The impact of the pandemic on rural community health

Rural and urban communities have felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic differently. From gaps in healthcare, to transport challenges and through to isolation, the pandemic has brought to light some significant differences between city and rural dwellers.

Dr. Gabe Woollam, a family physician based at Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, and president of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada (SRPC) says that the pandemic has highlighted the gaps in access to higher levels of care for patients in rural Canada, which has demonstrated how much reliance there is on transport if they’re sick.

Woollam says, “I think rural areas have been unique in how the pandemic has impacted them. Many rural areas have been dependent on healthcare providers that come from outside the community, and the pandemic has really hampered that movement of healthcare providers in a lot of ways.”

SRPC brings rural physicians together from across Canada, for networking, education, and lobbying for better rural health. “We certainly did hear from a number of our members early on that there was concerns in various provinces with the perception that rural realities were not being considered in terms of vaccine rollout,” says Woollam.

Concerns that urbanites would receive a vaccine before people living rurally and the distance to travel to get the vaccine were brought forward by SRPC members early on. (Story continues below)

Listen to the full conversation with Woollam and Shaun Haney, story continues below player:

Many rural populations have higher rates of disease and lower economic status, adds Woollam, and the pandemic has heightened those effects.

Initially, the pandemic focus was on cities for the sheer population clustering, but there are certainly situations in rural Canada where people do live in close living situations, in households or in long-term care facilities.

As for vaccine rollout, the comparison between rural and urban access is hard to compare, says Woollam, because every province and territory has its own program.

Better transportation methods to get the vaccine out to people, instead of people travelling to get their first or second doses are a hope, says Woollam.

The pandemic has highlighted another need for rural communities: better access to telehealth and virtual services. There are serious limitations in access to technology and adequate broadband, says Woollam — a concern that’s brought forward every chance the SRPC gets.

Broadband and connectivity is a concern shared by rural communities in the U.S. too, said Alan Morgan, CEO of the U.S.-based National Rural Health Association on a recent episode of AgriTalk, guest hosted by Haney.

The shared experience ends there, however; rural communities have been hit hard in the U.S. — mortality rates were 48 per cent higher in rural communities than in urban areas.

“It’s an elderly population, a higher percentage of the elderly, that are living in these small towns and per population you’ve got people with multiple co-morbidities — obesity, diabetes, hypertension,” said Morgan. In small towns across the U.S. there was hesitancy to wear a mask and follow physical distancing.

Morgan says it’s been a mixed bag with regards to the vaccine rollout in the U.S. — there are fewer professionals that can administer the  vaccine in these rural locations, distribution problems, and higher rates of vaccine hesitancy.

Like all the provincial and territorial issues faced by rural communities in Canada, rural rollout issues in the states has been compounded by the fact that there are 50 states, all with their own plans.

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