The current wave … frightens public health officials because it's tearing into the frayed health care safety net of rural America. Small hospitals, understaffed and financially vulnerable before the pandemic, are under siege as the virus runs unchecked from North Dakota to the Texas Panhandle. Many of these hospitals are in towns where people are more likely to eschew precautions such as masks and social distancing at churches, grocery stores and other public places. Many of the nation’s nearly 1,800 rural hospitals lack the equipment, workforce and expertise to handle a surge of COVID-19patients. Nurses and doctors are getting sick, leaving already short-staffed hospitals more desperate for workers.