The Easter holiday weekend is an important one in this country, but perhaps no more so than in rural America.
Whether or not you follow the religious traditions of the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox, gathering with family, sharing food and celebrating the end of winter is a critical rite on the farm, and across rural America. It's often the first chance to gather in spring. Depending on your latitude, this holiday weekend is either the calm just before the spring planting and calving rush or a nice break within a season already started.
As our Chris Clayton writes in a feature story elsewhere on our online and satellite platforms (see "This Easter Will be Different), this particular Easter will, indeed, be different.
Health experts are almost begging that it be so. But many families, we hear, are taking umbrage with those recommendations. We may be willing to forgo the large gatherings in churches. But not meet as a family? With people we know, love and trust to be healthy? That's just taking this coronavirus fear too far.
It's the wrong thought, at exactly the wrong time, Dr. Jeffrey Gold told me in a phone call recently. Gold is chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the UN Omaha campus. My call to him, a cardiac surgeon by training, was due to his deep involvement in UNMC's rural health programs. He's also a familiar panelist on the RFD-TV call-in program "Rural Health Matters." Even more directly, Gold has under his administrative wing the med center's world-famous biocontainment unit, one of three such units in the United States approved for handling patients with pandemic diseases such as Ebola and, now, COVID-19.
"This coming weekend, and really the next two to three weeks to follow, are really going to be a critical time for rural America," Gold said. Disease experts expect rural areas to see peak virus infections around the end of April. The ramp up of those outbreaks, the time when they will either kick off or be avoided, is right now.
Weekends are particularly high risk for possibly spreading diseases such as COVID-19, he said, because of people's desire to get together. "When there are holidays, particularly spiritual holidays, it's very much a time for family gathering and celebrating with our parents and children and grandchildren. That's exactly what we don't want to do this weekend."
UNMC's work with rural health issues has Gold especially concerned about the viability of hospitals that must shoulder a coronavirus outbreak. As DTN has reported even before the current pandemic, rural hospitals are failing at worrisome rate.
"Many, many of our small hospitals live on razor-thin margins," Gold said. "This (virus) is the kind of thing that can tip them over. I will not be surprised if we see critical access hospitals going under," due to both the costs of caring for COVID-19 patients and to lost revenue from other health services if key doctors and other professionals become ill from a virus outbreak. That will have long-term effects on health care, and even the economic viability of the town, in those areas, he stressed.
Spreading the virus to health care workers is bad enough in areas where there are multiple people with those skills, he noted. Having the only skilled practitioners in a region become ill will simply shut that facility down.
Flare-ups in rural areas are also becoming more common in just the past few days. Just this past week, several meatpacking plants and other food-service businesses had to shut down because a COVID-19 case suddenly turned into dozens of sick individuals.
Gold said his other chief concern is for the viability of farms and ranches themselves. A March poll around COVID-19 conducted by Farm Market iD and DTN/Progressive Farmer found that some 69% of farmers don't have a backup plan should they become ill. Gold said the issue is more than a statistic.
"In our question-and-answer programs of late, many of the questioners (asking how to avoiding COVID-19 infections) start off with the statement 'Doc, if something happens to me, we're in a world of hurt.'
"These operations need the entire workforce for planting and calving," Gold continued. "If two or three individuals are incapacitated, or heaven forbid, hospitalized, that really affects the economic productivity of the farm or ranch."
"Double our efforts to sanitize surfaces, wash our hands, wear masks, don't gather in groups," he said. "It's not forever. It is until we can at least try to get through the next couple of weeks and to the end of April. Then, we can see where we are.
"Best thing we can do to be respectful of our families and those we love and care about is to maintain social distance. It's just too risky."
Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @greghorstmeier
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