Who will Care when the Pandemic Vanquishes Our Small Towns?
I grew up in a town of seven hundred people in western Pennsylvania founded in 1793. It consisted of two streets, four allies bordered by a creek (crick) and a highway. Back then the town had four Christian churches, a funeral home, one sit-down restaurants, one pizza shop, two gas stations, a car dealership, a 100 year-old neighborhood school, playground, volunteer fire department, one doctor’s office, a barber, a community center and a big cemetery. In fact, our little town was close to Mr. Roger’s hometown. You get the vibe? Small, quiet, close knit community where neighbors shared vegetables from their gardens and the local American Legion kept our patriotism high.
Welcome to New Alex, The Most Boring Place
As kids we wanted to erect a sign “Welcome to New Alex, The Most Boring Place” to greet cars racing past us on Route 22. The families were working class proud. All the parents shared in admonishing and feeding us kids as needed. My cousin Nancy and I shared a morning paper route for years. Even today I can recall the family names of each home up and down those streets. All the neighborhood kids played together in the streets or the parks. We lived on our bikes and slept outside when the weather was warm.
Demographics of Rural USA
Fast forward to today when the parents and peers left behind there are living a much different life. The pandemic has made my hometown much different. The median age in this county is 47 years old. Unemployment is skyrocketing. No new housing has been built for decades and the existing homes are around eighty to one hundred years old. Many retirees are living on fixed incomes of social security and pensions that are eroding by the high healthcare out of pocket costs and rising grocery prices. Public transportation does not reach communities like this.
Pandemic is Ravaging Rural Areas
My hometown is no different than many rural towns left behind by the progress of our cities today. I know many of you will dismiss me as idealistic, but these small towns are ripe for the worst COVID-19 experiences. Nursing and group homes are growth industries in this area. Sixty eight percent of Pennsylvania’s COVID cases come from residential care facilities.
Rural Hospitals are not Ready to Fight the Virus
Who will care if these small-town residents are vanquished by this pandemic? Rural hospitals have closed at an accelerated pace in the last decade. Those that remain do not have extensive intensive care capacity to care for a pandemic outbreak. Local health departments are equally ill equipped or funded for the rush of cases that we are now experiencing. Who will care if New Alex disappears from the map?