Rural public health personnel serve communities that have been particularly susceptible to COVID-19 and yet faced the pandemic with far less well-resourced capacity than their urban counterparts. A critical aspect of addressing local health inequities is access to high-quality population data and the capacity to effectively use data to support decision making. However, much of the data required to investigate inequities are not readily available to rural local health departments and the tools and training to analyze data are often lacking.
The purpose of our effort was to explore rural data challenges related to COVID-19 and provide recommendations for improving rural data access and capacity ahead of future crises.
We gathered qualitative data in 2 phases, more than 8 months apart, from rural public health practice personnel. Initial data were gathered in October-November 2020 regarding rural public health data needs during the COVID-19 pandemic and then to later identify whether the same findings held true in July 2021 or whether access to and capacity to use data to address the pandemic and related inequities improved as the pandemic progressed.
In our 4-state exploration focused on access and use of data among rural public health systems to promote health equity in the Northwest United States, we found tremendous and ongoing unmet data needs, challenges with communicating data, and a lack of capacity to meet this public health crisis.
Recommendations for addressing these challenges include increasing dedicated resources specifically to rural public health systems, improving data access and infrastructure, and providing dedicated data-related workforce development.