“I’m not going out and looking to catch it,” he said, sitting at a cluttered desk in his auto repair shop in the tiny eastern Nebraska community of Elmwood. “I don’t want to catch it. But if I get it, I get it. That’s just how I feel.”

Plenty of people agree with Rice, and health experts acknowledge those views are powering soaring COVID-19 infection rates, especially in parts of the rural Midwest where the disease is spreading unabated and threatening to overwhelm hospitals…

Jenna Lovaas, public health director of Jones County, Iowa, said even now that her rural county has the state’s highest virus rate, people have opted not to make any changes, such as protecting themselves and others by wearing masks.

“They don’t think it’s real,” she said. “They don’t think it’s going to be that bad or they just don’t want to wear a mask because we’ve made it a whole political thing at this point.”