Polly Barker remembers “dressing up like a spaceman” to treat HIV/AIDS patients in 1981, when she was a student nurse. Fear and uncertainty surrounded the new disease, and healthcare professionals took extra precautions with personal protection until they learned more about it.
“We don’t do that anymore,” she said. “Now, we treat everybody the same. We focus more on the transmission method of the disease.”
Barker now works as the infection and disease control director at Allen County Regional Hospital. Over the course of about 40 years in healthcare, she’s seen several crisis situations with the emergence of new diseases. The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is just the latest.
“It’s scary every time,” she said. “Any time we go through a crisis like this, it changes our process.”
Each new crisis presents opportunities to learn, she added.
In the 1980s, healthcare professionals learned how to treat patients with HIV/AIDS.
In 2009, the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic changed the understanding about influenza and the importance of preventative measures.
“I think influenza vaccinations became much more prominent,” Barker said. “We didn’t have near the emphasis on flu shots that we have now. Even if it doesn’t decrease the number of incidents, it reduces the severity.”
She expects something similar to happen because of the coronavirus pandemic, though it’s too early to know exactly what that may look like.
“I’m excited to see what kind of preventative measures will follow, and how it will work if they develop a vaccination,” Barker said.
Any kind of shared crisis brings people together, she said, even if the current restrictions require greater degrees of separation. She believes people become more understanding and perhaps a little bit more kind during these shared experiences.
“I think we’ll all understand social distancing and caring for our fellow human beings a little bit better, too.”
ALLEN COUNTY is one of few counties in eastern Kansas that hasn’t reported a positive COVID-19 case, even though it has tested 74 residents. That’s a rate of 5.98 per 1,000, one of the higher testing rates in the state.
Barker oversees each of those tests. She described the process.
A healthcare provider — a physician at one of the local health clinics or the emergency room — will order a test for someone who has symptoms similar to COVID-19. The patient will arrive at the laboratory, where a technician will swab the inside of a nostril.
“It feels like they’re sticking it down your nose to China. It’s not very comfortable,” Barker said.
The sample is then sent to one of the state’s private laboratories for testing, Quest or Lab Corps, although some tests have been sent directly to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s labs.
Initially, results took 15 or 16 days. Now, results typically come the next day.
Barker receives the results and notifies the patient and healthcare provider.
“So far, I’ve been able to tell everyone good news,” she said.
There are plenty of other reasons someone may have symptoms similar to COVID-19, including other viruses, influenza or even seasonal allergies. A physician may order additional tests for those things.
Barker isn’t sure why Allen County has yet to report a positive case. She believes it’s likely local residents have contracted the virus, as it is prevalent in the region. The state has reported more than 1,100 cases.
But current guidelines allow for testing only in certain circumstances. Local, state and national health officials have advised those who have mild symptoms to forego testing and take care of themselves at home. The majority of those who contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms.
“I want people to keep doing what they’re doing, because it seems to be working,” Barker said.
BARKER graduated from Iola High School in 1976 and left to pursue a career in health care. She never expected to return to Iola, but did so about 25 years ago when her father became ill.
She worked for Allen County Hospital for a time before leaving to become a state nursing surveyor, then returned to ACRH about six years ago in her current position.
Her job has taught her to appreciate statistics.
“I never realized how much I enjoyed the numbers game,” she said. “I didn’t think statistics were important. I can see now that they are.”
Statistics provide perspective, she said. They provide hard evidence of what has been and what is likely to come.
KDHE posts daily updates with COVID-19 statistics, showing not just how many positive and negative cases have been reported and the number of deaths but also data about the ages, genders and hospitalizations. An interactive map shows how many tests have been done in each county, with related statistics.
“The numbers can really roll around in my head,” she said. “Right now everyone is scared and thinking this is going to be devastating, but I’m able to say, ‘Take a deep breath and look at the numbers.’
“I feel like the numbers in Kansas are pretty good and we’ve done a fairly good job social distancing. It shows us what we’re doing is working.”