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COVID-19 risk isn’t necessarily lower for rural residents: doctor

Last Updated Mar 17, 2020 at 11:12 am PDT

A Family Care Network clinic in Blaine, Wash., one of many smaller clinics serving a more rural population. Source: Google Maps

The risk of transmission of COVID-19 in rural communities is about the same as in urban areas, according to one doctor

He says we don’t yet know how prevalent COVID-19 is in U.S. due to lack of testing

Even smaller clinics like FCNs are making changes to how some patients are being seen

FERNDALE, Wash. (NEWS 1130) – Set against the backdrop of rolling hills, quiet two-lane streets, and the imposing specter of Mount Baker, it might be easy to assume the world works a lot differently in rural Northwest Washington state – but the head of one local clinic chain says COVID-19 still presents a concern.

“The risk of transmission in rural communities is probably quite similar to the risk of transmission in large urban areas,” says Doctor Rodney Anderson, CEO of Family Care Network (FCN).

FCN operates a number of clinics in the region. Anderson says it’s highly possible that the virus has been circulating in Washington state before the state announced its first case on Jan. 21.

But in terms of how many people may be carrying the virus in Whatcom County, Anderson says we can’t be sure.

“A big issue in the U.S. right now is a limitation on testing supplies. That means that the actual diagnosed number of cases will lag far behind the true number of cases, we just don’t have the ability to test and identify folks who have the disease.”

What’s not helping medical professionals is how many people end up presenting as asymptomatic, with around 80% of patients showing no to mild symptoms.

“If you had a type of infection that had symptoms that were really easy to identify, and people were only contagious after they were really sick, then the potential of containing that is considerably higher because you can identify folks.”

However, he says, since many people present with symptoms similar to that of a mild cold, the ability to rapidly identify and contain that virus goes away quickly.

The most immediate risk will be overwhelming the local medical system, with Anderson saying Whatcom County has 253 hospital beds and about 24 ICU beds.

“The hospital can expand that capacity quickly, but we can overwhelm that volume of beds very quickly.”

Locally, Anderson says their clinics are making changes to how they see patients to help stop the spread, including an initial visit with some patients in the parking lot, should it be suspected they have COVID-19.