Seventy-one people have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an event at a winery in northwestern Ohio as experts raise alarm about such gatherings fueling the rampant spread of the virus in rural Midwestern communities.
Kati Finn and six of her girlfriends were among the people who are believed to have contracted the virus at the event at Leisure Time Winery in Napoleon, where they played a game called ‘Name That Tune’ with about 90 other guests.
Finn, a middle-school secretary from Defiance, Ohio, said she was shocked that all of her friends fell ill after the gathering, where she said everyone practiced social distancing and servers wore masks and gloves.
‘It’s insane to me that we all got COVID-19 and yet everything seemed so safe there,’ she told the Wall Street Journal this week.
Officials said infections linked to the event tripled the total number of cases in Henry County, helping give the community of just 28,000 residents Ohio’s highest rate of cases per capita in late July.
Henry County Health Commissioner Mark Adams said officials are still tracing secondary infections among relatives of the winery patrons, and so far about a dozen have been identified.
The winery outbreak represents a growing trend in rural communities that are seeing rapid growth in case counts driven by community contact.
In the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, the rural areas typically saw very few coronavirus cases, with most outbreaks linked to hotspots such as meatpacking plants, prisons and nursing homes.
The trend of community contact transmission that’s emerged in previously spared areas in recent weeks has caused concern among local health officials who say that kind of spread is much more difficult to trace and contain.
Across Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois, nonmetropolitan areas are seeing higher weekly changes in COVID-19 cases that densely-populated metro areas, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
Officials believe the accelerated spread in rural areas is driven by a combination of pandemic fatigue, complacency and the heightened temptation to resume summer social activities in the wake of lockdowns.
In Ohio, new cases have dropped by 14 percent over the past two weeks, but several smaller counties including Champaign, Madison, Montgomery and Shelby are reporting some of the highest rates of new infections.
In Missouri, rural cases began to outpace those in bigger cities in late July as smaller counties started to see significant increases.
For example, Ozark and Hickory counties, which each have fewer than 10,000 residents, now have some of the state’s biggest percentage increases in infections in the last week.
Those counties were the last two counties without a single coronavirus case until mid-June.
In the past week Ozark’s case count nearly doubled from eight to 15, while Hickory’s grew from 23 to 33.
‘For us in Missouri, this geographic spread and the lack of institutional outbreaks is really notable,’ Chris Prener, an assistant professor of sociology at Saint Louis University, told WSJ.
A similar trend has emerged in rural counties in Illinois, including Cass, Iroquis, Coles and Saline.
In Wisconsin, case rates in several rural counties are now on par with those in metropolitan areas and appear to be on track to surpass them.
Other states in the Midwest, including Iowa and Kansas, have continued to see significantly higher infection rates in cities than in rural areas.
Total cases and rates of infection across the Midwest remain well below states in the Sunbelt region from Arizona to Florida.
Overall the number of daily new cases has continued to drop nationwide in recent weeks, with more than 5.2million confirmed as of Wednesday.
The US reported 1,499 fatalities on Wednesday – the highest number of daily new deaths since mid-May. In total, more than 166,000 deaths have been reported nationwide.