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Masks, Masks Everywhere: Local Healthcare Providers Launch Massive Effort To Protect Community

Angie Haflich/High Plains Public Radio
Soledad Salinas, her son Jose Ambriz, and her nephews, Adrian and Fernando Salinas, smile big after receiving masks from LiveWell Finney County, Centura Health-St. Catherine Hospital and Genesis Family Health on Friday.


Jose Ambriz of Garden City has a lot of responsibilities for an 18-year-old.

“Every time I leave, I ask her if she needs anything from the store or anything,” Ambriz said, referring to his elderly mother, Soledad Salinas, who has mostly stayed indoors since the coronavirus began spreading in the community.

Ambriz works at Applebee’s to support himself, his mother and her two nephews, 11-year-old Fernando Salinas and 10-year-old Adrian Salinas, who enthusiastically flagged down LiveWell Finney County representatives Friday as they were distributing masks at a mobile home park.

“The boys haven’t been going outside because we only had two,” Ambriz said.

But on Friday, they received about 20 masks, along with food donated by Cornerstone Church, Finney County Farm Bureau, and several individuals, giving the entire family a reason to smile.

In total, close to 30,000 masks were distributed last week by employees of LiveWell Finney County, Centura Health-St. Catherine Hospital and Genesis Family Health.

Credit Angie Haflich/High Plains Public Radio
Martha Brabos and her sons, Alfonso and Angel Bustos, outside of their home Friday, after receiving masks from LiveWell Finney County, Centura Health-St. Catherine Hospital and Genesis Family Health.

Martha Brabo and her two sons also received some much-needed masks on Friday.

“I’m a single mother and I have to take care of them, so if something happens to me it happens to them too,” Brabo said, outside of the mobile home park where she and her 17-year-old son Alfonso Bustos and 14-year-old Angel Bustos live.

Brabo’s sense of gratitude and relief in receiving the masks was apparent by her tone of voice and the big smile on her face. 

“Thank you, thank you. Thanks very much for your help. Thank you because there are a lot of people who need you,” she said.

Brabo, like many other residents have grown more and more concerned as Finney County has seen a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks.

The latest case count from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, showed Finney County in second place for the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, at 1,413. Only neighboring Ford County’s case count of 1,607 was higher.

Much of the spike in western Kansas has been attributed to outbreaks at meatpacking plants, including Tyson Fresh Meats in Holcomb, where Brabo works. But she said she now feels safe working there.

“They are taking care of everybody. We get everything and they ask us not to stay close together,” Brabo said, referring to the personal protective equipment the company is supplying to workers and the social distancing measures it has put into place. “They are paying attention to everybody.”

Credit Courtesy
Residents of an apartment complex on Mary Street accept masks and information about COVID-19 from a volunteer.

Ifrah Ahmed, a Somali refugee who also works at Tyson, echoed Brabo’s sentiments about the efforts being made by the company to protect its employees.

“I am really impressed with how much they are informing everyone and the precautions they are taking,” Ahmed said, adding that all employees are screened for symptoms prior to entering the plant. “I am very proud of what they are doing. We are doing an excellent job.”

Ahmed helped get the word out to her Somali friends and family members about last week’s effort to disseminate masks and provide information from the CDC.

“I just made sure people were aware of it and just spread the information as much as I could. I wasn’t physically there to distribute,” she said.

That’s because she recently recovered from COVID-19 herself, discovering that she had it after having a prolonged headache that she at first thought was a migraine. After being tested, however, it was confirmed that she had COVID-19. 

“I didn’t have much of the symptoms. Mine was mostly headaches and a sore throat,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed, who completed her 14-day quarantine on May 11, tells people, "‘Stay home, not only for us, but to protect the weaker and elderly.’"


Getting that kind of information out to the community was one of the goals behind the effort to distribute masks, said Dr. Gretchen Dunford, chief of surgery at St. Catherine Hospital and member of the Community Outreach Committee, which spearheaded the effort.

“Our main objective is to do community events and promote health through the community,” Dunford said.

On May 11, the committee, which is made up of Centura Health-St. Catherine Hospital and LiveWell Finney County employees discussed ways to help keep the community safe amidst the rise in COVID-19 cases, especially those who lack access or the ability to get their own masks.

After realizing that they had access to only a few thousand masks - from friends in the medical field or from grants - Dunford reached out to Dr. Toni Green-Cheatwood, Group Vice President and Physician Executive for Centura Health in Colorado Springs.

“I just gave her a rundown of the climbing cases and hotspots,” Dunford said, adding that she felt it was important for St. Catherine, as the county’s primary health care provider, to take more action in informing the community about the virus.

Green-Cheatwood was able to procure 25,000 masks from Centura Health for distribution in Finney County.

Dunford, LiveWell Finney representatives and other caregivers from St. Catherine Hospital began distributing the masks on May 16, with help from Green-Cheatwood, other Centura Health leaders and nurses from Colorado.

Credit Angie Haflich/High Plains Public Radio
Beth Laudert-Koksal, director of community health at LiveWell Finney County (left) and Callie Remschner-Dyer, executive director at LiveWell Finney County, hand out masks, hand sanitizer and information about COVID_19 at a mobile home park in Garden City Friday.

Along with the masks, they also distributed informational handouts about COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Haitian, Burmese and Somali about COVID-19 to several apartment complexes, mobile home parks and stores in Finney County. 

Remschner-Dyer suggested the multi-language handouts to CDC officials who actually reached out to LiveWell Finney County for help while addressing the COVID-19 outbreak in Dodge City. 

As of Friday, a total of 29,885 masks were distributed, along with 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.

Kearny County Hospital in Lakin also shared COVID-19 information and guidelines to Finney County residents, and also provided pop-up testing sites to help stem the spread. 


Green-Cheatwood said Centura Health, based in Colorado Springs, gives St. Catherine Hospital in Garden City and Bob Wilson Memorial Hospital in Ulysses access to plenty of resources needed in the fight against COVID-19.

“One of the things we’re able to do, being a system like this is we’re able to share resources,” Green-Cheatwood said, referring to Centura Health’s 17-hospital network. “St. Catherine and Bob Wilson are part of that network, so where there’s need there, we have resources in Colorado we can redeploy into Kansas.”

When asked about bed capacity at St. Catherine and Bob Wilson, Green-Cheatwood said both have a surge plan in place, which if necessary, would include the conversion of regular hospital beds into “higher level of care” beds. She also said the network of hospitals has plenty of ventilators, should there be a greater need for those.

“So we feel really well prepared for this as far as what we have in the hospitals,” Green-Cheatwood said, adding that the ultimate goal, however, is to flatten the curve so that facilities are not overwhelmed with a COVID-19 surge.  “The purpose of that is to never overwhelm the system but kind of keep a constant number that we can manage.”

She said Centura Health has a three-tier plan surge plan in place. One phase of that plan would convert post-anesthetic care units (PACUs) into COVID-19 units, should COVID-19 hospitalizations warrant it. 

As of Monday, there were 15 people hospitalized for COVID-19 at St. Catherine Hospital.

A third tier of St. Catherine Hospital’s surge plan – should the need arise - would involve setting up outdoor tents, which would require federal and state support, said Green-Cheatwood.

Centura Health is also in “a good spot” in terms of having enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care providers, Green-Cheatwood added.

“Centura Health started procuring PPE a couple of months before this got real,” she said, referring to coronavirus. 

Green-Cheatwood said models indicate that both western Kansas facilities are well-prepared, should a surge occur, as long as the current rate of increase in COVID-19 cases remains the same, but she said personal responsibility – wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing - is the real key in preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed by COVID-19. 


On Thursday, the Finney County Commission, acting as the Board of Health, voted 3-2 to remain in phase 1.5 of Gov. Laura Kelly’s ‘Ad Astra’ plan until May 31

That plan limits gatherings to 10 or fewer people, but allows hair and nail salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors to open for pre-scheduled appointments. Gyms and fitness centers are allowed to reopen but without access to locker rooms or group classes.  

Commissioners Lon Pishny and Larry Jones suggested - in order to eliminate confusion - that the county align with the state and move into phase 2 of Kelly’s plan, which allows gatherings of 15 or more people instead of 10.

“If we start making variations, the concern I have is the confusion it causes,” Pishny said.

That motion failed to pass by a vote of 3-2, with Pishny and Larry Jones voting yes.

County Commission Chairman Duane Drees said he was hesitant to increase the number of people allowed to gather from 10 to 15 because of the county’s already high positivity rate, which Finney County Health Department Director and Public Health Officer Colleen Drees said was 42 percent on Thursday.

“So we are far from the 20 percent statewide average,” Duane Drees said.

Colleen Drees said health officials are expecting a surge in COVID-19 cases in the next two weeks, based on trends observed in other communities after opening back up. 

Duane Drees’ motion to remain at phase 1.5 until May 31 was approved by a vote of 3-2, with himself, Dave Jones and Clifford voting yes.

Finney County Commissioners are scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. Friday to reevaluate the county’s COVID-19 data in determining whether to continue reopening. 

This article is dedicated to the memory of the 188 Kansans, 1,519 Texans, 1,332 Coloradans, 313 Oklahomans and 150 Nebraskans who have died from COVID-19.