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COVID-19 Is Likely Coming To More Rural Areas; An ISU Sociologists Hopes To Help Them Prepare

Amy Mayer
IPR file
Small communities may be able to prevent COVID-19 infections from spreading, though they can also be highly susceptible.

Rural communities that have not yet seen coronavirus outbreaks could be very susceptible to one. That’s according to Iowa State University sociologist David Peters, who modified an existing public health tool to see how susceptible different size communities are to COVID-19.

He says communities are more susceptible to an outbreak when they have many people living and working in group housing, such as prisons or nursing homes; lots of residents with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes; and certain types of employers, including meatpacking plants.

Precautions implemented ahead of widespread infection could be life-saving, Peters says.

“Cases will happen,” he says. “What you’re really trying to do is prevent these very sudden, large outbreaks like we’ve seen in meat packing plants in Iowa.”

Meat plants in Columbus Junction, Perry, Storm Lake and other Iowa cities and towns have seen the virus spread quickly through employees, which then can lead to more widespread infection in the community at large.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Peters $200,000 to conduct surveys in 65 small towns in Iowa to learn what precautions have worked so far and how other places might best protect their most vulnerable residents. He says right now there are anecdotal tales of different approaches, some of which may have been helpful, but he wants to collect sound data about strategies that were tried and how well they worked.

“In the process of surveying, we’re going to ask governments and public health agencies and other large institutions to identify strategies that they undertook in those communities,” he says, “to see whether they’ve been effective at holding down the rates of infection and minimizing the impact of the pandemic.”

He’s hoping his work will generate some “best practices” that can be replicated to reduce the severity of any future outbreaks. Peters says planning ahead for the most vulnerable populations in a community might mean figuring out how to keep them sheltered in place or ways to dispersing them to prevent an outbreak in a place where many people live close together with staff who tend to multiple residents and move between the building and the community.

Peters says the same susceptibility risks exist in most places, but the degree to which a community is vulnerable can vary. His modeling shows that while population density is a serious factor in big cities, smaller communities often have a greater proportion of residents who are older than 65, have diabetes or live in nursing homes, all of which increase their susceptibility.