RICHMOND — COVID has been in and out of the news cycle for over two years now, but that news cycle is driven by the experience in major cities. Coverage of the pandemic in rural America hasn’t kept pace.
That disparity has had consequences — both for how rural Americans view the pandemic, and how prepared regional hospitals were for local virus outbreaks.
As America shut down in 2020 during the initial COVID wave in large cities, rural Virginia hospitals followed the same protocols and stopped doing routine procedures, even when local COVID cases were low.
The lack of revenue from routine care led first to layoffs, and eventually to the resumption of procedures. Wendy Welch — executive director of the Southwest Virginia Graduate Medical Education Consortium — said after that, COVID showed up.
“They started doing procedures about a month before they got hit by the first wave of COVID,” said Welch, “and then they had to stop doing the procedures again. So, it was almost the worst-case scenario — your hospital was full of people, and then suddenly, your hospital was full of COVID.”
Welch said the delays in COVID waves have been consistent over the entire pandemic, and the current outbreak in southwest Virginia is on an upswing.
As thousands of local and regional newspapers have shut down, local news coverage has suffered and more distant media outlets aren’t making up the difference.
Rural residents may see major media covering COVID stories in large cities when not much is happening locally — and then, as media attention turns to other topics, a virus surge hits rural areas.
Welch said that process has ended up spreading confusion.
“We’re going up where other places are going down,” said Welch, “and we’re late, because we are more rural. And this has driven up the ability to misinform people about COVID overall in rural areas, because we don’t conform to the major patterns you see on the news.”
The ongoing incongruity between media attention and COVID reality in rural places has created space for misinformation to take hold. Welch said as the pandemic continues, those ideas have evolved.
“The misinformation is predominantly around the vaccine,” said Welch. “You don’t have a lot of people left who are saying there’s no such thing as COVID, I mean, for a while there, it was called the ‘election virus’ — it would go away after the 2020 election. People kind of don’t say that anymore.”
The state as a whole is still reporting around 2,500 COVID cases a day, but rural areas in southwestern Virginia are reporting the highest numbers per capita.