Resiliency and Vulnerability to COVID-19 in Midwestern Rural Communities


The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (Sociology) as a rapid response grant.  The project is a collaborative effort between Iowa State and the University of Iowa.

Project Researchers
Dr. David Peters, Rural Sociology at Iowa State University (Lead Investigator)
Dr. Mark Berg, Sociology and Public Policy at the University of Iowa (Co-Investigator)
Dr. Nicole Novak, Community & Behavioral Health at the University of Iowa (Co-Investigator)

Advisory Panel Members
City of Bancroft, Louisa County Public Health, Siouxland Chamber, Iowa League of Cities, Iowa State University Extension, League of United Latin American Citizens, Solidarity with Food Processing Workers.

Overview and Objectives
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic continue to be a major public health crisis in the U.S. Missing from the academic and policy discussion is the pandemic’s impact on smaller communities. Rural places are still highly susceptible to the pandemic even in the absence of confirmed cases, as this public health crisis may just be taking hold (Souch and Cossman 2020). This makes rural places statistically invisible, creating a false sense of rural immunity. There is an immediate need to understand the socioeconomic, health, and emotional impacts of COVID-19 in understudied rural communities, especially ones with large minority populations in meat packing towns. To address this gap, we request funding to survey n=12,716 residents across 71 small towns using an existing longitudinal rural panel from the Iowa Small Towns Project (ISTP). The new data will be combined with previous waves that allow us to address three research objectives: (1) to document how COVID-19 has impacted the health, socioeconomic, and emotional well-being of residents in rural communities; (2) to identify how communities have responded to these impacts and what needs remain unmet; and (3) to understand how impacts, responses, and needs vary among ethnoracially diverse towns dominated by agricultural production and processing.

Intellectual Merit
Rural communities are generally understudied in the social sciences and public health (Probst et al. 2004). There is a data deficit regarding the impacts from and responses to pandemics in rural America. There is a knowledge gap on how rural minorities are uniquely impacted by pandemics, especially in meat packing communities. Our project integrates the areas of rural sociology, public health, race and ethnicity, and social inequality to understand rural resiliency or vulnerability to COVID-19 in diverse places. Resiliency and vulnerability are dynamic processes over time that can only be determined by knowing ex ante and current conditions (Freshwater 2015). To achieve this, we use a unique longitudinal panel of rural residents in 65 small towns in Iowa to assess prior community conditions back to 1994. Three ISTP communities are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19 disease transmission because they are home to large meat packing facilities. Early reports from these places suggests outbreaks may exacerbate preexisting racial marginalization and stigma in these communities (all are over 50 percent minority), potentially leading rural residents of color to be racialized as coronavirus carriers. We will employ a comprehensive survey and community engagement strategy to effectively oversample meat packing workers and minority residents.

Broader Impacts
Knowing rural impacts, responses, and resiliency to COVID-19 allows state and national public health officials to plan and allocate resources accordingly, both for the current pandemic and future ones. As rural communities become more ethnoracially diverse, more data is needed to inform health research, policy, and practice for these specific populations. Our research will give a voice to often marginalized minority residents in meat packing towns. Rural communities are not only more susceptible to COVID-19 infection than urban ones, but are also more vulnerable in their limited ability to respond. Rural vulnerabilities identified by Peters (2020) include fewer physicians and lower hospital staffing, higher rates of disability, and more uninsured individuals. Poor internet access limits the ability of rural telemedicine to address these gaps. Emotional distress may build due to a lack of social capital and social services. Our proposal seeks to understand how communities, and communities of color, address these challenges in order to better inform policy. This necessitates not only different policy responses than what is proffered in urban areas, but a distinct rural research agenda to inform policy discussions.

Communities Surveyed

Towns by Name Population Towns by Size Population
Afton 815 Ottumwa 24,368
Albia 3,681 Storm Lake 10,322
Anita 900 Waverly 10,198
Atkins 1,970 Le Mars 10,081
Audubon 1,898 Denison 8,244
Bancroft 696 Webster City 7,671
Bedford 1,384 Estherville 5,666
Bloomfield 2,679 Clarinda 5,366
Buffalo Center 855 Cherokee 4,869
Calmar 917 Humboldt 4,587
Center Point 2,555 Chariton 4,141
Chariton 4,141 Jefferson 4,102
Cherokee 4,869 Le Claire 3,965
Clarence 975 Albia 3,681
Clarinda 5,366 Waukon 3,625
Colo 820 Eagle Grove 3,406
Columbus Junction 1,837 Williamsburg 3,164
Corning 1,433 Bloomfield 2,679
Correctionville 806 Missouri Valley 2,615
Denison 8,244 Sibley 2,574
Donnellson 854 Center Point 2,555
Eagle Grove 3,406 Madrid 2,549
Elma 527 Lamoni 2,249
Epworth 1,978 Sac City 2,068
Estherville 5,666 Epworth 1,978
Fruitland 982 Atkins 1,970
Garnavillo 724 Northwood 1,955
George 1,042 Audubon 1,898
Gilbertville 728 Monroe 1,894
Glidden 1,106 Columbus Junction 1,837
Gowrie 953 Pleasantville 1,696
Graettinger 795 Pocahontas 1,634
Hamburg 1,060 Mount Ayr 1,619
Hartford 777 Traer 1,596
Hartley 1,574 Nashua 1,589
Hills 804 Hartley 1,574
Hospers 696 Mediapolis 1,517
Humboldt 4,587 Oakland 1,501
Jefferson 4,102 Woodward 1,448
Lake Park 1,123 Corning 1,433
Lamoni 2,249 Montezuma 1,412
Le Claire 3,965 Bedford 1,384
Le Mars 10,081 Nora Springs 1,354
Madrid 2,549 Mapleton 1,157
Mapleton 1,157 Villisca 1,142
Mediapolis 1,517 Lake Park 1,123
Missouri Valley 2,615 St. Ansgar 1,120
Monroe 1,894 Glidden 1,106
Montezuma 1,412 Sheffield 1,106
Mount Ayr 1,619 Winfield 1,088
Murray 702 Hamburg 1,060
Nashua 1,589 George 1,042
Nora Springs 1,354 Fruitland 982
Northwood 1,955 Clarence 975
Oakland 1,501 Gowrie 953
Ottumwa 24,368 Calmar 917
Pleasantville 1,696 Anita 900
Pocahontas 1,634 Buffalo Center 855
Sac City 2,068 Donnellson 854
Sheffield 1,106 Colo 820
Sibley 2,574 Afton 815
St. Ansgar 1,120 Correctionville 806
Storm Lake 10,322 Hills 804
Traer 1,596 Graettinger 795
Ventura 713 Hartford 777
Villisca 1,142 Gilbertville 728
Waukon 3,625 Garnavillo 724
Waverly 10,198 Ventura 713
Webster City 7,671 Murray 702
Williamsburg 3,164 Bancroft 696
Winfield 1,088 Hospers 696
Woodward 1,448 Elma 527