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July 31, 2021

Utah State researcher examines pandemic's impact on rural West

LOGAN — A survey conducted during June and July 2020 found that rural Westerners, including Utahns, are experiencing significant negative impacts to their health and livelihood due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The survey findings were included in the paper “Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural America,” which will be published in an upcoming installment of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Utah State University assistant professor of sociology Tom Mueller assisted on the paper with researchers from Yale University and New York University.

Mueller said his team was interested in pandemic impacts on rural Americans because of an overall lack of data on them, in general. “We have a lot of data on urban places,” Mueller explained. “And we actually have data on rural people; it’s just that, because of confidentiality, we often can’t figure out where those people live.”

When it comes to rural America, he said, “we just don’t know what’s happening to people, what the kind of status quo is.”

“So our goal here was just to kind of get some understanding of how COVID-19 was impacting residents of the rural West, and just try to complete the picture a little bit.”

The research team surveyed 1,009 rural Westerners across 11 states, including Utah. It found that 28% had direct experience with the new coronavirus, and that one-fifth of respondents who’d been full-time employees in 2019 weren’t when surveyed in 2020. “We saw this effect where full-time employees lost work or became part-time,” Mueller said, “and full-time employees becoming part-time basically pushed part-time people to be completely unemployed.”

The majority of people reported some level of negative impact to their overall life, and 44% reported negative impacts to their mental health. The majority also felt that their county’s economy was doing poorly.

On the bright side, more than 45% of respondents were optimistic their county’s economy would improve by summer 2021. “But I’m not sure where people would be now,” Mueller said, “as things have continued to drag on.”

Rural American health care right now is pretty much in a crisis, even before COVID.

–Tom Mueller, Utah State University assistant professor of sociology

The survey found no significant variation in responses between age groups, education levels, genders and ethnicities. And Mueller said the responses are “probably a lower bound” of true sentiments, since they were taken before the fall surge in the virus.

Mueller said rural areas will continue to face unique challenges as Americans are vaccinated and recovery begins, especially problems with access to care. “Rural American health care right now is pretty much in a crisis, even before COVID,” Mueller said. “We have a situation where we have relatively for-profit health care in the United States, and it just doesn’t make business sense to have a lot of rural clinics and hospitals.”

He said there is broad agreement on the need for additional federal relief. “At this point, something needs to be done, at the very least,” Mueller said. “… Rural people are really supportive, in the West, of direct aid to individuals, of support to small businesses, of support to state and local governments. That’s what they want to see, so I would think that would be a good place to start.”

The U.S. Congress is currently negotiating a second coronavirus relief bill after passing one in March 2020.

Mueller said the researchers aren’t done examining the impacts of the coronavirus on the rural West. They’ve begun working on individual case studies, and hope to repeat the survey among largely the same respondents in 2021 to see what has changed.

Mueller hopes leaders will keep rural areas in mind when tailoring solutions for the health and economic impacts of the virus. “People are struggling in rural areas just like they’re struggling in urban areas,” he said.

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