A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

COVID-19 risk remains in rural communities

COVID-19_Lack of COVID cases near you? Here's why

Social distancing and stay at home orders have slowed the spread of COVID-19 to rural communities. Our expert talks about the continued risk and how to stay safe.

Editor’s note: This article was published on May 29, 2020. COVID-19 information and recommendations are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website or view our most recent COVID-19 blog posts.

Areas of rural America have not seen the high number of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases as more densely populated areas.

Compared to urban areas, residents in a lower population density encounter less people in their daily lives. This paired with staying home to decrease social interactions has helped decrease the spread of COVID-19 to rural areas.

However, across the country there have been outbreaks in rural nursing homes, churches, prisons and meat processing plants. Risk for transmission of COVID-19 increases whenever people are crowded together in poorly ventilated indoor environments. Transmission in these locations can quickly spread the virus to surrounding communities.

“Everyone is at risk and no one is immune,” said Dr. Edward Belongia, director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health at Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation. “We should not be complacent because of fewer cases in our service area.”

Maintain safe practices

Gatherings of people increases risk of exposure. As businesses reopen, it is critical that everyone continues to practice frequent hand washing, social distancing, wearing face masks in public and cough etiquette. Wearing a cloth mask is not a substitute for social distancing. People should both wear a mask and maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet from others. COVID-19 appears to spread primarily through the air, but it is still important to disinfect objects and surfaces that are touched frequently.

The 1918 influenza pandemic had a large second wave in the fall. A large second wave also is also possible with COVID-19. Because COVID hasn’t had a large impact in all communities right now, doesn’t mean it will not reach rural communities. “In the 2009 influenza H1N1 epidemic, Wisconsin wasn’t impacted in the first wave in the spring, but had a major spike in the fall,” Belongia said.

Protect highly vulnerable populations

People who aren’t showing symptoms can transmit COVID-19. This presents a challenge since testing people who are symptomatic will miss many cases. More wide spread testing and rapid contact tracing will be important until a vaccine is available.

When high-risk populations fall ill from COVID-19 they’re more likely to have complications or die. This is includes older adults and people of all ages who have chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.

“We all have a responsibility to protect our most vulnerable populations,” Belongia said.

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