing home.

Some community leaders remain concerned their neighbors still aren’t taking the pandemic seriously.

“We are living through history right now, and I worry what the history books will say about us,” says Ericka Nicholson, 47, who helps run the town’s volunteer ambulance service and survived the infection. How did you find sources like Ericka? Gove County is a small community — everyone seems to know each other. So I would cold-call one person and they might refer me to someone else, but those referrals would often end up being the same person. Ericka, for instance, runs the ambulance service, serves in the emergency operations center, used to be the mayor of Quinter, and now helps with economic development. And she also co-owns a restaurant. From those central players, it was just a matter of asking for referrals and then calling or texting them. There were some other journalists who had covered the situation in Gove County earlier in the year, but the people who live in the area were really upset by those stories. They felt those stories made them come across as country bumpkins, and either as uncaring or uneducated. So I spent a lot of time persuading people that that was not what I was interested in doing. I wanted to tell the story of their losses and families without judgment. It’s not my job to judge the decisions that people make. It’s my job to tell the story of what the consequences of those decisions are.

Nicholson, 47, doesn’t want to be seen as criticizing her neighbors, but she’s often been the last familiar face the nursing home residents saw as she wheeled them, dying, into a strange hospital 50 miles from home.

“We have to honor these people who passed so there is a story to tell about us in 50 years,” she says. “The people who died in our long-term care facility, they are our identity. They are why we are here. And they are dying.” These quotes give me chills. So powerful. The whole premise of the story was to explain how the virus was literally reshaping communities across the country, and what it would mean to have so many people pass away in such a short period.

A mother’s death, a community’s loss

Sharon DuBois greets a longtime friend with a hug as the women step inside the cluttered second-hand shop she runs on behalf of the library. Children’s toys and Christmas decorations are piled high. Picking through them are a steady stream of women, some in the skirts and bonnets or head scarfs that mark them as members of the conservative Dunkard Brethren church. Most, but not all, of the women wear face coverings.

DuBois knows she shouldn’t hug: COVID-19 killed her mother inside the nursing home a month ago.

“I knew her time was coming close, but I still grieve her loss deeply,” she says. “I am thankful they are in the hands of Jesus. But I miss them. And I’m sorry we had to lose them in this way.”

Born in 1922, Margaret Lee Lewis met Winfred Inloes while she was teaching second grade in Quinter. She was the daughter of farmers, and she married Inloes, the son of farmers, during his boot camp leave just before Christmas 1944. After the war, the couple had five kids, including DuBois, raising them on a farm outside town. Did you conceive of this short diversion as a mini-obituary, of sorts? Yes. One of my first newspaper jobs was writing obituaries, and I remember how serious and challenging it was to try and capture someone you’d likely never met, based on a quick interview with a family member and maybe newspaper archives. I wanted to really help the reader understand that these were not numbers, but real people with families who loved them.

“From the time we could hardly walk, she’d have us in the kitchen stirring something,” says DuBois, 73. “We had things to do, whether it was harvest time or wintertime when you fed cattle or milked cows. It was just a simpler time.”

After her husband died of complications from a brain tumor in 2001, Margaret Lee Inloes lived alone for a few years before eventually moving into the 42-bed Gove County Medical Center Long Term Care Unit. The nursing home very much felt like home to her: All around were neighbors who had also raised families and farmed the Earth, attended the same weddings and funerals and library bake sales. How did you piece together these details, and gauge that they were authentic to Margaret’s experience, without meeting her? And what’s your general approach when it comes to writing about people who have died? For Margaret, it was simply a case of asking — because she was so well known and so sociable, people kept sharing the same kinds of anecdotes about her, giving me confidence that I was doing her justice. In general, I try to think about what someone might write about my own parents — and to honor the deceased and their families the way I’d want my own family covered. I’m also cognizant that an obituary is often the last thing ever written about someone, so I want to make sure I’m accurate and fair, and human in writing about them.

“She wouldn’t dream of going to the dining room without her lipstick because these were important people to her – not just the staff, but the other people there,” DuBois says. “Even though her body and parts of her mind were wearing out, she was so grateful for all of the people around her. It was important for her to be proper in your presence. I always considered it a sign of respect. She wanted people to know she was respectful of that togetherness.”

Before she passed, Inloes was the one who remembered names, who always made time to visit sick friends in the hospital, who volunteered at the second-hand store to earn donations for the library and the school, who showed up to receptions with her renowned sour cream chocolate cake with chocolate fudge frosting. One wedding, DuBois says, her mother made nine different cakes.

“That was a big part of her life, to be a supporter of the community, an encourager. Much of her work, I’m finding, was done anonymously, at least to our family,” DuBois says. “I knew her time was coming close. But I still grieve her loss deeply.”

DuBois misses her mother, but she also mourns the community’s inability to collectively mark the COVID-19 deaths. DuBois counts herself lucky she was able to say goodbye in person; the doctors gave her permission to see her mom before she passed away.

That’s why she still hugs her friends, despite the risks. Because of the hurt. This line encapsulates a central dissonance that feels like the crux of what you’re about to explore. You wrap it up nicely in one person’s experience, in her deeply human and relatable emotions. You can thank my editor, Cristina Silva for that, specifically. While she assisted greatly in the entire story, this bit was a direct contribution she offered after reading my initial draft.

“As a community, we are used to making peace with someone’s departure from Earth. And we haven’t been able to do that,” DuBois says.

Coronavirus claims town historian

After a lifetime of farming outside Quinter, Daniel Albert “D.A.” Crist knew just about everybody in the area, including Margaret Lee Inloes. In the twilight of their lives, both were living at the nursing home, maintaining social bonds built through worshipping at the Quinter Church of the Brethren and having kids the same age. With so many people in the town who died, how did you decide who to include? A lot of it came down to who was willing to talk to me. I made dozens of calls, texts, and personal visits during my reporting. You have to bear in mind that neither the county — nor the state — will officially confirm a specific person’s death as COVID related. So in some cases, I had to play detective to figure out whether it was the cause, and follow up. Some of the decedent’s families included COVID in their obituaries, which helped.

Most days, DA’s son, Dan Crist, would pick him up from the nursing home and drive him back out to the family farm, where the two men restored old tractors and steam engines of the kind that once provided power before electricity arrived. As COVID-19 precautions tightened at the nursing home, Dan Crist stopped picking his father up, but would still visit regularly.

D.A. Crist was Gove County’s unofficial historian. Born in 1930 on the family farm, he lived away for a few years after college, running an orphanage for 20 homeless boys in the early 1950s with his wife, Carole. He learned to fly a biplane and in 1954 moved back to Quinter to work his father’s cattle farm until he retired. How do you pick out which details of someone’s long, varied life are worth mentioning? Generally speaking, we all love our families, live somewhere and have a job. So I ask, what’s different about this person? What sets them apart?

He was born the year Mickey Mouse made his first appearance, when astronomers discovered Pluto and workers started building the Hoover Dam. He lived through World War II, Korea and Vietnam, watched farming move from horses to tractors, saw the first humans land on the moon. This paragraph is really lovely. Why did you want to frame his life against those markers of time, or reference points? What were you trying to communicate? Over and over, I was staggered by the loss of community through these deaths — these folks literally built Gove County, and so I wanted readers to feel these lives had mattered. In Gove County, these are the people who helped define the community. I including the sweep of their lives was my effort to help explain that their deaths shouldn’t go unremarked.

“Up until the virus hit, he was sharp as ever,” says Dan Crist, 67. “He was just fine, and then they called at 2:30 in the morning and said he died. I was shocked.”

Adds DuBois: “He could name the dates, the times, the people. Already people are saying, who are we going to ask now? D.A. had a way of telling the stories that you just wanted to listen.”

Like many Gove County residents, Crist hoped believed the rural county’s isolation would insulate them from the worst. But Interstate 70 runs through the northern portion of the county, and lots of travelers stop to gas up or grab lunch at the Dairy Queen. Crist says he’s also disappointed that wearing masks – as recommended by doctors – has become so political.

“We were kind of hoping it wouldn’t get here. And it sure did,” Crist says. “Dad was able to trace family trees back many generations to when his ancestor Crists came to America from Austria in 1747, seeking religious freedom. He was often asked how folks were related, and could recall dates of events without a moment’s hesitation. We often asked Dad to share his stories so we could record them, but his stories were spontaneous. Now that historian is no longer with us.”

He was ‘the rock for our family’

Charles, who works at the hospital and nursing home, tears up when she thinks of Crist, Inloes and the 15 other residents who died, many of whom had no chance to say goodbye to their families.

Today, there’s an eerie emptiness at the nursing home: vacant seats at lunch tables, familiar faces missing from the window, voices silenced. The facility has essentially been locked down for months, so family members still can’t regularly visit the remaining residents. Perhaps more than anyone, Charles has shouldered the most grief: She lost her own father and the 17 nursing home residents she saw daily.

“It’s not just that everybody knows everybody, it’s that everybody cares about each other,” Charles says. “It was like losing 18 family members in a two-week period.”

Charles’ father, “Mac” McElhaney, was living at home with his wife, her mom, when the two got sick. Her mother was hospitalized eight days after her diagnosis, Charles says, but her father seemed fine.

“He was at Day 12 and we pretty much thought he had beaten it,” she says. “He called me about four hours later – I still have the voicemail. He said, ‘I just don’t feel right.'”

Born in October 1942, McElhaney joined the Air Force in 1962, retiring 22 years later after he and his wife, Ruth, had three kids, including Charles. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado, and then to Quinter in 1994. He joined the Gove Community Bible Church, and unofficially ministered to community members the way his father and grandfather had. Charles played the mobile phone game Words with Friends with him every day. After he died, she discovered he’d been playing with many other people, strangers who sent her money to pay for his funeral.

“He’s always been the rock for our family – biblically, and overall,” she says. “You think he’s just a retired old guy who goes fishing and drinks coffee and doesn’t do anything, but in reality he was still out there touching lives.”

As McElhaney’s condition worsened, doctors decided he’d have a better chance of survival at the bigger regional hospital in Hays, Kansas, 54 miles east along Interstate 70. Working with other EMTs, Nicholson loaded him into “Big Red,” an ambulance designed to keep the virus from reaching the driver’s compartment.

“She told him she promised him pie when he got better,” Charles says. “He just thought that if he went on the ventilator, he’d never come off. And ultimately, that’s what happened.”

‘The last piece of Quinter’

Coronavirus isn’t done with Gove County. Residents are still being driven to Hays or other bigger hospitals for specialized treatment, and cases are increasingly popping up in the smaller towns of Grainfield, Gove and Park. For a while there, we were following different winding paths down memory lane. Now you’ve firmly re-oriented the reader in the present. What made this structure appealing to you? It was important to remind the reader that although the story represented a point in time, things were actually getting worse for many parts of the country.

The county’s sheriff, Allan Weber, remains hospitalized 300 miles west in Denver, where he was flown by medical plane on Oct. 18. Weber, 64, was reelected to his post from his hospital bed at Swedish Medical Center in Denver on Nov. 3. He first tested positive Sept. 28.

“The hardest part has not being able to see him. It’s been pure hell. I cry every day,” says his daughter, Andrea Dinkel, 40.

Dinkel says too many people are refusing to do their part to protect the elderly from COVID-19.

“To sit there and say they are old, that they will die of something,” she says, “Well, they wouldn’t have died of the flu. My dad wouldn’t have been in the hospital for a month if this was the flu.”

Despite the efforts of local public health officials and experts, many residents aren’t taking the deadly pandemic seriously. Bearded farmers stride defiantly down Main Street past signs requiring them to wear masks. School is still in session and churches are open. Someone threatened to blow up the home of a pro-mask county commissioner.

Nicholson, the ambulance worker, is also co-owner of a restaurant and brewery on Main Street, and she’s had customers swear they’ll never come back after she reminded them to wear a mask when picking up food. She doesn’t want to wade into the middle of a political dispute. She just wants her neighbors to live.

“When we take people to another hospital, I think, are we the last piece of Quinter, of Gove County, they will ever see?” she says. “These people contributed to who I am, and when I have to load them into an ambulance and they can’t breathe, it’s just so hard.”

‘A false sense of security’ gripped residents

Amber Hargitt still remembers the feeling of dread as the deaths began. A former care assistant at the nursing home who often worked overnights, Hargitt, 30, now works for a local florist making and delivering arrangements, including funeral flowers. What a powerful detail. You weave in these tidbits in a manner that feels natural and seamless. She still regrets not returning an unexpected late-night call from one of the residents who passed away a few days later.

“I had a feeling of impending doom, honestly,” she says. “There was one day where we had four names come to us. Either way, you look at it, it seems like it was all at once.”

Hargitt says she knew many of her neighbors would oppose wearing masks because, well, that’s just how they are. Across Gove County, the frontier ethos that prompted many conservative Christians to settle and remain there despite struggles dating to well before the Dust Bowl of the 1930s has left many residents with an attitude ranging from skepticism to outright hostility toward government. This historical and cultural context, in terms of the forces that shape a place, feels important. The county on Nov. 24 passed a new mask mandate that is only lightly enforced, and the people who wear masks feel the need to explain themselves to outsiders.

“There’s also a significant part of the population that you cannot tell them what to do; they won’t wear a mask, that it’s not worse than the flu,” Hargitt says. “The flu is around every year and we don’t lose half the long term care facility from it. This is clearly not the flu.”

Hargitt says she wishes her neighbors who dismiss concerns about the virus would see the toll it’s taking on the community and respond accordingly. Did you weigh the need to include voices who opposed mask-wearing? How did you think about traditional notions of “journalistic equivalence” in the context of this particular story? We felt it was important to reflect what was happening in the community, and this was a key sticking point for many people there. Over and over, people I talked to said they didn’t want this story to be about how there was a big debate about wearing masks. Buit it eventually felt like we HAD to talk about it because that’s what everyone was talking about.

Hargitt’s own father, she says, refused to wear a mask until the burials began mounting at the Quinter town cemetery that he helps manage.

“A lot of us are just going through the motions trying to do life as best we can,” she says. “It’s not fair. It’s all so much at once. It’s hard for us all to process.”

For many Christians here, there’s a widespread acceptance that God takes you when it’s your time. The Rev. James Thomas, who oversees Gove County’s Catholic parishes, said he’s telling his parishioners to stay home if they’re sick, but few people have been wearing masks while they’re singing and celebrating Mass.

“In our retirement home, the people who died were aged and had underlying health conditions,” Thomas says. “They had various health issues. That’s the main reason.” Why was it important for quotes like these to stand on their own? I was really surprised by the dismissive approach some residents had toward death, but it was also a good reminder that in a farming community where births and deaths, both animal and human, are so physically present, the attitude toward death might be different than in a city where people vanish into a hospital and die out of sight. Also, because many Gove County residents are deeply religious, I heard many times that God decides who passes away, which was a source of comfort.

Carol Kinderknecht, 71, owns the Christmas Castles store in Quinter, selling nativity scenes, plastic angels and gingerbread houses. Her son is an optometrist in town, and she said she believes wearing a mask can give people carbon dioxide poisoning or contribute to eye infections.

She says most of the people who’ve gotten sick with COVID have recovered.

“One thing they don’t tell you is that a lot of those people are in their 80s and 90s and are in the nursing home and are already sick,” she says of the dead. “In a small community, you’re going to know everybody. And you also know they’ve been in the nursing home for a long time.”

Dr.  Scott Rempel, the county’s health officer, shakes his head at how quickly and callously some community members write off the dead from the nursing home. Rempel, 30, is also a staff doctor at the hospital and serves as the nursing home’s medical director. He and his staff struggled to save the lives of people who would otherwise be alive today, but for the virus.

He said the pandemic’s late arrival in Gove County gave residents time to grow tired of the public health warnings, especially when early statistics showed Black, Latino and indigenous Americans are four times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than white Americans, and are more than 2.5 times more likely to die from it. Gove County is 93% white. Nursing home residents account for about 40% of all COVID-19 deaths, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. I keep rereading this paragraph. The concept of whiteness as perceived insulation from Covid — that people might actively think of whiteness as a buffer — is deeply disconcerting. That was something that struck me repeatedly in the 10 months I’ve been covering this pandemic — this idea that it affects other people. Invariably, those “other people” are Black, Latinx or Native American. I’ve really been stuck on the concept of “invisible deaths” from the pandemic, as in, by and large, white families have escaped the worst of a virus that has absolutely devastated other groups.

“Rural America has always been insulated to some degree to the problems that plague more urban areas,” Rempel says. “I think that gave some people a false sense of security. I think there was maybe a public perception we would be OK. But if you had asked any of the health care providers, we were all worried.”

Rempel says it’s likely a staff member brought COVID-19 into the nursing home. During the worst of the crisis, he and his staff struggled to find bigger hospitals – the closest is 50 miles away – to which they could send the sickest patients from Gove County, a challenge that federal health officials had been warning of for months.

‘The town wasn’t really ready for it’

Charles, the nursing home worker, misses her dad every day, from the sweet texts he’d send each morning to the “I love yous” and kiss he offered her mom each night. The rock of the family, “Mac” was the one no one ever thought would get sick. She was at her son’s football game when the doctors called to say her father was dying, and she rushed down the interstate to be with him.

“He was the one who held everyone up during bad times,” she says, choking back tears.

Like many Gove County residents, Charles isn’t one to tell her neighbors how to live their lives. But looking back, she wishes the community had taken coronavirus more seriously, wishes people had taken to heart the warnings from health experts.

“When that first case happened, the town about shut down because everyone freaked out. But when it really hit, the town wasn’t really ready for it,” she says. “You even hear the high school kids saying, well, it’s just old people dying. But they were part of somebody’s life. They were part of the world. Some people say, well, if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. But COVID pushed that along.” Why did you want to end on this note? My coverage during the pandemic has really been driven by a quote I read early on: “I don’t know how to explain that you should care about other people.” And so as I was building this story, I always wanted to end on a note that reiterated that point: This pandemic has exacted a devastating toll on our communities, and being old doesn’t mean you should have to die. I wanted the reader to experience the grief that my subjects felt, to maybe think, “What if this was my dad?”

Senior Data Reporter for USA Today Matt Wynn contributed to this story.


Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.

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