Rural America Is Being Hit by COVID-19

For many people in the U.S., COVID-19 has seemed like a distant threat. People have prepared themselves, taken steps to protect themselves and then seen nothing in their community. It can be intensely frustrating to see the news, hear statistics and be lectured about safety when the problem is far from home. It’s understandable why many states didn’t immediately order people to stay at home. When cities in other states are being ravaged, but no one in your town goes there, the precautions can seem overblown.

But, we’re an interconnected country. As people travel to work, as mail people and delivery people move around, it can spread. As people from cities flee to country homes, they can bring it with them. Unfortunately, this means that COVID-19 is now in rural areas around the country. “Experts say more than three-fourths of the nation’s rural counties currently have COVID-19 positive cases,” Clinton Griffiths, anchor and executive producer, reported on AgDay-TV on Monday.

lan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said that there are three trends when it comes to the spread of COVID-19 in country areas. “Number one, we’re seeing the problem in small towns adjacent to [urban] ones; certainly outside of New Orleans and upstate New York are examples of that. The second is in communities that are along interstate highways where you’ve got a major truck stop where some of the town’s residents are employed. Batesville, IN, is an example of that. And then, of course, what’s made a lot of news are the resort areas — whether they’re in Idaho or Vail, CO — where a lot of people have come in and seeded these communities, unfortunately, with COVID-19.” Batesville had 37 percent of their COVID-19 tests come back positive, the rest of the state have an average of 20 percent. 

Hospitals across the country have been stepping up to fight this virus. Medical professionals and the janitorial and hospital staffs have been fighting hard to protect us all and take care of their patients. In urban areas, the hospitals are often better funded and more ready to handle large numbers of patients. It’s an even more significant challenge for more rural areas that aren’t as well supplied and don’t have as many beds or as much staff. But they are meeting the challenge. “We reassigned staff in a variety of different roles,” said Mary Ellen Pratt, CEO of St. James Parish Hospital in Lutcher, LA. “This is one of the things that rural hospitals do well: we are used to not having a lot of resources.” Her county, with 22,000 people, is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and has one of the highest per-capita number of cases in the country. “Radiology staff were restocking [personal protective equipment] and moving materials through the organization and supporting us with environmental services and cleaning. Our access registration staff turned into the screeners at the front door.”

Many states aren’t expecting to see their peak in cases until mid-May. But they are preparing to meet the demand. Tori Probst, the VP of Nursing at Star Valley Health in Afton, WY, said that the hospital has already stopped all non-essential services and started treating outpatients via telemedicine. Hospitals in the state have also begun training with the specific types of personal protection equipment they generally don’t use but now need. Many hospitals haven’t seen any COVID-19 but have been told to brace themselves. They are making plans to be able to meet the demand. “Many rural communities aren’t seeing anything. They’re simply having to prepare for what they know is coming,” Dr. Randall Longenecker, the assistant dean for rural and underserved programs at Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Ohio Univ. “[But] it will come, no matter what.”

If you’re in a small, rural community and you’ve got a couple general practitioners, you cannot afford for them to go offline by becoming COVID-19 positive,” National Rural Hospital Association CEO Alan Morgan said, “…there just is no room for error in a rural context... These small rural hospitals, they only have 25 beds, and all of a sudden, they’re presented with five, 10, 30, 40 patients in the door.” Hospitals in rural areas may serve people who live farther than 30 miles away from them, making them especially vulnerable. If they help folks who are spread out and may be near a large road, factory or other places where the virus can easily be transmitted from someone just stopping by.

It’s hard to believe the threat is real when it’s not reported in your area. But medical personnel and public health experts are all urging for the same thing: stay home. And, when you have to go out, wear a mask and socially distance yourself from the people around you. If we all follow those guidelines, we can protect ourselves and our communities.
April 22, 2020
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