Mar 18, 2020 - Health

Rural residents' access to health care amid coronavirus

Jen Lingo, R.N., walks a resident of the assisted living center in Dayton General Hospital back to her room.
Jen Lingo, R.N., walks a resident of the assisted living center in Dayton General Hospital back to her room. Dayton, a small town in rural southeast Washington, has an aging population, had its first positive test for Coronavirus and is waiting on results of more tests. Photo: Nick Otto for the Washington Post

The novel coronavirus can spread faster in densely populated cities than in rural areas, but rural America has a higher-risk population and fewer safety-net programs for people who get sick.

By the numbers: Rural residents are, overall, older than urban dwellers and are therefore more susceptible to this virus. Per Census Bureau data, 17.5% of the rural population is 65 or older.

  • Rural workers are less likely to have paid sick leave benefits. Just more than half of those working in service jobs, construction and farming have paid sick leave, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Remote work is not possible in the majority of rural America due to the lack of high-speed broadband. One-third of rural residents don't have fixed broadband service, per Federal Communications Commission data.

The biggest problem, though, is the spotty access to health care. More than 100 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to a Health Affairs study.

  • Even if they did have access to good doctors, many would forgo treatment because they lack health insurance.

Of note: Large portions of rural America are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession in the late 2000s, so it will be even harder for them to rebound from another economic downtown.

What's needed: "To assist vulnerable communities, policymakers should provide resources to the existing institutions in these areas, such as community centers, places of worship, and schools," wrote Olugbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, in a recent analysis. "We must provide access to diagnosis, medical treatment, and eventually vaccines without cost."

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