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Nearly a Quarter of Rural Americans Unable to Receive Medical Care During Pandemic, School of Public Health Poll Finds

Twenty-four percent of households in rural America reported they were unable to receive care for serious medical problems during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a new poll by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Twenty-four percent of households in rural America reported they were unable to receive care for serious medical problems during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a new poll by the Harvard School of Public Health. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Emmy M. Cho and Ariel H. Kim, Contributing Writers

Twenty-four percent of households in rural America reported they were unable to receive care for serious medical problems during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a new poll by the Harvard School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio.

Published earlier this month, the poll provides a glimpse into rural Americans’ personal lives and wellbeing during the pandemic. Of the households who reported that they lacked access to care, 56 percent reported detrimental health consequences as a result, according to the poll.

Public Health professor Robert J. Blendon, the co-director of the poll, said the vast majority of data being gathered on the coronavirus has focused only on cases and death tolls. The new poll, meanwhile, focused on wellbeing issues that had previously gone unexplored.

“If you notice, almost all the stories are about cases, screening, and deaths,” Blendon said. “We're not asking if you were screened. We're not asking if somebody died in your family. We're asking about your ability to keep your household viable, which is financial issues, getting health care, and so many people are trying to educate their children at home in this period.”

Blendon said the outbreak unveiled a lack of medical practitioners and resources in rural America, leading to a lack of access to care.

He said that in cities, healthcare providers have tried to establish “networks” to evenly distribute COVID-19 patients across a wide array of hospitals, so that no provider is overwhelmed.

“In rural America, those networks don't exist,” Blendon said. “And many of the medical practices are three physicians.”

Internet connectivity also poses widespread problems for rural Americans, according to the poll. Approximately one in three rural households reported either facing serious difficulties with internet connectivity or lacking access to high-speed internet entirely.

Connectivity problems come at a cost at a time when both jobs and schooling are largely dependent on internet access, according to Blendon.

“I am in rural Illinois, and I can work from home — that's if I can connect to my employer,” Blendon said. “Otherwise, I'm not going to keep this job very long. So these are very real issues.”

Additionally, nearly half of the surveyed households report facing serious financial problems during the pandemic.

“I did not believe that you would have 42 percent of households in serious financial trouble. So maybe I thought 20, maybe I thought 18,” Blendon said. “And then when you came to minority communities, 85 percent of Black households or Latinos said they're in financial trouble.”

The poll is part of an ongoing partnership between the School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR. For more than ten years, the three groups have worked together to poll Americans on a wide range of issues, including discrimination and income inequality.

Carolyn E. Miller, Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the partnership provides ample resources for large, detailed surveys on broad and important issues.

“A lot of the studies that we do under this grant are much larger than most surveys or research efforts are able to do,” Miller said. “And so it's very gratifying for us to be able to do this, to support this kind of research.”

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