How does a small rural community respond to a global pandemic? That is the question I have to answer.
For the past two years, I have been the Roseau County Emergency Manager as well as the Minnesota Department of Health’s Public Health Preparedness Consultant for northwest Minnesota, a region that covers 12 counties and three tribes.
Locally, I spend my time as Emergency Management Director, helping Roseau County prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies and disasters. In 2019, that meant coordinating a federal disaster declaration in the spring and a state disaster declaration in the fall, both due to flooding.
Regionally, as a Public Health Preparedness Consultant, I work with county and tribal public health departments, helping them plan how they will prepare for and respond to activities for incidents affecting public health. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control, we work on building and maintaining our capacity to respond to events ranging from anthrax poisoning to an influenza pandemic.
For the past few years, our activities have been centered around planning a major practice exercise for June 17, 2020, when we would have been testing our plans for mobilizing a Point of Dispensing, or POD, location. The goal of this POD exercise was to practice distributing antibiotics to the entire population of a county in response to a hypothetical targeted attack involving anthrax poisoning. This exercise is on hold.
I had no formal training for either of these emergency preparedness positions when I first started, except for a master’s in public health. Going through emergency management training, and attending multiple public health emergency preparedness trainings, however, quickly revealed that Roseau and the other counties in northwest Minnesota operate with the bare necessities of resources. Even the smallest of incidents could have the potential to overwhelm Roseau County’s four-county volunteer fire departments, two volunteer ambulance services, and one hospital and clinic system.
But now COVID-19 is here, a pandemic on a global scale not seen since the Spanish Flu in 1918. In even the best of times, rural Minnesota’s health care providers struggle to keep up with demand from residents for services. Suddenly, we hear that the largest metropolitan areas in Minnesota are concerned about “surges” of patients overwhelming their hospitals, their specialized care units, their emergency rooms.
If the counties of Hennepin, Ramsey, and Olmsted — which have the state’s highest number of intensive care unit beds and largest number of primary care physicians per capita — are fearful of being overwhelmed, where does that leave rural counties like ours?
A recent article in the Grand Forks Herald articulated my confidence in the residents of Roseau County and northwest Minnesota. The author, who is deputy director of the University of North Dakota’s Rural Health Center, said, “Health care workers know they’ve been struck by rising cases. Knowing there is a potential explosion of them, they might not be sure exactly how they’ll get through it yet. But they are convinced they’ll get the job done.”
COVID-19 has yet to take a foothold in northwest Minnesota. When it does, it will be met by resilient people tested by previous storms, who are invested in ensuring that their community, and the communities around them, will weather this storm, too.
Sue Grafstrom (she/her) is a board member of the Center for Rural Policy and Development. This story originally appeared on its website: ruralmn.org
The trickle of testing that is being done statewide and nationally is showing the spread of virus in rural and recreational areas. One recent report indicated that seven out of ten rural counties with the highest number of cases in a week were recreational areas, including skiing destinations in Colorado and Utah.
With snowbirds returning to the Midwest, and seasonal homeowners moving to cabins in recreational, rural areas, there is concern that Minnesota will see an increasing spread in the warmer weather weeks.
In many of these rural areas, residents tend to be older. An influx of people who might travel with the virus could bring strain to smaller healthcare systems.
As Kelly Asche, of the Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development, wrote: “So what should people do? The desire to escape from a place that feels dangerous, to a place that feels safer, is understandable. Unfortunately, that is exactly how the coronavirus proliferates and spreads, people moving from one location to another. The tricky part about COVID-19 is that a person can be infected and be asymptomatic — they show no symptoms — but they can still infect others. So it is important that people not become vectors for the disease. The best way we can help stop the spread and protect our neighbors and ourselves is to stay home.”