Aging and isolated, rural northern Michigan braces for coronavirus

The combination of age, poverty and geographic isolation makes many rural Michigan residents particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. (Bridge photo by Kelly House) 

Alcona

GLENNIE — Older. Sicker. Poorer.

Medical experts say those are the traits that make a person more likely to face life-threatening complications if they get sick with the new coronavirus. That also describes an outsized share of the population in this village deep in the Huron National Forest.

“There are a lot of elderly people up here, a lot of sick people up here,” said Leigh Durkin, whose Wolfs Den Restaurant relies upon Glennie’s aging clientele for business. Many of those residents are afraid to leave their home for fear of contracting the virus, so Wolfs Den is struggling to stay afloat on meager sales from carry-out orders.

And at 62 years old with a pacemaker to regulate her heart rate, Durkin worries about her own risk, too. 

The virus hasn’t been detected in Alcona County as of Monday, but “when is it going to head this way?” she said. “It’s a scary thought in a place like this.” 

With an average age of 58.2, Alcona County’s population is among the nation’s oldest. The household income here is about $15,000 less than the state average. People are also more likely to be unemployed, more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and the list goes on. 

Combine those risk factors with the fact that there isn’t a single hospital in the county (from Glennie, the nearest one is nearly 30 miles away in Tawas City), and the idea of a viral pandemic spreading here can be terrifying.

“These kinds of disasters exacerbate existing inequities,” said Dr. Susan Dorr Goold, a professor of internal medicine and health management and policy at the University of Michigan. “In other words, the people who were already worse off are likely to get even worse off.”

RURAL COMMUNITIES AT RISK

Alcona is no anomaly. With the exception of people in wealthy vacation communities and employment hubs within areas like Grand Traverse and Marquette counties, northern Michigan residents tend to be lower-income, older and unhealthier than the average Michigander. 

These isolated Northern rural communities will likely be among the last ones infected, because their sparse population and geographic isolation make diseases slower to spread, Goold said. But once the virus reaches them, the combination of age, poverty and lack of access makes them among the most vulnerable.

A sign outside the Lincoln Senior Center in Alcona County alerts visitors that the center is closed to the public in an effort to prevent coronavirus from spreading among the county’s aging population. (Bridge photo by Kelly House) 

In rural communities, doctors tend to be fewer and more distant. Alcona County has one primary care physician for about every 2,000 residents, compared to a statewide average of one for less than 500 residents. Small health clinics in the towns of Lincoln and Harrisville treat only non-life-threatening illnesses and are closed by 5:30 p.m. Residents with more dire medical needs — or needs that arise after business hours — often must travel long distances to obtain care. That’s assuming they have reliable transportation and money to put gas in the car.

“Those are real hardships borne by this community,” said Denise Bryan, who runs the public health department serving Alcona and three nearby counties.

Rural hospitals typically have only a small number of qualified medical providers, which can pose major challenges if a medical crisis causes a surge in hospitalizations. They may not have enough people qualified to operate life-saving medical equipment, for example. 

“It’s not just about how many ventilators you have, but how many people can run the ventilator,” said Dorr Goold.

Because the risk in this community is so high, area health officials and community leaders are hellbent on preventing COVID-19 from getting a foothold here. With no cases yet reported in Alcona, Bryan said her goal is still “zero deaths.” 

RESOURCES:

PREPARING FOR PANDEMIC

“We’re kind of balancing at the tip of the knife,” said Lenny Avery, executive director of the Alcona County Commission on Aging. If the virus stays out, his clientele will be fine. If it gains a foothold, it could prove disastrous.

Worried that the local senior center could become a vector for disease, Avery and his staff have closed it to the public. They’ve also stopped delivering meals in-person to homebound seniors. Instead, they leave food in coolers placed outside the front door. Rather than making face-to-face contact with their clientele, staff make hundreds of phone calls, asking area seniors how they’re doing and whether they need assistance. 

“We’re trying to do what we need to do to make sure people in our community are protected and safe,” Avery said. But if and when the virus does spread in Alcona, he is prepared to offer up the senior center as a triage location or emergency hospital if the number of sick patients overwhelms existing health care infrastructure.

At the health department, staff members are focused on prevention in hopes that the county doesn’t encounter a worst-case scenario of sickened residents in need of medical attention overwhelming the region’s medical infrastructure. Their message, which they spread through the district’s website and social media and through places like the senior center and churches: Wash your hands. Sanitize surfaces. Avoid unnecessary trips away from home. If you’re in a high-risk group, consider staying home altogether.

“My concern is that the lack of positive cases is a false security blanket,” she said. “People might feel it’s safer because of all the open space up here. So I’ve been trying to challenge that thinking.”

RESIDENTS BRACE FOR IMPACT

Patty Thomas, 73, a retired nurse who hosts a small nonprofit radio station in her Harrisville basement, isn’t taking any chances. 

Thomas is not tech savvy. But worried that the virus could wipe out the team of volunteer deejays at WXTF-LP, most of whom are aging retirees, she is learning to operate the station’s equipment in case she becomes responsible for keeping the station on the air.

Patty Thomas, left, is learning to operate the radio equipment at the nonprofit radio station that Joe Lukasiewicz, right, and other volunteer deejays operate from her basement. Thomas worries that if coronavirus hits her aging community, the station’s team of deejays may be wiped out with illness, forcing her to take to the airwaves. (Bridge photo by Kelly House) 

WXTF-LP is a vital source of information for the community, she said, particularly in times of crisis. Lately, when the deejays aren’t broadcasting music, their programming consists almost exclusively of public service announcements about the pandemic. 

Meanwhile Durkin, the restaurant owner, has been religiously bleaching counters and wiping the Wolfs Den down with disinfectant cleaner. With her restaurant struggling to survive after the pandemic dried up business, the last thing she said she needs is to get sick. 

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Ted Fines
Tue, 03/24/2020 - 6:36pm

My wife and I live in Lincoln (Alcona County), I work in Alpena (25 miles north) and we are 70 years old. Our 9 year old grandson (from Grosse Pointe) is with us while we weather the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope and prayer that it doesn’t come hear but it’s only a matter of time. It will be horrible!

Leslea
Tue, 03/24/2020 - 8:50pm

I must say that I’m very disappointed with this article! Can you use any greater scare tactics and negativity?! Fear is the worst thing for people, and it actually lowers their immune system! Also, this entire line of thinking is flawed! The CDC has emphasized a 6 foot space between people for social distancing! So how is the COVID-19 supposed to spread like crazy in a sparsely populated area when at-risk people are staying indoors? Is someone planning on flying over the area by plane and spraying it on everyone???? I know I’m being facetious here, but let’s get real! We have enough to worry about right now without you spreading such gloom and doom!

Anonymous
Wed, 03/25/2020 - 1:46pm

Unless you live completely alone in a hermetically sealed cave and are breathing through HEPA filters, and you may very well be, I guess we'll soon find out. It's no time to be facetious or pollyannish or ignorant.

ICUs in metro Detroit are already filled to capacity and this thing is just starting to hit our state. Yet the president wants us to go back to work in a few weeks and fill the churches for Easter. It's fine to be optimistic, but no one knows how this virus will mutate and Italy has been enduring this much longer than us. We're repeating the same mistakes with so little testing. You have no idea how many people in northern Michigan are already carrying the virus without widespread testing.

You should be scared to death or do you still think this is nothing more than seasonal flu? Wait until all the snowbirds come back to Michigan from states that are not taking this seriously, like Florida and Arizona. You know, all those old retirees who are most at risk. Many will come here in their cars carrying the virus after enjoying their winters playing golf. They will come with compromised immune systems and burden our already burdened healthcare systems. That's right. Not only will your local hospitals be overburdened, but you won't be able to go anywhere else for help. Right now, doctors are seeing doctors in the ICU as patients on ventilators. Imagine what happened when the doctors are decimated because fools like you and the president didn't take this seriously. He claims he's a war president, but he's doing nothing to command companies to produce the armor our hospitals need to fight the virus. He only cares about he economy.

Let's hope Trump-loving greedy spoiled Boomers who never had to endure the enormous sacrifices of the Great Generation will soon wake up before they truly reap what they sowed. It's amazing and ironic how the Boomers managed to mess up our world and now think young people are selfish, begging them to think of others. These are the same people who mocked younger generations for doing so much volunteer work, instead of making money. Boomers love their government-run socialist Medicare and vote for politicians who want to limit it or cut it. They continue to destroy our environment with increased deregulation. Thye vote for tax breaks for the uber rich and elect people like Trump who cut essential government services and protections, like in 2018 disbanding the National Security Council unit focused on pandemic preparedness, leaving a leadership vacuum in global health security at the White House. They do it because he asks "What have you got to lose?" The answer is EVERYTHING.

john chastain
Wed, 03/25/2020 - 2:25pm

The denial of reality expressed in your comment is far more threatening than any “gloom and doom” implied or imagined in this article. People living in sparsely populated areas aren’t hermits you know. The rural areas are already poorly served by health care and have little resources for their residents now. So ignorance and denial isn’t the answer to anything. I get enough ignorance from that fool of a president in D.C., pretending that COVID-19 isn’t already in rural areas serves nothing and complaining about “negativity” is specious at best.

Disagree
Wed, 03/25/2020 - 4:56pm

An airborne virus can be contracted even in sparsely populated areas because people get together for one reason or another. Someone could sneeze on the gas pump at the station before you use it or on a shelf of staples at a grocery store. You can touch such things and inadvertently touch your eyes or mouth. There's already a case in the Tawas area: http://www.iosconews.com/coronavirus/article_1e9d6178-6eab-11ea-8aca-03e... When you think of relative population sizes, one is already a lot. People should think a lot about precautions when in public. If you go to Iargo Springs, think about how clean the handrail is that you are holding. The virus can live on surfaces longer than you may realize. Be calm and stay safe taking precautions. This is extremely serious. Remote areas have open spaces for social distancing, but they also have few medical facilities.

Steve d
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 4:33am

We need the truth. I'm from rural America next to Glennie and I didn't and do not support king trump. Rural America elected king trump. Most of rural America backed their king. Now we can look at his back to us. Money is his game. Don't you believe him anymore? This democratic hoax and fake news.

Rural Mi resident
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 9:46pm

Leslea, I don't know you, but I totally disagree with with your comments. It's not 'scare tactics and negativity'. It is reality. It is YOU who is saying, : "Is someone planning on flying over the area by plane and spraying it on everyone????", it is you who says you "know I’m being facetious" . Yet you tell people to "let’s get real!" Ummmmm ... maybe you need to take your own advice. Do you even live in a rural area?

Mi resident
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 10:07pm

Lady, I'm assuming you have been in self-isolation for so long that you no longer have a grip on reality. I am hoping that is the reason for your comments. Your "facetious" (your word, NOT mine) comments are not welcome when you obviously have no clue what is happening in rural towns.

Robyn A Tonkin
Fri, 03/27/2020 - 9:19pm

I think you should read this article again and really pay attention to what the local residents are saying. They are the ones who know what it is like living in a sparsely populated area. I live in an extremely sparsely populated area, so I know how gregarious people who live in very rural areas are. There are a lot of wide open spaces (or in this case, densely forested spaces), and lots of lonely roads. They value their human connections to an extraordinary degree. They have friends and family who they visit, or who visit them, all the time, to bring food, or drop off the mail, or just check in. Rural elders, alone, are going to still see their support people. Among these people is sure to be someone who visits a family member at a distance. I'm sure you can see where I am going with this. In my area, the covid 19 infections are very sparse, but at least one of them was a person who had engaged in domestic travel. Before you get all enthused about how you need to step in and be a Pollyanna, and chide an author for a "gloom and doom" article, you need to know what you're talking about.

Thank Lee & Co
Wed, 03/25/2020 - 2:25pm

Lee Chatfield and Mike Shirkey want the governor to exempt church gatherings from the state shutdown. Churches attract a lot of people who otherwise might be more separated in northern Michigan.

This exception puts everyone at greater risk.
Read about it here: https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/03/24/churces-worsh...
There's a link to a petition you can sign in the article, if you think religious gatherings should be temporarily suspended.

Lee, who's dad happens to be a pastor, is needlessly putting us all at risk, including first-responders and people on the front lines in the hospitals. Lee, is the collection plate worth it? I heard Lee's brother will run for Lee's position because of term limits. That would be a shame. We won't be able to fight this with prayers. We need common sense, science, know how, and supplies FAST.

Anonymous
Mon, 03/30/2020 - 12:29pm

Some people who claim to be of "faith" put their "faith" above their love for their fellow man, God's children. Dr. Charles Stanley held service Saturday on TV which would have been nice, except for the fact that he had a heavily-attended studio audience with no social distancing as he preached about how people should not live in fear. This is a terrible message right now. See for yourself, here is a clip:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-kn-3RwKzs
Looks like the preacher had the video from March 27, 2020, uploaded on March 29, removed, probably ashamed of himself, now.
This is the service from March 20, 2020, uploaded on March 21:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4wvgqN85rM
It's very dishonest to hold a religious event then hide the evidence of it. In fact, sounds evil.
Those church gatherings are literally how the pandemic spread in South Korea when an asymptomatic Christian fundamentalist attended church. Imagine if some "pious" preacher had the awful idea of having healing services and invited people with COVID19 to pray on them!

Anonymous
Mon, 03/30/2020 - 1:49pm

Here is Dr Charles Stanley holding service over the weekend, not only gathering, but seating people without practicing social distancing. You can watch the video here on his website:
https://www.intouch.org/watch/healing-damaged-emotions/victory-over-fear
It was taken down from YouTube. This behavior is so reckless on the part of both the pastor and the congregation.

Diane J
Wed, 03/25/2020 - 4:05pm

Many people consider anything north of 25 mile as rural, Once you get to about 30 it does become more rural-fewer hospitals etc. and the people even in sparsely inhabited areas DO get together and most ignore the social distancing and any other preventive methods asked for because they represent change and that is not allowed if possible, they are also some of the biggest hoarders of food and supplies and unfortunately they will be responsible for both the spread of the disease and the lack of food for many.

Chris matle
Wed, 03/25/2020 - 6:08pm

How do we pay the rent and mortgage payments when we have to stay home

Understandable
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 8:01am

You should apply for government money. You should also ask for your bank or landlord to cut you a break, allow for delays. If you have a family, what will your family do when you die because of COVID19. Some things are more important than money. Are you Pro Life?

Anonymous
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 8:12am

To all my bonehead brothers and sisters who blindly vote for RepubliCONs in rural Michigan, remember how much you hated socialistic OBAMACARE and protections for preexisting conditions, with the minimal mandates to support it? Well, you got your wish, Trump and the GOP weakened it by not enforcing the mandates. Deregulation only serves the greedy, not the general public. Careful what you pray for and who you elect. Since 2000, RepbuliCONs have been selfishly mismanaging disasters for their own enrichment at the expense of the 99.9%. Sure a few DINOs have also been bad, but Jesus Christ wake up already. Vote your own best interests.

Davulek
Fri, 03/27/2020 - 1:45pm

“Those are real hardships borne by this community,” said Denise Bryan, who runs the public health department serving Alcona and three nearby counties."

Are these people forced to live here?

Think
Mon, 03/30/2020 - 7:42pm

Maybe yes because of economic conditions.

Rural Epiphany
Fri, 03/27/2020 - 4:21pm

Masks that used to cost less than a dollar are being sold for five dollars because Greedy Trump's homies are price gouging. He thinks states should compete with each other to get crucial supplies. We won WW2 with strong leaders like FDR who used the Defense Production Act to produce what we needed to win the war, but milktoast Trumpy doesn't want to offend his corporate donors.

"America first" is just a BS slogan used to get himself elected, reelected. Why did Crazy Trump dismantle our pandemic war machine? Why is he blaming Obama when Obama took Ebola and destroyed it? Why didn't he do anything in over three years to get prepared? He's acting like he was just elected!

Crazy Trump wants to attack the pandemic county by county! How ridiculous is that? So if you live in Alcona, Mio, Oscoda, Ogemaw, Arenac, etc. counties don't worry that people in Iosco, or any given counties adjacent to you, have COVID 19. Just keep living your normal life, go to work, fill your churches, etc, just wear hazmat suits. LOL, right?

Hey, Sue Allor, Jim Stamas do you still agree with incompetent and reckless Trump?

Blue no matter who, up and down the ticket! That's if we're still here.

patricia m nelson
Fri, 04/03/2020 - 8:55am

I am disappointed to not be hearing about transmission tracking protocols being put in place in small communities, where infection rates are still low. This is how S. Korea was so successfully in holding cases down. When a case is diagnosed, there should be readiness to find any contacts of that person and warning them that they might have been exposed. Getting more tests would be great. But, even lacking this, we can warn those exposed to take whatever extra care they can.