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Respiratory therapist Tim Otter, of Newton, has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 virus outbreak for a few weeks.

After spending time in Colorado treating patients, he starts this week in Liberal, where there have been 580 cases in Seward County alone as of Monday and about an additional 40 patients in the surrounding counties of Kansas. The hospital also serves patients in nearby Oklahoma.

“I’ll be going to Southwest Medical Center to work with their patients,” Otter said. “I was working on Montrose (Colo.) when all of this was happening. Montrose is between Telluride and Gunnison. Both of those places have ski resorts — Telluride and Crested Butte over in Gunnison. The ski resorts ended up being a hot spot for COVID for a little while, especially Gunnison for some reason. The first couple weeks of February and early March, things got really busy.”

The high spike in patients in the ski resort areas is likely due to the number of visitors the area receives both in the U.S. and internationally.

“Part of it was elevation,” he said. “It’s about 8,000 feet. It’s a little bit colder there. There was a lot of mixing of people. They shut (the resorts) down pretty quick. Crested Butte might have 8,000 people, but they saw 40 COVID cases.”

Otter said it took some time to figure out how the disease would present. He said patients in Colorado showed more stomach symptoms than were being reported elsewhere. He said he wasn’t sure what made the difference.

“It’s started out being kind of scary because you kind of didn’t know what to expect,” Otter said. “After a while, it kind of becomes work. A couple of our patients got really sick, but everyone made it through. That was a lot to deal with. It was scary for the patients. You go from the standard head cold-type thing to really sick in a day or two. The patients, when they came in, they were really scared.”

Otter said it was initially difficult for the medical staff to know what they were dealing with at first.

“The influenza really spiked around the first of the year,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were dealing with COVID or influenza at the beginning of the year. Then, we didn’t know how busy we would get. There were a lot of patients who were really sick who would have been admitted to the hospital under normal circumstances, who were sent home because we didn’t know if someone would come in who was actually sicker. The logistics at the beginning was kind of awkward.”

Otter said the facility in Montrose was fairly advanced.

“It was a critical access hospital, so it’s roughly equivalent to Newton Med,” he said. “Where Newton has big hospitals 30 minutes down the road, the bigger hospital is in Grand Junction, about an hour away by helicopter. We had to stabilize a lot more people before they got sent off to the main hospital. … We were never overrun like you saw in New York or New Orleans. We were busy, but I never felt overwhelmed.”

Otter said he hadn’t gotten any briefings about what to expect in Liberal.

“I have been watching the patient numbers from Johns Hopkins and they have been busier than Gunnison,” he said. “I kind of know what to expect patient-wise. I don’t know how busy we’ll be as a group.”

In Colorado, Otter said, he would run the respirators as well as EKGs to monitor heart functions. He also passed out breathing medications and took blood samples.

Otter got his assignments through a traveling agency.

“Normally, there’s a demand for our work and it pays a premium for traveling,” he said. “Right now, some of the respiratory therapists going to places like New York are getting paid really well. It’s a premium over what I could get locally. The scenery was pretty nice there in Colorado.”

His advice to the public was to “follow the advice of the governor. If you know someone who is immune-compromised, be careful around those folks. There are a lot of sniffles going around where it’s hard to tell if it’s allergies or something else.”