Coronavirus: Rural communities 'more vulnerable' says expert

Questions have been raised about how rural communities will cope with COVID-19 after new cases of the virus in a number of small towns.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed 78 new coronavirus cases in New Zealand, bringing the total to 283.

Locations of new cases included small towns such as Te Anau, Roxburgh, Cromwell, and Alexandra.

While some farmers have suggested the isolation of rural life provided an extra sense of security during the pandemic an expert said that was not the case.

Department of General Practice and Rural Health at the University of Otago, Associate Professor Garry Nixon said rural communities would be more vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19. 

"This is because the residents of rural towns are on average older, have a lower socioeconomic status, are more likely to be Māori, have poorer health status, and less access to health services, than urban dwellers," said Professor Nixon.

While only a handful of patients had so far needed hospital admission in New Zealand at least two of these have been admitted to small rural hospitals, he said.

This was a potentially significant problem because rural hospitals lack 'surge capacity', and the majority of rural health services are chronically understaffed and are often heavily reliant on locums.

There was also an added infection risk as very unwell Covid-19 patients were difficult to safely transfer from a rural to a base hospital.

He said visitors to rural areas would also increase the risk of infection.

"The isolation and low population density of rural towns may help but the large numbers of tourists will increase spread." 

Meanwhile research director for the School of Veterinary Science at Massey University, Professor Nigel French said evidence suggested that infections could take longer to reach rural communities than urban communities, and may spread more slowly.

"This is due to the relative isolation and low density of people in these areas; meaning infection from outside the community may take longer to arrive, and community spread may be slower due to fewer contacts between people in these more sparsely distributed populations," said Professor French.

However, he said there would be serious consequences of community transmission in vulnerable rural areas and particular care needed to be taken.

"This can be done by preventing unnecessary movements from outside the community, obeying strict isolation of returning travellers and overseas tourists, and practising careful distancing, handwashing and other protective measures when engaging with anyone outside the household."

Primary industries and those who supply them have been deemed an essential service, however, need to follow strict health and safety rules to stop the spread of the virus.