Virus Outbreak Rural America

Rancher Joe Whitesell rides his horse in a field near Dufur, Oregon, as he helps a friend herd cattle. Tiny towns tucked into Oregon’s windswept plains and cattle ranches miles from anywhere might not have reported any cases of the new coronavirus yet, but residents fear the spread of the disease to their areas, which have scarce medical resources.

DUFUR, Ore. (AP) — The social distancing rules repeated like a mantra in America’s urban centers, where the coronavirus is spreading exponentially, might seem silly in wide-open places where neighbors live miles apart and “working from home” means just another day spent branding calves or driving a tractor alone through a field.

But as the virus spreads through the U.S., those in rural areas feel increasingly threatened, too. Tiny towns tucked into Oregon’s windswept plains and cattle ranches miles from anywhere in South Dakota might not have had a single case of COVID-19, but their main streets are also empty and their medical clinics are overwhelmed by the worried.

From rural Alabama to the woods of Vermont to the frozen reaches of Alaska, residents fear the spread of the disease from outsiders, the social isolation that comes when the town’s only diner closes, and economic collapse in places where jobs were already tough to come by.

“Nobody knows what to do and they’re just running in circles, so stay away from me is what I’m saying,” said Mike Filbin, a 70-year-old rancher in Wasco County, Oregon, a rare part of the state that hasn’t yet seen a case of COVID-19. “Right now, we’re pretty clean here, but we’re not immune to nothin’ — and if they start bringing it over, it’ll explode here.”

To make matters worse, some of the most remote communities have spotty cellphone service and limited internet access — or none at all. That makes telecommuting and online learning challenging, and it eliminates the possibility of FaceTime card games and virtual cocktail hours that urban Americans are using to stay connected.

The routine ways that rural Americans connect — bingo night, stopping in at the local diner or attending a potluck — are suddenly taboo.

“Rural people are reliant on their neighbors and have more confidence and trust in their neighbors,” said Ken Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. “Now you have people who are supposed to self-isolate themselves. What does that mean when people you depend on, in order to help you, are going to put themselves and their families at risk?”

Ketchum, Idaho, a rural resort town of 2,700, has struggled since the arrival of COVID-19. Nestled next door to the tony ski destination Sun Valley Resort and known as the second-home haven for dozens of celebrities, it has become the epicenter of Idaho’s caseload, with at least 35 cases and known community spread of the virus. At least 14 of the cases are among health care workers, forcing the town’s small health care system to bring in replacements from nearby cities.

Mayor Neil Bradshaw worries that if the virus lingers, it could be devastating.

“Our town thrives on people coming to town, and for the first time in our history we are discouraging visitors,” he said. “We’ve gone from being a vibrant town to a ghost town.”

Some communities have pushed back on shutdowns. Leaders from seven Utah counties, for example, sent a letter earlier this week to Gov. Gary Herbert urging a “return to normalcy,” and saying that the closure of schools and businesses was causing panic and hurting the economy.

“As of [Monday], the total deaths attributed to the virus in the United States stands at ninety,” the letter states. “Not nine hundred, not nine thousand, not ninety thousand. Ninety. This number is sure to rise in the near future but we need to keep our wits about us.”

Others worry about outsiders bringing the disease into remote areas that aren’t equipped to deal with it. Across the nation, there are over 51,000 general intensive care beds in urban counties — an average of 20 per hospital — but there are just 5,600 in rural counties, according to data compiled by The Associated Press. That’s eight per hospital, making it much easier to overwhelm rural health care systems.

More than 30% of the 1,600 residents of Georgiana, Alabama, are over age 60, putting them at higher risk. They are “aggressively upset” about the limited medical facilities available to serve them, said Mayor Jerome Antone.

In Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat whaling village of 900 at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, nearly 700 miles north of Anchorage, small aircraft provide the main link to the outside world. This week, one of the two airlines that serve Point Hope began restricting its flights to essential cargo and passengers.

Still, residents worry that the recent deaths of two elders will bring out-of-town mourners for the funerals.

“We have all kinds of different people who come into our village,” said acting Mayor Daisy Sage. “This coronavirus is serious.”

And thousands of miles away, in South Dakota, falling beef prices are generating as much or more worry than the virus.

Sam Stoddard, a cattle rancher near the community of Kadoka, population 650, said futures markets for beef have dropped up to 30% due to the coronavirus. He’s worried about longtime ranchers being able to hang on.

If the market remains terrible, he said, ranchers can put off selling their calves until later in the year — but no one knows how long the economy will be in upheaval, leaving everyone stressed.

“Normally this time of year, we’re more worried about a big blizzard coming in and killing 10% of our calves. You know it’s coming, and you can prepare for it,” said Stoddard, who lives 35 miles from the nearest town of any size. “With this, you don’t know what’s coming or what you should be doing.”

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