Face masks and lockdowns: COVID-19 rural life

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I gauge how seriously rural folks are taking the pandemic by how many face masks I see at farm supply and feed stores. At first, there were none. Over time, the percentage of people wearing them has increased, but only by a little.

In my unscientific observations, those numbers are nowhere near the amount I see on shopping trips to the grocery store. I have aging parents, who are very much at risk. I am often shopping at their behest. I shake my head, make sure my nose and mouth are covered, and wash my hands thoroughly before and after making those trips.

No one wants this. But, the fact is, it’s happening.

We don’t know

I held off on a column about this for weeks, because information was coming fast and was, at the same time, disjointed, which is to be expected. I’m not talking about op-eds, tweets and viral Facebook posts about the politics or theories about how the whole phenomenon came to be. I’m talking about what is known about COVID-19 itself.

The gist is that researchers, the folks who spend time tracking down outbreaks like this and studying them, know some things about it but still don’t know a lot. “What policy makers need to know about COVID-19 protective immunity,” published in the medical journal, The Lancet, April 27, and written by a trio of researchers in infectious diseases, immunology and vaccine research, drives this home.

It seems immunity may be high in those who have severe cases, but drastically less for those who do not show severe symptoms. More data is needed, the authors said, but “it seems likely that natural exposure during this pandemic might, in the short to medium term, not deliver the required level of herd immunity and there will be a substantial need for mass vaccination programmes.”

We are still very early in this. Again, I am not talking about politics or lockdown practices or whatever it is that has people in a dither. But I, the young woman who works at our farm and my mother all experienced odd symptoms in February and early March. Two of us had traveled for a sheep industry convention. We never went to a hospital, hadn’t traveled to the original hotspot countries, and, so, were never tested. So, who knows?

Things are different

In an April 28 examination of “What antibody studies can tell you — and, more importantly, what they can’t,” Caroline Chen, who reports on health care for ProPublica, picks apart the testing and what it does and does not tell researchers at this point. Making a comparison to seasonal flu is flawed because — wait for it: there’s still a lot we don’t know. What is needed is truly random testing, but achieving that is not easy.

“At the end of the day, wherever the coronavirus fatality rate ends up, it doesn’t change the fact that we don’t have any immunity to the virus, which is a critical factor in why we’ve had to behave differently in our response to it,” Chen wrote.

In 2009, I traveled to Beijing, China. Those were the days of the swine flu pandemic. The H1N1 virus infected more than 1 billion people and killed hundreds of thousands. During my stay, I had my temperature taken and recorded many times. Having heard of quarantined travelers, I was thrilled to make it through airport scans coming and going with an all-clear. Face masks were everywhere.

I still ponder the fact that I flew from one end of the globe to the other during a pandemic. But it was an eye-opening experience for me. For a region that was all too aware of the impact of an epidemic — a la SARS in 2002-2003 — the measures taken were not foreign.

Not uncommon

I have traveled quite a bit, often to places where diseases we’ve eradicated from U.S. soil are alive and well. We are privileged to live the way we do here. I think it has, understandably, lulled us into a false sense of security. The more interconnected the world is though, the more likely these kinds of scenarios will occur.

As events unfolded, Farm and Dairy followed state recommendations. We worked from home as much as possible. Those who had to continue at the office sanitized surfaces and adjusted to allow for social distancing. For almost two months, the reporters reported and wrote many stories to keep you informed, all without leaving their homes. They have done important work, despite the limitations.

It has been theorized that the lack of face masks at farm supply and equipment stores is because farmers are so focused on planting and don’t have time to worry about anything else. Perhaps. I do know that no one can afford to be ill during one of the busiest times of the year. Rural areas, while at an advantage in some regards to social distancing, have not been immune to the impact of COVID-19. The agricultural sector has not been immune at all. (See: meat packing plant shutdowns and farm worker shortages.)

As Ohio and other states move to re-open some things, we will begin reporting stories out and about again. But reporters will wear masks and observe social distancing for now. It is a small gesture. To help those around us. As we continue to muddle through this time, it’s the least we can do.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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