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Louisburg nurse practitioner fights COVID-19 on the front line in New York City

NEW YORK CITY — Ashley (York) Kush’s hazel eyes are all that’s visible behind her goggles and shield as she steps into the massive white COVID-19 tent in a New York City hospital parking lot.

The 33-year-old Louisburg resident is covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) as she starts her 15-hour day while thousands of people are just sitting down for their morning coffee.

Kush is a nurse practitioner in the emergency room at Overland Park Regional. At this moment, though, the volunteer healthcare professional is ready for whatever the day throws at her on the front line of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in New York City.

“This is a pandemic,” Kush says. “There’s no practice run for how this is going to go.”

Those hazel eyes have seen plenty in the three weeks since Kush arrived in the Big Apple. Often it’s not pretty.

“I know that COVID is very real. I’ve looked it in the eye more times than I would like to have,” Kush said. “I’m very fearful of it myself, and I’m a somewhat young, healthy person. I’m more fearful for people who can’t defend themselves — people who are compromised with cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, lung conditions.”

She moves among the sick, the weary, the lonely and the scared.

“We’ve seen all of that here,” she said.

Kush had prepared for the experience the best she could.

“Anybody that had come in with those types of symptoms at our hospital at home, I was very ready and willing to take those patients and better understand this illness,” Kush said. “So when I walked in, it was just like being at home except the numbers were much, much more and everybody we saw had symptoms. It wasn’t, ‘This patient possibly has it.’ It’s, ‘All these patients over here have COVID.’”

Kush said the New York City hospitals have treated her very well.

“I never felt unsafe in the hospitals here in New York,” Kush said. “They offered us plenty of PPE. The only thing you could ever see on me was my eyes, and that was under my goggles. My hair was covered. I had the big bunny suit, the white suit, on. I had gloves, I had shoe covers and on top of that I had goggles, a shield, a (N)95 mask with another mask covering that, so I never felt unsafe which also gave me the courage that I felt so protected that I wasn’t afraid to help these people.”

Kush said she volunteered to go to New York City, with the full blessing and support of Overland Park Regional, to help as many people as she could.

“Sometimes it’s not always pharma-logical needs that we as healthcare providers need to give — it’s emotional support and physical touch and just knowing that we are there and we care and that we’ll pass on messages that they want us to say because their family members can’t come back here with them.”

Thousands of cases do not have a happy ending. More than 17,000 New Yorkers have died from coronavirus as of Tuesday, April 28.

“Several of us have sat there with these people in their final moments, and they’ve told us to tell their family members things, and we always do,” Kush said. “I think that just being there and feeling that emotion as you’re in that moment — telling these family members how much they loved them and that they said to tell you this. I was there. I never left. Those things mean so much to families, especially when they can truly feel your sincerity.”

Social Distancing

Kush talked about the importance of social distancing with coronavirus.

“You have to think of more than just yourself,” she said. “This could affect any of us. It doesn’t discriminate. COVID doesn’t care if you’re young. I’ve seen a healthy 21 year old die. We see a lot of elderly pass away from this, mostly I think because they often have compromising conditions.”

COVID-19 is different than a lot of other illnesses in that a person could walk around with the illness and not have any symptoms for five to seven days and infect so many people, she said.

“The contagion rate is very high, and that’s the concern,” Kush said. “If everybody gets it at the same time, there’s just simply not enough resources and then it becomes an issue of who lives. How do we choose that? Don’t put that on us. We don’t want to pick who gets the ventilator and who doesn’t.”

Kush and her good friend, nurse practitioner Stacie Kelly from Gardner, were put into leadership roles when they arrived. They are staying at a hotel near Central Park in Manhattan that is housing about 900 nurses.

The staffing company that sent the pair to New York has grown from 15 employees to more than 4,000 workers in about five weeks, Kush said.

“I think they saw Stacie and I had some leadership in the past,” Kush said. “They all come from a business background and realized it would be easier for me and Stacie to speak to nurses, and speak to chief medical officers, directors of hospitals, chief nursing officers, and so they placed us in this role.”

Kush and Kelly were placing nurses in 17 hospitals in New York City.

“The staffing company found there just wasn’t a whole lot of direction or communication between the company and the hospitals, so we kind of filled that gap,” Kush said. “So it really worked out well for everybody involved. Everybody saw benefits across the board.”

Kush and Kelly also worked the floor while serving in a leadership role at the facilities.

“We would work with the nurses on the floor side-by-side, obviously to help them but also to see what things were like and try to be partners with them. You know, the best kind of leader is right there in the trenches with you.”

Kush said she has not been alone on this journey because of the love and support she has received from the community.

Hometown Pride

“The town of Louisburg is amazing. I could seriously cry talking about it,” said Kush, a 2005 graduate of Louisburg High School. “If you knew how much stuff Louisburg has sent me, it just brings me to tears.”

Kush has received boxes and boxes of items from the community, for herself and to distribute to others.

“Today, alone, I got a box from Louisburg that had 200 to 300 colored papers from little kids that said, ‘You are my healthcare hero. God bless you. We are praying for you from Kansas’ to stick on all the healthcare providers’ doors” at the hotel.

Kush walked the hotel halls, sticking these and other messages on all the nurses’ doors.

“One of the nurses posted a message (on Facebook) that said, ‘Whoever the angel was who left this on my door you have no idea how much I needed this. Thank you so much and God bless.”

The child who made the message will never know it, Kush said, but that small act of kindness means so much, especially on day 11 when nurses are exhausted and in need of rejuvenation.

“Louisburg collected in a matter of four to six hours 20 to 30 pairs of scrubs for me to take on this trip. I got a phone call at 2 on Thursday afternoon while I was at work and I didn’t get off work until 9 p.m. My plane left the next day at noon, so there was no time to prepare. Louisburg prepared me.

“Vohs Pharmacy donated a whole slew of anything I would ever need on my travels, which I have found so useful because my face broke out from the mask,” Kush said. “At 10 o’clock the other night, after I got home from my shift, I dug in there and there was some Benadryl. It saved my day.”

Local veterinarian Aaron Stohs shipped several big boxes of items that Louisburg had collected and he paid the shipping cost out of his own pocket, she said.

Kush’s lifelong friend Katie (Pemberton) Harris, who works at Elliott Insurance in Louisburg, helped organize the donations. She thanked the community for all their support.

In addition to raising money for scrubs and other items, Harris said snacks and other nonperishables were being dropped off, along with cash donations.

“We had enough money left over to buy a couple of Keurig machines and K-cups and shipped them there,” Harris said. “We raised over $1,800, and that was within about a two- or three-day period.”

Harris said volunteers also organized a meal train for Ashley’s husband Harrison and their children, Lucas, 4, and Jacob, 23 months.

Family Time

Kush, who has signed on for four weeks, plans to come home on May 2 and cannot wait to see her family. She will have to spend the first week of her 14-day quarantine in a hotel. If asymptomatic, she will spend the second week at home.

“It was a three-week assignment, and I extended it to four weeks, and I think with their hopes of me staying a little bit longer,” Kush said. “But with those two little boys at home, I just can’t. It’s so hard. They ask me, ‘Mom, are you going to be home for dinner?’ It breaks my heart.”

Kush said the boys were a little confused, but she thinks her 4-year-old Lucas understands.

“He said, ‘Mom, I’ll get to see you in 19 sleeps.’”

Kush said her husband has been very supportive.

“Harrison is amazing. I’ve told everybody he’s the true hero,” Kush said. “If I didn’t have his solid support at home, I couldn’t be here to help others. He never once ever tried to stop me from coming here to help others. If anything, he only pushed me forward. ‘You need to do what you can do to help as many people as you can.’ He’s always been that way, and I’m so thankful for it.”

She said Harrison also supported her when she and Kelly went to Uganda in 2014 to help out during the Ebola virus epidemic.

“We were in the clinic there, and it was totally different than what we’re doing in New York,” Kush said. “We were doing more family practice type things. We were helping like 500 people a day out in the areas where there is no electricity.”

She discovered her love of helping in that Third World country made her volunteer for the New York trip with no hesitation.

“It fills a cup that I didn’t know I needed filled (in Uganda),” Kush said.

Kush said New Yorkers are starting to live their lives again.

“In the past two days, New York is just totally different,” Kush said. “When we arrived it was desolate and quiet and eerie. These past two days as you’re coming back to the hotel from the hospitals, everyone’s out. Starbucks opened today and there were people on their laptops drinking coffee. It almost looked a little bit normal.”

Kush said she is thankful for the gifts the Lord has blessed her with so she could serve New York City.

“I am so happy to be here, I am so honored to be here,” Kush said. “I think more than anything I could have done for somebody, they’re doing something for me. This place has changed me for the better. It opens a whole new part of your heart.”

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Firefighters searched for residents, rescued pets during house fire
  • Updated

PAOLA — By the time Paola firefighters Mark Farmer, Colby Stanchfield and John Kennedy arrived at the scene of a fire at 403 W. Piankishaw St. shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 22, dense black smoke was billowing out of the four-unit housing structure.

Two Paola police officers and a neighbor were tending to a woman who had just leapt to safety from the second floor, breaking her leg in the process.

Paola Fire Chief Andy Martin said the officers and neighbor tried to reach the woman with a ladder, but she ultimately made the decision to jump.

That’s when the Paola firefighters learned that two more residents were believed to be trapped inside.

Farmer made a quick call for mutual aid from the Osawatomie and Louisburg fire departments, and then the three firefighters entered the structure in full protective gear, including masks and oxygen, to search for the trapped residents.

“Visibility was zero,” Farmer said. “There was smoke from floor to ceiling.”

A few minutes into the search process, the firefighters received a radio call that all of the building’s occupants had been accounted for, so they transitioned from rescue mode into firefighting mode, Farmer said.

In the process, they also found and rescued several pets, including multiple cats and some gerbils.

Martin said the initial dispatch call came in at 9:02 a.m. Wednesday, but the caller was only able to give limited information because they had to leave the structure. The first truck arrived on scene at 9:09 a.m., and the fire was marked under control at 9:30 a.m. and out at 10:30 a.m., according to the log.

The only reported injuries were the resident who broke her leg, and another resident and police officer, both of whom were treated for smoke inhalation.

Martin said the entire structure is currently uninhabitable due to smoke and fire damage, but the heaviest impact was in the attached first-floor unit, which appeared to be where the fire originated. Martin said the exact cause of the fire is not yet known.

April Timmons said she lives in the first-floor unit with John Richey and her son, Roger Jones. April said she and John were at work at Medicalodges Paola at the time of the fire, and Roger was awakened by the sound of the smoke detector.

“It saved his life,” April said. “He’s a deep sleeper.”

April said her son did not realize that she and John were at work, so he initially tried to get to their bedroom. But the smoke was too intense, and he had to leave the structure. April said that’s why she believes there was confusion about who was inside when firefighters arrived. Roger successfully escaped but was treated for smoke inhalation.

Two occupants of another unit also were alerted by smoke detectors and were able to successfully exit the building, according to the fire report.

April said it appears the fire started in her bedroom, and all she can think of is it must have been some sort of electrical issue, even though they don’t remember anything being turned on.

As a result of the fire, all eight people who occupied the four units are now being forced to scramble to find living arrangements and basic necessities.

April said her family did not have renter’s insurance, and they were not able to salvage anything after the fire.

“We lost everything,” she said. “We just had the clothes on our back.”

Thanks to the American Red Cross, April and her family currently are set up at Paola Inn and Suites, but she said that’s just a week-long arrangement.

As a breast cancer survivor, April said she is used to battling tough situations, and she realizes she and her family are not on their own. On Thursday, just one day after the fire, April said she’s already received some help from multiple people.

A neighbor’s church immediately donated $200 for clothes and toiletries, and April’s friend, Laura Jean of Lawrence, started collecting donations on a “They Lost Everything” {a href=”https://www.facebook.com/donate/245832499950915/3511742852174251/” target=”_blank”}Facebook page. Her cousin, Tiffany Bellamy, also created a {a href=”https://www.gofundme.com/f/b2etdj-house-fire-lost-everything-please-help” target=”_blank”}GoFundMe page.

April is also trying to focus on the big picture, because as dire as the situation may seem, she’s also thankful that none of the occupants lost their lives in the fire.

Cara Folsom, a Paola senior, poses for prom pictures on the Paola Park Square.

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COVID-19 testing to be ramped up in Miami County
  • Updated

The Miami County Health Department is asking residents to complete a survey that should shed more light on how many people in the region are experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19.

Health officials plan to use the results to seek out residents who are currently symptomatic. Those who volunteer to be tested will be able to utilize a new drive-through community sampling clinic set to be established locally by the Miami County Health Department.

A link to the survey can be found on the Miami County Health Department’s Facebook page.

This survey is not intended to replace medical care or advice from a medical professional, the health department clarified.

Christena Beer, a disease investigator at the Miami County Health Department, outlined the details of the project in an email to local governmental leaders and health partners Friday, April 24, and the survey was pushed out to the public on Monday, April 27.

“We have partnered with the University of Kansas Medical Center Department of Preventative Medicine and Public Health, utilizing their expertise to create and launch a self-reporting survey to residents of Miami County,” Beer said.

She added that the plan is to push out the survey through multiple avenues, including social media, websites, school districts and local media.

The survey, which is recommended to be completed for each member of the household, can be filled out in about five minutes, Beer said. It will ask a few questions about the respondent’s demographic background, current health status, potential COVID-19 symptoms and profession. If the respondent is currently symptomatic, it will also ask if they would like to be tested. If the respondent indicates interest in testing, further demographic information is collected for the purposes of pre-filling laboratory requisitions for more efficient service at the testing site, and if selected, that person will be contacted with a location and time for testing.

“Based on the potential need acquired from the survey, we are working on securing supplies to have the ability to test anywhere from 200 to 500 Miami County residents who meet criteria for testing at Kansas Health and Environmental Laboratories,” Beer said. “We have the ability to oversample certain groups (i.e. profession, geographic location etc.) to ensure that the sample is both representative and meaningful in data collection for the county in its entirety, and we also have the ability to randomize the sample. Once we have more demographic information, as well as number of respondents currently symptomatic, we can better narrow down our sample group(s) based on need.”

Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), recently stated during a press conference that a rate of five tests per 1,000 persons is needed to really understand what’s happening in a certain area.

Beer said Miami County’s rate of testing, as of April 24, is 5.14 per 1,000 persons.

“Our rate of testing is not necessarily concerning compared to Kansas counties who have nowhere near the testing availability that Miami County has, but increasing our testing capacity will provide data that gives more information about the prevalence of the virus in our county, and it will also identify people who are infected so case investigation and contact tracing can be completed to minimize potential exposures within the community,” Beer said. “Increased testing will also provide information on hospital capacities, measure the effectiveness of the interventions, and assist in making data-driven decisions when determining our plan to ease restrictions and the phases that will be recommended to reopen.”

A specific location for the drive-through testing clinic has not yet been finalized, but Beer said it will be in Paola at a location that will have the layout and specifications to accommodate drive-through testing.

Depending on the results of the survey, Beer said two to four additional clinics may be set up on future dates if enough residents who are symptomatic volunteer to be tested.

“The test will be at no cost to the individual being tested, as we are sending specimens to KHEL,” Beer said.

She added that Olathe Health and Miami County Medical Center have offered to support the mission and will provide staff and supplies to assist in the specimen collection and courier service to KHEL.

Sheriff Frank Kelly and Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Whelan have offered to help secure a site, traffic and security needs, as well as provide other needed equipment for the number of people invited.

“We all have been compounded by the immensity of the unknowns, and if we knew more about the prevalence of COVID-19, we can remarkably improve our resource allocation,” Beer said. “Furthermore, in conjunction with Governor Kelly’s guidance, we can collaboratively make decisions about where, when and how we can safely reopen parts of our economy.”

Miami County has had five confirmed cases of COVID-19, with the only active case being a resident in their 30s who was added to the report Saturday, April 25.

The health department reported that multiple close contacts of the individual have been identified and contacted with further instruction and monitoring for any symptoms.

Although the case investigation is still ongoing, no specific exposure has been identified at this time, and it will be classified as a local transmission, the department reported.

The other four cases involving Miami County residents have already recovered.

The department reported that 188 Miami County residents have been tested.

Kansas has 3,328 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in 75 counties that have resulted in 496 hospitalizations and 120 deaths as of 8 a.m. Monday, April 27, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE).

KDHE reported the state has logged 23,839 negative tests. Wyandotte County has the most cases at 573, followed by Ford County, 516; Johnson County, 440; Seward County, 349; Sedgwick County, 339; Leavenworth County, 184; Finney County, 175; Lyon County, 147; and Shawnee County, 105.

Elizabeth Stookey (left) and Debbie Lang hand out free lunches at Lang Chevrolet on Tuesday, April 21.

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Kelly administration reaches agreement with churches
  • Updated

Gov. Laura Kelly has announced her administration has reached an agreement to resolve a challenge by two churches to her executive order that limited religious gatherings to no more than 10 people in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

First Baptist Church of Dodge City and Calvary Baptist Church of Junction City had filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for Kansas which alleged that enforcement of restrictions on religious activity in defendant Gov. Kelly’s Executive Order 20-18 would violate the plaintiffs’ rights, including their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order against Kelly’s Executive Order 20-18 on Saturday, April 18, and set a hearing in the case. Under the settlement announced Saturday, April 25, the two churches agreed to comply with safety protocols put in place by the court.

The agreement comes less than a week before Gov. Kelly is expected to make a decision whether to open the state back up or keep in place the mass gathering and disease mitigation restrictions. The statewide stay-home order is scheduled to end at midnight May 3 if it is not extended or rescinded before that date by the governor.

“My highest priority has been, and will continue to be, keeping Kansans safe during this pandemic,” Kelly said. “While I am confident that we have the law on our side, the agreement with these two churches will allow us to move forward and focus our efforts on mitigating the spread of the disease and working to restart the economy.”

Since this case was filed by the two churches on April 16, Ford County has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, going from 51 positives to 419, Kelly said.

Senate President Susan Wagle issued a prepared statement about the agreement.

“Governor Kelly has given up contesting her unconstitutional church ban in federal court. She has agreed not to enforce her blatantly discriminatory order by agreeing to let churches safely meet indoors while practicing the same social distancing measures she rejected two weeks ago,” Wagle said. “Governor Kelly has been told by the legislature and the Kansas Attorney General for almost a month the order violates the United States and Kansas Constitutions. I’m glad she’s finally realized her order unfairly targeted churches while allowing bars and restaurants to remain exempt. It’s unfortunate she had to waste so much time and money in court and ultimately be reprimanded by a federal judge for her to get the picture.”

Kelly said she had issued the order limiting the size of religious gatherings to try and slow the spread of coronavirus in the state.

“I know this is a difficult time for everyone, but I want to take a moment and thank all of the first responders and medical staff for their sacrifice. They are on the front lines of this disease and they are true heroes,” Kelly said. “Our job is to not make theirs harder. And, our advice to all Kansans remains the same — stay home and stay safe. We are bending the curve, but we must continue to be vigilant in our mitigation efforts.”