Ag Policy Blog

COVID-19 and Risks for Rural Clinics

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A patient being wheeled into surgery on a gurney. One of the challenges of rural health clinics is that a coronavirus case can shut it down and cause the staff to end up in quarantine, further hurting rural medical access. (DTN file photo)

On a call Friday with farmers about COVID-19 and the H-2A guest-worker situation, we had gotten about 40 minutes into the call before I got a chance to ask a question. Most of the specific issues related to H-2A had been answered, so I asked whether leaders at the American Farm Bureau Federation had heard about any specific health-care issues among their membership.

Chalmers Carr, a South Carolina peach and vegetable grower, said his local health-care clinic had just Thursday had its first case of COVID-19 in Ridge Spring, S.C., a town of about 700 people. The clinic serves the community, including hundreds of migrant workers that Carr and other farmers employ.

The clinic now is close for at least for 14 days after that COVID-19 case and employees are being quarantined, effectively leaving the town and farm workers without immediate access to any of the normal health-care services they would receive. Another nearby clinic is down to about 50% of its staff because of school closures and other situations making it difficult for those workers to make it into the clinic, Carr said.

"They are basically telling us if anyone presents the symptoms to self-quarantine them," Carr said. "Only in the case of emergencies do we need to bring workers over there. So even work-related injuries -- strained muscles and stuff like that -- they are basically saying right now they do not have the ability to service them."

Two hospitals in that area of South Carolina are also offering the same advice as well, and not allowing visitors as well.

"So this is concerning when I have over 300 workers in close proximity to one another," Carr said. "Obviously we're doing everything as an employer should and I think beyond that to train them and make them educated, but with this disease being found in our local community, it's obviously concerning. What would be do if one person in our labor camp was to get it?And how fast would that spread across all of that and having the health-care services to respond to that? It is very concerning for an employer who considers these workers an extension of the family when they are here."

Carr said he and others are cognizant of the challenges "and we're in constant communication with the health-care providers that have been our partners for many, many years."

Carr's story amplifies the difficulties of rural health care with this virus. A person shows up sick at a small-town clinic, just like we have typically done forever, and then the entire clinic is closed and staff are quarantined. A small town or county now has to manage without its clinic.

Keeping track of the developments with COVID-19 means paying attention to how rural health care is impacted by the virus as well. A lot of farmers have spouses or other family that work in rural clinics or hospitals, and untold numbers of rural residents work in one way or another as volunteer first responders. I would like to hear and tell their stories regarding what's happening in your communities. Please feel free to reach out to me.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com


Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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