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.
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?
Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.
How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?
Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.
How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?
As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.
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