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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Seniors at the University of Kansas Medical School now have the option to graduate early.

It’s part of the effort to get more doctors deployed across Kansas as the state expects to see the peak of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.

Hospitals around the country are becoming overrun with patients, many affected by the novel coronavirus.

“As healers, our hearts pour out to the communities that are suffering,” said Dr. Michael Kennedy, KU Medical School’s family medicine professor and associate dean of rural health education.

But with the peak still weeks away in the Sunflower State, Kansas is now preparing for a potential surge in beds needed and extra doctors to care for the sick.

Finding more caregivers, though, especially in rural parts of the state is extremely difficult. In fact, about a third of Kansas counties have less than two physicians in the entire county.

“That’s where the big concern is for us, is that these towns have hospital systems that are marginal at best,” Kennedy said.

“And in terms of capacity and in terms of resources, to then have the added burden of trying to handle patients from a pandemic could be overwhelming.”

Former Kansas governor and physician Dr. Jeff Colyer approached KU’s president about allowing med students who’ve completed all their credits to graduate early.

The idea is to get those new doctors to volunteer to work in rural hospitals to alleviate some stress on the health care system.

Daniel Ortiz is among those answering the call.

“I wanted to find a way to do something for these patients and do my part to help out,” Ortiz said. “That’s what I went to medical school for was to help and to make a difference, and this was an opportunity to do so.”

Already more than 60 medical students have volunteered to head where they’re needed.

Kennedy said they’ll undergo some intensive training, and with the help of KU surgeon and Kansas National Guard physician Dr. John Alley, the students will be matched with hospitals across Kansas in the coming weeks.

“I think, given what’s going on in Kansas right now, just having the opportunity to be able to mitigate that and help out if I can is probably worth a lot more than standing by and doing nothing when I can do something,” Ortiz said.

The new doctors will be volunteering their time to help during the crisis. But some stipends to help with living expenses are available, thanks to a generous $1 million grant from the Patterson Family Foundation.

KU hopes this program will be a national model during the COVID-19 pandemic.