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COVID-19 Cases Spike In Rural NC; Trends Could Strain Hospitals

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City of Greenville, via Flickr

A new analysis from data scientists modeling the impact of COVID-19 in North Carolina shows rural areas and the older population are now being hit harder by the coronavirus.

North Carolina remains in Phase 3 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s phased approach to reopening, though COVID-19 cases have been on the rise over the past few weeks.

The latest report from a group of data scientists modeling the trajectory of the outbreak in the state shows where cases have spiked. The biggest increases are in rural areas and among populations aged 50 and older.

In the early months of the pandemic, coronavirus cases were most prevalent in urban areas and among younger populations. But that has changed.

Mark Holmes is the Sheps Center director and helped write the latest report. He says he's concerned that message isn't getting across throughout the state.

“But what we've seen in this last report is an increase in the per capita rates in particular among the older populations and in particular, rural, the rural eastern part of the state,” Holmes said. “I worry that there's this conventional wisdom out there, that it's still just young people in urban areas and this report shows that's clearly not the case.”

He added that, if these trends continue, it could strain rural hospitals. North Carolina already has an urban-rural divide in health care, which could be exposed if more patients need an ICU bed or a ventilator.

Health care facilities in North Carolina's rural areas have less capacity to handle COVID-19 patients. Holmes and others worry that if cases rise too quickly, it could overwhelm rural hospitals that are already stretched thin.

Fayetteville State University is partnering with Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee to establish a medical program to train more doctors in rural North Carolina. FSU says the program will address the need for medical professionals in the rural southeastern region of the state.

WUNC's Celeste Gracia contributed to this report.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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