COVID & Community: Debunking misconceptions about the virus

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENT Megan Job is shown at a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City this past summer. Job, left, and the others are wearing masks, which studies showed likely reduced the spread of coronavirus at BLM protests this past summer. Photo by Karen Yi courtesy of Gothamist/WNYC

This is part of the package of COVID-related stories produced by Middlebury College students in Professor Lindsay Repka’s biochem class during the fall of 2020. Read the rest here.

MYTH: Rurality protects communities from COVID-19
In the beginning of the pandemic, it was suggested that living in a rural area could protect people from COVID-19. Most of the initial COVID-19 hotspots were in cities like New York City. It was thought that since populations are less concentrated in rural communities, it should be easier to physically distance there.
However, rural locations have also seen surges. Here are some facts demonstrating that rurality does not protect against COVID-19:
• Rural communities are no longer spared. A New York Times analysis in late October found that the highest COVID rates in the United States were in rural places. Thirty-seven of the 50 counties with the highest per capita COVID rates had populations under 10,000 and none had populations over 100,000.
• Rural communities have fewer physicians. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for every 100,000 people, there are 53.3 primary care physicians in urban locations and only 39.8 in rural settings. With fewer physicians, rural communities have less access to healthcare resources. As hospital beds fill up with COVID patients, rural residents may have to drive hours away to receive medical care.
• Vermont’s low case numbers are due to policy and rurality. Vermont has been able to keep its COVID numbers relatively low in part because Gov. Phil Scott has put in place safety measures such as mask wearing and physical distancing. In contrast, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota did not instate a mask mandate. Although South Dakota has a much lower population density than Vermont (10.7 people per square mile versus 67.9 as of the 2010 Census), South Dakota experienced a massive COVID surge this past November.

MYTH: Masks do not protect against COVID-19
Research shows that by wearing a mask, one can decrease both the chance of spreading and contracting the virus. Here are some facts that support the importance of masks:
• The Black Lives Matter protests this summer did not lead to COVID surges. A study led by Joseph Sabia of San Diego State University found that there was not a significant surge of COVID-19 cases in many counties where there were protest demonstrations, including New York County (Manhattan). Although the congested crowds complicated physical distancing, most participants followed the CDC guidelines and wore masks while protesting in order to avoid spreading and contracting the virus.
• Masks filter out respiratory particles. Although data on the protests indirectly suggest that masks are protective, other variables, such as the fact that the protests were outside, could have reduced transmission as well. In addition, detailed studies at research institutions have shown that cloth masks efficiently filter out respiratory particles. The virus-containing particles that cause transmission enter the air via coughing, sneezing, speaking and breathing and then enter a new body through our orifices.
In one study led by Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech, a mask made from a cotton T-shirt was shown to block about 80% of outward particles and 50% of inward particles for a common respiratory particle size (2 mm).  By wearing a mask, we not only protect ourselves from the virus but also protect others in our community.

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