Coronavirus Is Spreading Through Rural South’s High-Risk Population – Reopening Economies Will Make It Worse
By Anne Cafer and Meagen Rosenthal
In the rural South, the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a silent disaster.
As rural residents commute to jobs in cities and transportation hubs, they're being exposed to the virus and bringing it home to a population already at risk.
Chronic diseases that can lead to more severe COVID-19 symptoms are common across the rural South. The population is older and poorer than much of the country, and the health care system has been deteriorating for years as hospitals lose staff and close.
Despite the population's vulnerability, Southern states have been a stronghold of resistance to federal and international recommendations around COVID-19 protective measures. Most of the states' delays and refusals to enact "shelter-at-home" policies were tied to economic arguments.
Now, governors are using the same economic reasons for loosening those restrictions. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called for reopening several types of businesses, including hair salons, starting Friday and restaurants and even theaters starting Monday, despite concerns from public health officials. Mississippi is also considering lifting its shelter-at-home orders for economic reasons. When that happens, service workers, once partially protected from exposure, will find themselves at greater risk.
As University of Mississippi sociologists who work with rural communities on a range of resilience issues, especially health, we are concerned about the economic and health consequences of returning to business before the region is prepared to protect its residents.
Rural Commuters on the Urban Front Lines
Rural areas may seem isolated from the coronavirus threat, but in the South, one in 12 rural residents commutes to an urban hub for work. Many of those jobs are on the front lines of health care and service industries, where exposure to other people is hard to avoid.
In much of the South, "shelter-at-home" orders have had loose interpretations of "essential personnel" who are exempted from the order. They include employees in high-exposure jobs – cashiers, fast food workers and registered nurses, all among the largest employment areas for Southern states. Many of these workers are less likely to have sick leave or be able to work from home. And they are paid lower wages, so many still go to work even when they're sick.
These workers have been saved some exposure while restaurants shifted to drive-through operations and social distancing was encouraged. However, if other Southern states follow Georgia's lead and begin lifting their current protections, workers' chances of being exposed to someone infectious with the coronavirus rise.
Mississippi's rural infection numbers stand out in particular: 62% of the state's coronavirus cases as of mid-April were in rural counties, and the state had counted more than 200 deaths. Rural infection rates were higher than in urban areas: 181 cases per 100,000 people compared to 128 in urban counties. The South as a whole had more urban cases, but still a high rural infection rate.
The South Isn’t Prepared for a COVID-19 Surge
Southern states are already scrambling to manage both detection of coronavirus cases and treatment of the disease. Their testing capacity, essential to controlling the pandemic, has been increasing but remains sporadic and well below the national average. Access to care is increasingly difficult.
Mississippi has just over 400 ICU beds in its largest hospital service area, Jackson. Currently, 100 of those are occupied. Conservative estimates predict that needs for rural ICU beds will double to more than 800 in the next six months under moderate coronavirus infection projections.
Ventilators are an even bigger concern. University of Mississippi Medical Center has only about 125 to 150 ventilators in its facilities, and officials estimate 40% to half are in use on any given day.
The rural South's health profile adds to the risk. The region has higher rates of chronic medical conditions that have been found to significantly increase the likelihood that a person infected with the coronavirus will develop severe COVID-19. Among the first 159 people to die from COVID-19 in Mississippi, over half had cardiovascular disease, over 40% had diabetes or high blood pressure, and one-third were obese.
Much of the care for these patients is being delivered through a shrinking rural health care system. Of the 128 rural hospital closures across the country in the last 10 years, over half were in the South. The pandemic has created more financial troubles for rural hospitals as nonessential procedures have been postponed. Every county in Mississippi is considered underserved, meaning residents don't have enough doctors, even if they have access to a health care facility.
Testing and Investing in Health Care Long-Term
In the short term, Southern states need to increase their testing for coronavirus cases. Per capita, the South administered about 20% fewer tests. Many southern states currently rely on pop-up testing at sites temporarily opened in locations where other facilities are not available. Permanent, well-stocked testing centers would help residents know where to go.
In the long-term, these states need to invest in their rural health infrastructure.
Rural hospitals and pharmacies are essential to reducing long-term risk among rural Southerners, particularly those with chronic health conditions. They are also important "economic anchors" for their communities. According to the American Hospital Association statistics, every dollar spent by a hospital supports US$2.30 of additional business activity within the community and hospitals are a top source of private sector jobs.
Anne Cafer is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Mississippi.
Meagen Rosenthal is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Administration at University of Mississippi.
Disclosure statement: Anne Cafer receives funding from Carnegie Foundation, Walmart Giving Foundation. Meagen Rosenthal receives funding from Walmart Giving Foundation, Eshleman Institute for Innovation: Discovery Grants Program, Mississippi Department of Health, UNC TraCS Institute (pilot grant).
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- Rural America Could Be Hard Hit by COVID-19 - EcoWatch ›
- How Do You Stay Safe Now That States Are Reopening? - EcoWatch ›
- How Do You Stay Safe Now That States Are Reopening? ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start Reopening - EcoWatch ›
- These Are Some of the Highest-Risk Places for COVID-19 - EcoWatch ›
- As Schools Reopen, Georgia Students Suspended for Blowing the Whistle on Crowded Hallways - EcoWatch ›
A pygmy rabbit rescued from a breeding site in Beezley Hills, Washington, eats owl clover in its new enclosure. Kourtney Stonehouse, WDFW
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
- Climate Activists Prepare for November Election - EcoWatch ›
- The Next Election Is About the Next 10,000 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›
- Climate Crisis Could Change Permafrost Soil Microbes, With ... ›
- Zombie Fires Could Be Awakening in the Arctic - EcoWatch ›
- The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the ... ›
By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
- Mutant Enzyme Recycles Plastic in Hours, Could Revolutionize ... ›
- Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Plastics: The History of an Ecological Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Accidentally Develop 'Mutant' Enzyme That Eats Plastic ... ›