COVID-19 has arrived in rural America. Indeed, the worst outbreaks in October 2020 were in counties with populations less than 50,0001. We knew it was coming2, and yet communities are unprepared to face the significant challenges of caring for COVID-19 patients.
Risks and impacts of COVID-19 are not distributed evenly. This is especially true for people with disabilities and rural residents who face significant challenges to accessing healthcare. For COVID-19, risk increases with advanced age (aged 65 and older), congregate living such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and for individuals with several health conditions including asthma, diabetes, blood disorders, serious heart conditions, severe obesity, and for those who are immunocompromised3. Many of these conditions are reported at higher rates among the population of people with disabilities, placing them at higher risk of COVID-19 related complications4.
A huge THANK YOU to everyone at the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) for another wonderful conference. Even though we couldn’t be together in person this year, everyone here at RTC:Rural appreciated that we were still able to connect and come together as a community. Thank you to everyone who participated in the conference!
For those with conference logins, recordings of the presentations can be found on the 2020 APRIL Conference website, on the Agenda page.
Guest blog post by Dr. Meg Ann Traci, RTC:Rural Knowledge Broker
The devastating and disproportionate rates of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases and deaths in institutional settings continues to be part of the national crisis. With data from the 23 states that publicly report data on deaths within long term care facilities, such as nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates more than one in four COVID-19 related deaths in those states (27%) occurred in such settings. The threat within these medical and personal care settings put people with disabilities and others unable to maintain and manage independence in the community, at increased risk. In rural areas, the threat to such institutionalized populations is likely even greater.
Additionally, local and national news headline stories revealed the increased burden of the virus among residents and workers in group quarters such as prisons, nursing homes, and juvenile group homes (non-correctional). The high rates of infection and deaths at a long term care facility in Kirkland, Washington, caught the nation’s attention and refocused the public health response efforts on institutional settings.
Because people living in institutional settings are more likely to report disabilities than the general population and these settings are not evenly distributed between urban and rural areas across the United States, rural people with disabilities have a lot at stake in efforts to address the pandemic and outbreaks in institutional settings.
“Not only do you have to travel far to get to beds,” Grieman said, “You’re going to a place where there are more people, where there is also an outbreak, and those beds may also still be in high demand. So, that’s what I find particularly disconcerting.”
RTC:Rural Project Director Lillie Grieman in a recent news article on Public News Service, on why rural people with disabilities are at higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rural people with disabilities and barriers to hospital access
Rural people with disabilities face many barriers to accessing health care, particularly Intensive Care Units and hospital beds. Hospital capacity varies greatly, as does the prevalence of people with disabilities. Typically, there are fewer hospital beds and higher rates of disability in rural places than urban ones.
Project Director Lillie Greiman discusses some of these barriers in a recent news article- read or listen to the news story through the following link:
Recent models from ProPublica, Imperial College, and others predict that millions of people who contract COVID-19 will be hospitalized and many hospitals across the country may not be prepared to treat the influx of patients.
People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to impacts from COVID-19, both directly and indirectly. While data about how this virus will impact the health and well-being of people with disabilities is currently limited, people with disabilities are often at greater risk of chronic health conditions, and thus may be more susceptible to infection. People with disabilities also face disruptions in services for daily needs, which could exacerbate conditions unrelated to COVID-19.
Overall, individuals who experience disability are at greater risk for being hospitalized either because they have contracted COVID-19 or because pre-existing health conditions have worsened.
On February 11, 2020, RTC:Rural Director Catherine Ipsen and Research Associate Lillie Greiman presented as part of a panel at the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium. Their presentation was titled “Uncovering the intersection of rural and disability.”
Christiane von Reichert, professor of Geography at the University of Montana and a RTC:Rural research partner, was also part of the panel. Her presentation was titled “Using the ACS PUMS to examine disability and migration.”
Project Director Lillie Greiman and RTC:Rural Director Dr. Catherine Ipsen recently co-authored an article in The Conversation about proposed changes to disability benefits and how those could make it harder for people with disabilities, especially those in rural communities, to maintain federal benefits.
In order to create policies and programs that serve the needs of
people with disabilities in rural communities, it is important to know things
about them, such as demographic information and location. The federal
government maintains several large data sets that collect this information.
However, it can be difficult to access rural disability data from these data
sets (see Data Limitations in the American Community
Survey: The Impact on Rural Disability Research).
To address this, RTC:Rural is conducting rural analyses of
existing large data sets to contribute to a national disability statistics