When I began work on this project some years back and came up with the title “Trouble in God’s Country,” I was thinking about things like the urban-rural divide in economics, education, healthcare, and politics. It never crossed my mind that a new plague might come along that would stir up what might be a perfect storm for rural Georgia.
To be sure, Metro Atlanta and the state’s other urban areas will obviously take huge beatings in this as well, but rural communities may prove even more vulnerable, and not even in the long run. Without even bothering to run through my usual tons of data, we can take judicial note of certain indisputable realities.
The most basic is that Georgia’s rural communities are older and less healthy. That alone puts a Covid-19 target on their backs. Add to that a healthcare delivery system that might charitably be described as frail and you’ve already got the makings of a heaping helping of trouble in God’s country.
But there’s more. You can stir politics, religion, and crime into the mix. As I’ve documented before, rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican and pro-Trump, and there’s already national polling by Pew Research suggesting that Republicans are taking Covid-19 less seriously than Democrats (or at least were until President Trump and FOX News began shifting tone earlier this week).
From the Pew report on its polling: “ … a vast majority of Republicans (76%) say the news media have exaggerated the risks associated with the virus – 53% greatly and 24% slightly – while far fewer (17%) say the media have gotten it about right. Democrats, on the other hand, are much more likely than Republicans to think the news media have gotten the level of risk about right (41%).”
As for religion and crime, it’s not for nothing that the region of Georgia from the gnat line south is known as both the Bible Belt and the Prison Belt. Both churches and prisons hold the potential to serve as lethal vectors for the bug. I started canvassing rural Georgia contacts earlier this week and one common theme in the feedback revolved around a reluctance to cancel church services; as things have worked out, it sounds like the cancellations are indeed taking place, maybe a week later than they might have. In several communities, churches are reportedly planning to live-stream their services via Facebook and other technologies.
Prisons are a different story. According to the Georgia Department of Corrections’ website, its 34 state prisons house 52,000 felony offenders, and it’s difficult to imagine a more active breeding ground for Covid-19. The vast majority of those prisons are in rural Georgia, most of them in Middle and South Georgia (as the red dots on GDC’s facilities map, here, illustrate).
Those prison populations are constantly ebbing and flowing, as newly sentenced felons begin serving their time and those who have completed their sentences are freed. Meanwhile, thousands of rural Georgians who work at those prisons come and go to fill the three daily shifts at each of them.
As it turns out, one of those employees has already tested positive for Covid-19, as both GDC and the AJC reported yesterday, although GDC hasn’t said where the employee worked. So far, the department hasn’t reported any inmate infections, but it’s obviously a significant concern: GDC’s home page currently features a “COVID-19 UPDATES” banner and a “Covid19 Response” statement detailing the department’s response to the bug. Among other things, all visitation has been suspended and prisoner movement is being limited to “required medical transfers.”
As for positive tests around the state, those now appear to be seeping rapidly into rural Georgia. Any early expectations that the virus might do most of its damage in urban areas and not find its way to the hinterlands is being undercut by daily reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health. The number of positive tests went from 197 in 28 counties on Tuesday to 287 in 34 counties on Wednesday (with the home counties of a half-dozen victims “unknown”).
If, as these maps suggest, it turned up first in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, it is now making its way below the gnat line.
And there’s some evidence that the reality on the ground in some localities is outpacing the information being reported on a daily basis by DPH. Albany and Dougherty County have emerged as a South Georgia hot spot, and DPH today put the number of confirmed cases there at 20. But at about the same time DPH was posting its Wednesday numbers, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany was holding a press conference where, according to the Albany Herald, it reported two more deaths (for a total of four), a total of 40 patients who had tested positive (and were either in the hospital or at home), and nearly 500 more area residents who were still awaiting test results. Six Phoebe Putney employees have tested positive, the Herald reported.
And Thursday evening, the Tallahassee (Fla.) Memorial Hospital reported that an Early County, Ga., woman had died there of the virus.
If rural Georgians were a little slower than their city cousins to react to the Coronavirus threat, they may now be taking it more seriously. I canvassed a half-dozen contacts early in the week and then again yesterday and today. All reported that the pace seemed to be picking up. One South Georgia contact who reported earlier this week that people were mocking the “panic” and not changing their behavior indicated earlier today that was changing; more and more businesses cutting hours and more people were self-isolating.
Another contact, Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County Development Authority, emailed me around mid-afternoon that it was “safe to say that we are seeing changes in day-to-day behavior. Foot traffic in our office is down and the citizens that continuously support our locally owned eateries are more than likely to get their meal to-go rather than dining in. The best that I can put it is that social distancing is tough in a tight-knit community, yet a majority of our citizens are taking precautions.”
And this from a northeast Georgia weekly newspaper editor: “Day-to-day has changed drastically. A lot of parents are getting a crash course in home-schooling and remote, electronic and digital learning. It also shows in dramatic fashion how a lack of adequate broadband can be a real disadvantage to a rural county without that kind of infrastructure!
“The question about the seriousness of the situation being slow to take hold was a good one,” he added. “On a Tuesday, the track coach was planning on winning the state championship. On Friday he was bemoaning the fact that his team would probably not even get a shot at that achievement.”