If it weren’t for the “hospital heroes” signs strewn on the side of State Road 100, you might not even notice the global pandemic.
Social distancing isn’t anything new in Union County. With churches appearing to outnumber houses in certain areas, maintaining a 6-foot distance from your neighbors is just part of another day that ends in “y.”
But while the layout and lifestyle of rural north central Florida may seem to quell the spread of COVID-19 at first glance, underlying pre-existing health disparities have caused researchers to question the pandemic’s true impacts on rural communities.
Dr. Laura Guyer is a University of Florida health disparities professor and former Associate Director at Suwannee River Area Health Education Center. According to her, a lag in COVID-19 testing in rural communities may be the cause for inaccurate data that mitigates the disease’s spread — only on paper.
“It’s more likely that we will undercount the number of cases in rural communities because bigger places have more power and more resources and people think about them,” Guyer said. “Why do we have health disparities? It’s because there are some populations that are just not on people’s minds.”
Guyer identified hospital distance as a crucial factor that increases rural health disparities and could potentially make a COVID-19 situation go from concerning to dire.
According to data from the , Florida has the second highest number of residents in the U.S. that live outside a 30-minute drive from the nearest hospital. And when an individual’s oxygen levels are dropping and ventilators are miles away, every minute counts.
Additionally, issues with internet access magnify these challenges. The former Volusia County health equity director, Laureen Husband, said that this bandwidth and connectivity gap has created a digital divide in rural areas that impacts health outcomes.
“When there are no towers to support smartphones to work in an area, imagine what happens if somebody becomes sick in the middle of the night,” Husband said. “What do they turn to? And then you have the response rate for emergency responders for those incidents of emergencies… it’s just so much, you know, the distance is so high.”
Even for those with sufficient access to information, clarity and ease are not guaranteed. Underlying problems with health literacy make the COVID-19 experience a bit different for some.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health literacy is “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.”
Internet access is just the baseline. Guyer said that the way media outlets are talking about the virus, using terms such as “mitigating strategies,” may cause confusion in communities that struggle with low literacy rates.
According to Guyer, almost 1 in 5 Union County residents do not have a high school diploma, compared with 7.1% of Floridians in total.
“The reason people don’t understand social distancing, and the reason that we’re seeing people rioting to get back in the public is because they don’t understand their health,” Guyer said. “They don’t understand the risk that they’re posing.”