Monday, August 03, 2020

As covid-19 cases surge in Appalachia, health agencies and elected officials tamp down politics; newspapers help, too

Like much of the nation, stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus in Central Appalachia isn't just a public-health effort, but also involves convincing its citizens that it isn't a political issue, Chris Kenning reports for the Louisville Courier Journal. 

The Bell County Health Department's Leighann Baker brings groceries
to Alan Smith, who is quarantined. (Photo by Pat McDonogh, Courier Journal)
Health officials worry that covid-19 will have a disproportionate impact on the region because it has fewer hospitals and intensive-care beds, high rates of poverty, and conditions such as diabetes and heart and lung disease that make people more vulnerable .

"All that has meant special challenges for health departments hollowed out by budget cuts, such as those in Bell County, which battle distance, poverty, spotty cellphone coverage, neglected health, difficulty getting some residents to testing and distrust amid the growing politicization of public health," Kenning reports. 

In addition to their ongoing daily work to keep a community safe, public health departments have been stretched even thinner as they have increased their their contact-tracing efforts to identify those who have been infected, then tracking down everyone they have come into contact with and asking them to self-quarantine. 

"We’ve got a small health department, and we did get a little overwhelmed," Harlan County Judge-Executive Albey Brock told Kenning. "Contact tracing is no joke. It’s laborious. They keep daily communication. If we have 104 active cases, they each have to be called every day. That’s on top of having to track down people they've had contact with, getting them a letter, let them know to quarantine. 

Judge-Executive Albey Brock
"And then you run into the knuckleheads who don't want to stay quarantined because they’re not positive . . . Some of them don’t want to cooperate." 

Also, there's the politics. Kenning writes that Bell County, in Kentucky's southeast corner, is "a conservative place, where every elected official but one constable is Republican. When cases were slow to materialize, some found it easy to dismiss alarms over the coronavirus as a Democratic plot to make President Donald Trump look bad or infringe on rights by requiring masks, local residents and officials said." 

In adjoining Harlan County, Brock, a Republican, told Kenning that he has attempted to depoliticize the pandemic by sending public-health messages via social media and radio and having stern talks.  “We’ve tried real hard locally to stamp that down. If you want to fight with Trump or Biden, have at it. Just wear a mask,” he said, adding jokingly, “Some believe we never walked on the moon, so I can’t help them.”

Local officials and local newspapers can be an effective combination, Rural Blog Publisher Al Cross writes in his fortnightly column on Kentucky politics. He notes that the Licking Valley Courier of West Liberty did a story about Morgan County Magistrate Donnie Keeton's notice on Facebook that he has tested positive.

Keeton, a Democrat, said he voted for Trump because “It’s kind of hard to go with the national Democratic Party right now,” but he had the president’s words in mind when he told the Courier's Miranda Cantrell, “It’s not a hoax and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.” Trump implied Feb. 28 that the pandemic, or Democrats’ criticism of his response to it, was Democrats’ “new hoax” after their failed impeachment of him. He walked that back, but Keeton told Cross that the phrase probably gave a lot of people the wrong idea.

Cross writes, "Trump was elected partly because a lot of Americans, especially in rural areas, thought they were being left behind and disregarded by the urban elite. Many if not most of those people have never liked elites and experts telling them what to do (remember the debates about seat belts?), and Trump appealed to their resentment. That approach turned dangerous when Trump started contradicting public-health experts and scientists . . . "

He concludes, "It’s more important than ever for public officials at all levels to set good examples. . . . and in an age where social media have more sway than news media, it’s important to hear covid-19 stories from authoritative victims. . . . Cantrell put a note at the end of her story about Keeton asking other victims to tell their stories, because locals wonder 'whether the effects are as severe as mainstream media outlets have reported.' Yes, they can be that severe, but many don’t trust those outlets – especially after four years of 'fake news' bashing from a president who has uttered more than 20,000 falsehoods. Local news media are more trusted, so they need to step up, tell these stories and help their audiences understand how to deal with the pandemic. The politicians can only go so far."

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