A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that deaths from the coronavirus are now concentrated in rural areas of the country rather than in the urban centers where they were during the initial and earlier phases of the outbreak.
Sparsely populated rural areas now account for an average of three deaths a day per congressional district as opposed to urban districts where only 1.5 deaths a day per district, The Hill reported after reviewing the study.
When the coronavirus was first detected in the U.S., big cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Boston were the hardest hit by the virus, and thousands of people died with COVID-19 in those cities.
Now, however, rural areas that lack the medical infrastructure of the big cities previously affected are seeing the virus spread throughout their communities. With less access to hospitals than is available in more populated areas, it remains to be seen whether medical resources are overwhelmed as the outbreak reaches its peak.
A virus being a virus
The Hill points out that the apparent diffusion of the virus into more rural areas mirrors the way the flu moves through larger cities first and then goes into rural areas a few months later.
Senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Amesh Adalja also said that people in rural areas may be less compliant with restrictions than those in cities. “We have people that are less likely to take precautions, and [we] have a lot of pandemic fatigue going on,” Adalja said. “A lot of people have given up.”
The concern with widespread virus cases in rural areas is that while hospital beds can be expanded, staffing capacity is less easy to increase.
“You can always create extra beds. We have step-down units, we have post-op recovery units, we have actual surgical suites that can be turned into ICU beds,” epidemiologist at the University of California-San Francisco, George Rutherford said. “What we don’t have is the staff.”
Will a vaccine help?
From March until now, more than 16 million people have tested positive for the virus, according to Worldometers, but a lack of testing resources in many areas has led health experts to speculate that the true number of people who have had the virus might be multiples of that number.
If the true number of cases is much higher than positive test results would indicate, that may be keeping numbers lower in cities where transmission has already been widespread.
While having a vaccine may help people feel more comfortable being out in public, willingness to be vaccinated may be lower in rural areas, so that there will be many people unprotected who could still get the virus and spread it to others.
The study also showed that minority communities are being hit hardest by the virus.