When U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall — a Kansas native, practicing physician in Great Bend for 25 years and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in the upcoming Tuesday, Aug. 4, primary — talks about a phone call he received from a Dodge City doctor a few months ago, he takes on a solemn tone.
The seriousness of the situation is certainly not lost on him.
"It was a Wednesday afternoon," Marshall said in a phone interview Wednesday, July 29. "He said, ‘Roger, we’ve got 10 or 15 patients out here in the parking lot that are going to test positive for COVID. They work at the packing plant. It’s going to take a week to get the results back. I need your help."
The 59-year-old "Big First" District congressman said he immediately picked up the phone and called the White House Coronavirus Task Force in Washington, D.C.
"I told them the situation," he said. "It’s going to explode."
Marshall said he saw COVID-19 completely shut down packing plants in other states, adding the virus thrives in cold, humid environments.
"I said, ‘25 percent of America’s beef is processed right here in southwest Kansas,’ " Marshall said. " ‘We cannot let these shut down.’ "
Overnight, Marshall said, the task force started shipping testing supplies and personal protective equipment to Dodge City.
He then reached out to a friend, who he called a "logistics champion," with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Within days, that friend, who also sets up health care units at the Mexico and U.S. border, was organizing Dodge City’s efforts, he said.
"I called a private company and said, ‘I need 6,000 test kits tomorrow,’ " Marshall said. "And they said, ‘We’ll have them overnighted right away.’ "
He said care teams had enough 15-minute point of care test kits for every employee at the packing plant, enabling the National Guard to start contact tracing for those sick.
As the virus continued to spread, Marshall said he also helped with efforts in both Garden City and Liberal.
It was in Liberal that Marshall said he again called on the federal government for help.
"For whatever reason, Liberal was the one that more patients were showing up in the ER," he said. "So I stayed there on a Friday night. We had one ventilator left."
Marshall said he again called Washington, D.C.
"Sunday afternoon, two Blackhawk helicopters with four ventilators showed up," he said.
He said Southwest Medical Center in Liberal also received much-needed PPE in the same way.
More than anything, Marshall said, he is "so proud" of how local health departments, health care providers and volunteers in Ford, Finney and Seward counties came together and worked with the federal government when COVID-19 came knocking on their doors.
And, he said, Washington, D.C., gave those front line workers "everything they needed to be successful."
"The community solved the problem," Marshall said. "We didn’t just flatten the curve. We took the top off the mountain. And, we kept the packing plants open."
Even months later, the pandemic remains "front and center" in the challenges facing the state, he said.
"It seems like every conversation starts and ends with COVID," he said. "How do we safely and responsibly get our kids back to school? How do we safely and responsibly continue to open up the Kansas businesses?"
Marshall said the COVID-19 crisis is complex, reminiscent of his time caring for patients in Great Bend.
"You can never treat just one part of a patient," Marshall said. "You know you can’t take care of their heart and ignore their liver, and you can’t ignore their brain. It’s all related."
He said God has given him "the ability to take all these pieces of the puzzle and see them as one challenge, one opportunity, and knowing how all those pieces are going to interact with each other."
Marshall said the U.S. and Kansas have made gains in one piece of the COVID-19 puzzle — treatment of patients — thanks to developments in antiviral drugs and physicians’ use of steroids and blood thinners.
"We’ve really cut the morbidity and mortality down," he said.
The government is also working to reach people most vulnerable to the virus, those 70 and older living in nursing homes, through point of care testing at every nursing home across the nation, Marshall said.
"Over the next two weeks, they’ll have that 15-minute test available, so they can catch the first person in the nursing home with the virus before it spreads to 20 other people," he said. "So, we’re trying to take care of the most vulnerable."
He said, however, the most pressing issue for Kansans now is how to safely get kids back in school.
"I think there’s a safe and responsible way to do it," Marshall said.
He said for children and young adults under the age of 25, the chances of dying from COVID-19 are "probably less than one in 1,000."
In turn, he said, the benefits of kids returning to schools, like providing quality education, improving mental and social development, reducing child abuse and distributing healthy meals, far outweigh the risks.
With children back in schools, parents can also return to work, Marshall said.
"The good news is that the unemployment rate in Kansas has dropped to 7 percent," he said. "We’re starting to catch a little wind."
Marshall said it’s important to "respect the virus," but not let it "control and manage our lives."
"I’m absolutely convinced, as a doctor, that the unintended consequences of the virus will kill more people than the virus," he said, bringing up suicides, poverty-related illness and untreated sickness.
Marshall, however, said he sees hope on the horizon.
He said there are "vaccines on the way."
In fact, he said two vaccines are nearing the manufacturing phase and over a hundred vaccines are in other phases of testing.
"We’re very hopeful we’ll have a vaccine for the most vulnerable come this Thanksgiving time, and then vaccines for everybody, for the entire country, by the New Year," Marshall said.
Campaigning during the COVID-19 crisis has been tough, Marshall said.
"You go to rural America, and if you don’t shake a person’s hand and look them in the eye, they look at you like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ " he said.
In turn, Marshall said, he’s taken steps to ensure he can safely meet with his constituents face to face.
He’s hosting outdoor events throughout the state, which allows for social distancing. His team is also relying on videos, online meetings and phone calls to reach out to people.
Marshall said while he hasn’t experienced COVID-19 symptoms, he’s been tested for the virus three times during his campaign as a precaution.
"It’s been a huge challenge, no doubt," he said.
Despite the struggles he has faced on the campaign trail, Marshall said he knows he’s not alone.
"This virus has impacted everybody, whether you’re a doctor or a hospital," he said. "Whether you’re a restaurant or a bar, a farmer, a cattle rancher. This virus has impacted everybody. There’s very, very few industries that have not been impacted by it."