Health

America’s experience with the coronavirus pandemic was at first primarily a threat to cities. Now, however, after months of spread and insufficient measures to test for and contain the virus, COVID-19 cases have arrived in rural America in large numbers as well.

For the Ohio Valley, this means a heightened threat to many communities with disproportionately high numbers of people especially vulnerable to the disease due to age and other health conditions.

For example, Hopkins County in western Kentucky has emerged as an unlikely hot spot of coronavirus cases in a largely rural part of the country. Hopkins County has a population of just about 45,500 people, but as of April 7 the state reported that they have 38 coronavirus cases and 3 deaths, among the highest per capita death rates from coronavirus in the state.

A number of cases in the county were linked to exposure in churches, and two local churches have been criticized for continuing in-person services. But the route of exposure is only part of the problem. Many Hopkins County residents are also highly vulnerable to serious health effects from the virus due to high rates of other underlying health issues.

These underlying health issues make it harder to fight off infection and increase the risk of serious illness and death from coronavirus. This is an important, but sometimes overlooked component to the pandemic: the effects the virus could have in a given place will depend on a variety of factors, including the underlying health issues in a community and the regional health system’s ability to respond.

The Ohio Valley ReSource worked with other public media outlets to develop the Local COVID-19 Tracker Project, which offers a county-level view of the most recent COVID-19 related cases and deaths, as well as information about vulnerable populations.

In Hopkins County, for example, the COVID-19 Tracker shows that the high prevalence of other health problems makes them highly vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19.

The county has rates of cardiovascular and respiratory disease that make it worse than 75% of all U.S. counties, and 14% of adults in Hopkins County have diabetes — a rate worse than half of all U.S. counties.

We invite you to use the COVID-19 Tracker to explore the data about your county and state. Then send us your questions: what would you like to know about coronavirus cases in the region and about your community’s vulnerability?

Hospital Capacity Questions

Marion County in northern West Virginia reported 25 confirmed coronavirus cases and one death as of April 7.

As the COVID-19 Tracker shows, Marion County has a disproportionately high number of people over age 65, and has rates of diabetes and respiratory and cardiovascular disease far higher than national averages. All of these factors could make Marion County more vulnerable to serious effects from coronavirus infection, which could require hospitalization.

Marion County is also losing a hospital, even as coronavirus cases threaten to stress the health system’s capacity to care for the sick. A similar phenomenon is playing out in Belmont County, Ohio, and Greenup County, Kentucky, where communities with high rates of underlying health problems now face a pandemic while local hospitals have either recently closed or are now closing down. In fact, the ReSource found 21 hospitals have closed in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia over the past 15 years,

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington uses a model to forecast the expected peak of coronavirus cases and whether a state’s health system has the capacity for hospital beds and intensive care spaces to meet that demand.

The latest forecasts show that the region’s social distancing efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus are having a beneficial effect. As recently as Tuesday, for example, the IHME model predicted that Kentucky’s peak of COVID-19 cases would exceed the state’s available ICU beds. However by Thursday the updated model showed that Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia should all have enough hospital and ICU beds available when demand peaks.

 

NOTE: This story was modified on April  9, 2020, to include updated information regarding IHME projections of hospital demand.

Jeff Young is the Managing Editor of The Ohio Valley ReSource.