Monday, March 27, 2023

A look at how Covid-19 devastated one rural county: It's an outlier, but still 'representative of the quiet catastrophe'

Lamb County, Texas, endured waves of death during
the pandemic. (Photo by Dawn Bottoms, Time magazine)
Covid-19 left an indelible mark on many rural communities, and they may never be the same. "I first came to report on the pandemic in Lamb County in the winter of 2020–2021," writes Alejandro de la Garza of Time magazine. "Now, with the pandemic slipping out of the public consciousness a year and a half later, I was back to write about what moving on looks like here. . . . Nearly one out of every 100 people living in Lamb County, Texas, died of Covid-19. . . . For the lucky ones, it's like nothing ever happened. For many others, nothing will ever be the same. Some of those who died were pillars of the local community."

Olton, in Lamb County (Wikipedia)
In Olton, pop. 2,200, the death of the town's local barber, Chris Jones, 53, "resonated across an entire community. Almost everyone in the town of Olton knew Chris. . . . He lived alone, but several households considered him part of what he called his 'family by heart,'" Garza writes. "All over town, others continue to mourn his death. . . . More than a year and a half after Jones’s death, Michael Ramage hadn’t let anyone move into the apartment he used to rent to Jones, nor had he removed a note that a friend taped the door when Jones was sick. It said 'Get well soon.'”

While some areas have recovered, "Many residents in the rural towns making up the Panhandle county say things are back to normal," Garza writes. "But there are many places like Lamb County around the country—poor, rural towns, susceptible to misinformation, suffering even before the pandemic and have now taken another body blow. What happened here is typical of a broader, little-noticed disaster across flyover America. . . . . The pain, the losses, and the lingering division left by the pandemic can be found almost anywhere in the country. In Lamb, the permanent effects are just more visible, a reminder of the magnitude of what we've lost and how little we've reckoned with it."

Garza points out, "Lamb County's pandemic death rate is an outlier: it's the eighth highest in the nation as of March 2023. . . . But it's representative of the quiet catastrophe in rural America. . . . these are regions where populations have been aging and shrinking . . . . Jobs and other opportunities have dwindled. . . . Rural Americans seemed more susceptible to vaccine misinformation. As vaccines first became available in early 2021, 35% of rural respondents in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey said they wouldn't get the shots, compared with 26% of urban dwellers."

Combined, rural demographics and isolation allowed Covid-19 to decimate much of small-town America, Garza reports: "The result has been a widening cumulative death rate in America's rural regions. In October 2021, rural America had a total death rate about 24% higher than that in the cities, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A year later, after the Omicron wave, the number had shot up to close to 40%, and one out of every 250 rural Americans was dead." Alan Morgan, head of the National Rural Health Association, told Garza, "We took the population most at risk for Covid-19 and ran them through a meat grinder. . . . The result has been just devastating."

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