COVID-19 a threat to rural dwellers, too – chief medical health officer

Rural residents and farmers should not be complacent about COVID-19 just because they live in more remote or sparsely populated areas, says Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer.

While many rural people have posted on social media that they aren’t worried about contracting the virus and intend to carry on as usual, Dr. Saqib Shahab said they must remain vigilant.

Shahab said while it is easier in some respects to maintain social distance and isolation in smaller places, the high elderly population and community events are risk factors. They likely will come into contact with people who travelled this winter and could be carrying the virus.

“There is this sense that, because we have a large geography and dispersed population, maybe our rate of transmission will be lower than large cities like Wuhan, China,” he said during a March 16 news conference in Regina. “But on the other hand we have in rural areas a large elderly population.”

Restrictions are now in place for long-term care and personal care homes throughout the country, but family and friends must be careful when visiting elderly people who are in their own homes, he said. The virus tends to affect older people more seriously.

Shahab said smaller communities are also noted for events that draw crowds.

“We really need to think about how those happen, should they happen and how can we maintain a safe two-metre separation even though some of those (events) may continue to happen,” he said.

Anyone who has symptoms, mainly a fever and dry cough, should seek testing. Even smaller rural health facilities should already have set aside separate rooms for testing to occur. Governments have also posted online self-assessment tools for people to determine their own risk.

Alberta has been hardest hit of the three Prairie provinces with 56 cases as of Monday, March 16 and confirmation that at least seven of the cases were related to a community event in Calgary. Until these seven, all others had been related to travel.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan each had seven positive tests, all related to travel.

As schools were suspended, events cancelled or their size limited, and international travel restricted to try to limit the pandemic, markets and the economy remain volatile.

Several large agricultural conferences and events have been cancelled or postponed. Many employees are working from home.

Concerns about the spreading virus put a halt to speculation of an early spring election in Saskatchewan.

Arlene Darknell, at Lundar, Man., said bull sales in the Interlake are proceeding but don’t typically garner big crowds anyway.

“More people are using the on-line bidding options, so that’s keeping the crowds smaller,” she said, adding that nearly all other events in the area are cancelled.

She said rural people are always prepared for isolation and have extra provisions on hand.

Bev and Keith Bennett, of Rivers, Man., have two freezers full of food and expect they could survive for months.

“Our neighbours who go south for the winter are back now,” said Bev. “But we haven’t heard of anyone with symptoms of the people close to us. Most of them came back before the virus became such a concern.”

Economic concerns are a bigger worry.

Brittany Riddell, who works for a crop inputs company and operates a mixed farm with her husband and his family in Manitoba, said the virus is affecting their ability to sell grain and cattle.

“I have my worries on how this will affect our producers come time to plant in the spring,” she said. “They rely on grain movement in order to pay off input bills so they can put a crop in again next year. We rely solely on trucking for all our inputs.”

Glen Hofer, who runs the furniture factory at the Miami Colony in Manitoba, said residents are limiting trips to Winnipeg to minimize their exposure, but he is worried about their hog operation.

“Our biggest worry is what if Maple Leaf in Brandon shuts down,” he said. “What can we do with all these hogs that are ready to ship?”

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said supply chains are a concern. If pandemic-related issues significantly disrupt the flow of goods to and from communities, then the impact will be felt more acutely.

Agricultural operations that depend on foreign labour will be wondering if temporary foreign workers will be allowed to enter Canada, while some farmers will benefit from the suspension of schools and the availability of students to help out.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council has set up a dedicated webpage to help farm employers manage risks.

Regardless of what situations emerge, farm families should be prepared for a prolonged period of uncertainty, Lewis said.

“You can’t really treat this like a winter blizzard,” he said. “It could be more like a long winter, so the best we can do is try to be prepared and see how this plays itself out over the next number of weeks and months.”

Mossleigh, Alta. farmer Ian Donovan said he believes farmers will soon be in self-isolation considering that seeding is just around the corner.

“We will all be locked in the tractor cabs soon enough,” he said via Twitter. “My cattle friends are already doing it with calving in full swing.”

At Bethune, Sask. Kylidge McNally tweeted that he feels far less affected by the virus concerns than urban folks.

“I’m not worried about how this will affect health. I am worried how the economy will suffer with all these closeouts and shutdowns,” he said.

Tyson McKenzie, at Delisle, Sask., said tanking calf prices are a concern.

Lewis said any discussions aimed at compensating businesses for financial losses or minimizing impact on domestic economic activity must include agriculture.

Both federal and provincial governments have said there will no doubt be an impact but they are still trying to figure out what to do about it.

Ottawa has made $500 million available to the provinces for additional health spending expected because of the virus.

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