In some isolated rural areas, COVID-19 is hitting hard
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The coronavirus made its mark first in densely populated parts of the United States. And after seven months, rural communities are seeing a rise in cases.
The 13,000 residents of Grundy County, Tennessee, are fairly isolated. Its scenic mountains are home to parks with names like Savage Gulf and Fiery Gizzard. Until recently, residents felt that distance protected them from COVID-19.
“Folks got relaxed,” Mayor Michael Brady said. “They felt like life’s coming back to normality. And, of course, that’s really not the case right now.”
Grundy County has gone from basically no COVID-19 to seven or eight new cases a day — a per capita rate higher than Tennessee’s largest cities.
At first, residents had to drive to another county to get tested. Now the local health department can do it, but the hours are limited.
“At times I’ve had to deploy the sheriff’s department up there to navigate traffic,” Brady said. “They’ll be lined up in the road.”
Across the country, rural counties from South Dakota to South Carolina are now seeing spikes.
And yet the mindset that distance is enough defense persists, said Jacy Warrell of the Rural Health Association of Tennessee.
“Business as usual is kind of the mantra in a lot of our rural communities,” she said. “There’s still this perception that the spread of COVID is more of an urban issue.”
Rural residents are also facing the pandemic with more risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, high rates of obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and heart disease, according to Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee’s health commissioner.
“So they are not only more likely to contract the disease, but to have worse outcomes,” she said.
And when people get severely ill, help may not be as close as it used to be. In the last decade, more than 120 rural hospitals have closed nationwide, according to the American Hospital Association.
Brady, the mayor in Grundy County, Tennessee, said his area doesn’t even have an urgent care.
“We just have the health department,” he said. “Rural Grundy County desperately needs a medical facility.”
For now, residents are traveling to other counties if they become seriously ill. And some of those hospitals are starting to reach capacity.
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