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Rural Indiana virus worry: ‘What more could I have done?’

Amanda Burkhead and Josh Cupit play a card game while sitting on the front porch in Greensburg, Ind. The couple worked at Honda until the plant was shut down due to COVID-19. Three southeast Indiana counties have among the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rates in the country. (AP Photo)

GREENSBURG, Ind. (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic surged into Sean Durbin’s farm-speckled Indiana county much faster than most other parts of rural America, contributing to at least 10 deaths and dozens of serious illnesses.

Decatur County and two other counties in southeast Indiana have among the highest per-capita infection rates in the country, topping the Seattle area and some counties near hard-hit Detroit.

As Decatur County’s public health preparedness coordinator, Durbin is working to stem the spread of the virus, even as he grieves the loss of a close friend to COVID-19 and stays apart from his wife so she can help with their new grandchild.

“Every death makes me question if I did enough,” said Durbin, who is 57. “We have been ahead of everything the state has done in this county, and I still go to bed every night and ask, ‘What more could I have done to protect this population?'”

Last Thursday, county officials banned nonessential travel and ordered all restaurants closed, including for takeout orders, going beyond the requirements of the governor’s stay-at-home order that took effect March 25.

Decatur, Franklin and Ripley counties have a combined population of nearly 78,000 people and more than 235 confirmed coronavirus cases through Tuesday, placing them among the top 100 counties for high infection rates across the nation, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.

Health leaders can’t pinpoint why the area has such a high infection rate. Some point to truckers stopping off from Interstate 74 — the main route between Indianapolis and Cincinnati — and locals who work in those cities. Or suggest it’s linked to the young adults who have left their hometowns for jobs and schools in recent years.

“With this crisis in the big cities, we’re seeing a lot of license plates from those other states showing up because they’re coming back to mom and grandma and uncle Joe,” said Dr. David Welsh, the Ripley County health officer.

There have been more than 20 COVID-19-related deaths in the three counties. At least two dozen patients are seriously ill, while others, including an infected 11-year-old child, have been recovering at home.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The three counties have older populations than Indiana as a whole, with more than 17% of residents older than 65, according to census information.

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