One of the more distressing parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, besides the obvious toll on lives and health, is how easy to predict the whole mess was at the very beginning.

Sure, we might not have understood the instant that cases appeared in the United States. But fairly soon afterward it became clear that this was an infectious virus that needed to be handled with extreme care. It also was clear that it spread when people came together in close quarters for extended periods of time, and that large numbers of folks could become infected quickly.

But here in Kansas, many of us, especially those in rural areas, thought this was a bunch of overheated nonsense.

It didn’t help that President Trump made our response to the virus a political issue, and that the simple act of wearing a mask sent some of his supporters into splenetic rages. Bad-faith actors scurried off the sidelines touting unproven treatments (hydroxychloroquine) and making incomprehensible YouTube videos.

So the pandemic became something that was either exaggerated or just happening "out there" to folks in rural Kansas, a few meatpacking plant or prison outbreaks aside. For months, that appeared to be true. Larger metropolitan areas dealt with outbreaks, and other places didn’t.

Today, the story is different.

The virus is ripping through rural areas, which didn’t take it seriously. They weren’t prepared. And as Topeka Capital-Journal Andrew Bahl wrote, hospitals in Kansas are now making sure they have the space and staffing needed for new COVID-19 cases.

"While the state’s three biggest counties accounted for well over half of the state’s COVID-19 case count earlier in the pandemic, currently two-thirds of the cases lie outside of the Wichita and Kansas City, Kan., areas," Bahl notes.

We’re not facing an immediate hospital crisis, thank goodness. But the experiences of other areas earlier in the pandemic suggest that if residents don’t take the threat seriously, the health care system could be seriously strained. And that kind of strain can harm health outcomes for everyone in the community — not just those battling COVID-19.

Again, this was all depressingly predictable. A contagious virus does not care if someone lives in a town of 1,000 or 100,000. Its one mandate is to propagate and spread. There is no special protection for those who live in rural areas or who support the president.

We only have the facts of the virus spread, and the advice of public health authorities to combat that spread. Wear a mask when around other people. Keep your distance. Avoid crowds and confined indoor spaces. Wash your hands.

Protect yourself and your community.