River Hospital CEO discusses risks COVID-19 poses on rural communities


ALEXANDRIA BAY, N.Y. (WWTI) — Communities across the country are continuing to face impacts brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, even a year and a half after the pandemic first started.

Its impacts on rural communities have recently become a topic of conversation as areas across the U.S. are reporting higher COVID-19 fatalities, infections and quarantines. Due to this, some healthcare experts have considered the virus more deadly in rural areas.

However, River Hospital Chief Executive Officer Emily Mastaler said there are many factors that contribute to the dangers of COVID-19 in rural communities and vulnerabilities individuals may face. One of the largest factors, she said, is a patient’s physical distance to healthcare facilities or emergency medicine.

“So in rural healthcare, limited access to healthcare becomes the factor that makes or contributes to vulnerabilities or healthcare vulnerabilities,” Mastaler said.

Additional factors that can determine a patient’s vulnerability also include underlying health conditions. Mastaler said the rise in chronic health conditions, such as respiratory issues is something they have been watching in the North Country.

“[In rural areas] because of limited resources, we do see increases in other chronic health conditions,” she noted. “We’re seeing increases in cardiac conditions, diabetes, respiratory illness and pulmonology.”

These are issues River Hospital battles on a daily basis and were dealing with before the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

River Hospital, located along the St. Lawrence River in Alexandria Bay, New York, is one of the country’s top Critical Access Hospitals. With this designation, the hospital is deemed essential due to its distance from other facilities and is therefore federally designated to reduce financial vulnerability and improve access to healthcare by keeping essential services in rural communities. 

Mastaler said that throughout the pandemic, ensuring healthcare “close to home” has been the top priority at River Hospital.

“Our existence is to ensure access to exceptional healthcare, close to home,” Mastaler stated. “We work a lot with other hospitals, healthcare systems and other partners to really make sure that, as we’re seeing increases in healthcare demand, that we have a seamless and rapid response to the best of our ability to get folks what they need.”

But moving forward, Mastaler said it’s hard to know what the next couple of months will look like in the North Country. She said COVID-19 rates may depend on vaccination rates and the communities abilities to stabilize a potential surge.

And like the North Country has seen previously, spikes in rural communities do not always match up with spikes happening in major metropolises. Mastaler said this is why rural healthcare systems need to be prepared.

“Regardless of whether or not we’re seeing a higher prevalence [of COVID-19] in rural America versus urban, I think what we really have to be focusing on as a whole is making sure that our healthcare systems have the resources that they need to serve the people that need them when they need their healthcare resources in a timely fashion without barrier or delay,” she expressed.

“Then in the long-term, hopefully, we continue to strengthen our healthcare responses and systems to be able to take care of people, even in our most challenging times,” Mastaler stated.

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