While the COVID-19 pandemic has tested communities throughout the U.S., it has presented itself differently in rural communities because of the unique challenges they face. For organizations that seek to engage rural community members – particularly employers, health care providers and government entities – understanding both the short-term impacts on these populations and potential long-term implications will be critical moving forward.
While densely populated metro areas were the first to report spikes in COVID-19 cases, the deadly virus is now rapidly spreading across rural counties, where health care systems are more likely to be understaffed and the patients more likely to be uninsured. In general, rural counties have fewer health care workers, specialists, critical care units, emergency facilities and transportation options, and about 12% of rural Americans have no health insurance.
The population in these areas skews older, putting them at higher risk. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 23% of older Americans live in rural areas and about 18% of the rural population is age 65 and older. Rural Americans also have an increased risk of serious health issues, such as chronic lower respiratory disease, heart disease, cancer and stroke. Economically, many jobs in small communities are not conducive to social distancing, such as factories and other forms of manual labor, aiding in the spread of the virus.
In addition, rural communities face additional barriers to accessing critical services in a pandemic, including the availability of services in their area, long travel times to reach health care providers and a lack of trust in health care and public health providers.
One opportunity arising from the pandemic is the acceptance of telemedicine as an important alternative practice. The CARES Act helped provide funding for either establishing or expanding telemedical services to keep patients in both rural and urban communities out of health care facilities unless absolutely necessary.
As the reality of the pandemic set in and many routine activities went virtual, many rural areas were left behind due to a lack of reliable internet access. In 2019, the FCC estimated roughly 24 million Americans lack broadband access, though Microsoft disputes that number. Regardless, it is clear that a multitude of communities may be without sufficient access to online resources – either for education or to stay up to date on COVID-19 developments.
This renewed urgency for internet access has spurred many companies to come forward to assist rural communities. Smithville is one that is offering free Wi-Fi hotspots to aid those affected by COVID-19, making it possible for people to work remotely, participate in e-learning and access such services as telemedicine.
Lack of high-speed internet affected many close to home, as Hoosier families around the state scrambled to figure out how to finish out the school year virtually. As schools weigh their options for the fall, students are likely to need both reliable internet and at least one device or computer to access e-learning software. For rural households, particularly those who are low income, these may be luxuries they cannot afford.
We also know COVID-19 has significantly affected the way Americans are consuming media. Stay-at-home orders and the news-seeking frenzy caused by a global health crisis have triggered surges in media consumption across various platforms and myriad demographics.
Interestingly, rural and urban demographics have largely sought out the same sources of pandemic-related information, though rural audiences have an increased reliance on government websites over social media, according to TVB.
While rural Americans are finding ways to stay informed, some have argued current restrictions have kept rural communities from being active in COVID-19 conversations. The CARES Act targeted cities with populations greater than 500,000, leaving many rural communities out of stimulus payments. Though some state legislators are calling for more aid to support rural communities, this is not the first time rural populations have been left out of the loop.