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. 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."

Go deeper

Rural areas see short-term rental boom amid coronavirus spread

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While the travel industry and accommodations are taking a major hit amid the coronavirus pandemic, short-term rentals in U.S. rural (and suburban, to a less extent) areas are seeing an uptick, according to new data from AirDNA.

The big picture: People are fleeing densely populated areas, especially on the coasts, and taking up shelter in isolated rentals in rural and more "destination" type of locales.

"Online first" census must navigate digital divide

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The government is encouraging Americans to respond to this year's census online, prompting concerns that millions who lack internet access may not be properly counted.

Why it matters: The 2020 census determines how federal funding is allocated across the country, so any undercount matters, and one caused by the digital divide would skew heavily against less well-off citizens.

Coronavirus exposes the digital divide's toll

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the coronavirus pushes more human activities online, it's forcing a reckoning with the often-invisible digital divide.

Why it matters: The virus crisis is offering vivid case studies of real-world, everyday harms that result from inequality between those who have access to and can afford high-speed internet, and those who cannot.