This is a small town with a university that attracts nearly forty percent of its 5,231 students from the St. Louis and Kansas City metro areas and 361 international students, forty percent from China. This is a town with an osteopathic college and dental school with two other campuses, one in St. Louis and the other in a suburb of Phoenix. There are multiple commuter air flights daily between our small airport and Lambert International in St. Louis. Amtrak stops twice a day in the small town just a few miles south. We feel small and closed to the world but are exposed to it.
Rural populations tend to have higher rates per capita of the elderly, disabled, and people with other health problems like heart disease, diabetes, COPD. Our hospitals are small.
I attended a meeting in early March where the hospital, ambulance district, nursing homes, clinics, law enforcement, city and county governments, reported that they were prepared. They had supplies. In less than a week, schools were closed, facilities closed to visitors, store shelves emptied of not just toilet paper and hand sanitizer but canned food, boxes of mac and cheese, everything. A week later, the first case here was confirmed.
Because of my healthcare and writing experience, the local health department contracted with me to handle its public information process. As of today, we’ve had six confirmed cases of the virus in town. Three of them live in a nursing home so given what I know, we will have a death. And because we’re a small community, many will know him but not be allowed to grieve at a funeral.
I’ve figured out that I can use less toilet paper and more of those things that have been hidden in the back of my pantry for years. I’ve learned that I consider Irish whiskey a necessity, although I won’t make a trip to the store for it. I’m praying more fervently and in lieu of Mass, I’ve re-learned how to say the rosary. As a teenager, I broke my fingernail-biting habit by sitting on my hands when they were idle, but I can’t quite figure out how to apply that technique to training myself to not touch my face.
–April 3, 2020
Postscript, May 21: There were 380 people tested in a drive-through site April 29 and all were negative. On May 12 there were thirteen cases with twelve recoveries. Today, there are thirty-nine cases, twenty-seven active. There are language barriers–some of the workers at the two meat-processing plants are from West Africa and Congo. A maskless cough here, a 200-mph sneeze there, suspended in air we breathe before landing on things we touch. Turns out, it wasn’t the university and medical students or travelers we had to fear. Pandora’s carnivorous box unlatched in flyover country.
Michelle Terhune is a writer, traveler, foodie and amateur wine aficionado. Raised in a small town, she has lived in St. Louis, Chicago, and in a 300-year-old stone house she purchased in Slovenia. Although Michelle is currently back in rural Missouri, she’s planning return trips to Ireland and Italy, along with first trips to Spain and southern France and figuring out where in the world she wants to live next.