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Report shows COVID-19 hit Black Belt harder

By HEATHER GANN, Alabama Daily News

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – COVID-19-related deaths have been significantly higher in Alabama’s Black Belt region than in other portions of the state, a report released today says.

“The emergence of the COVID-19 virus in March 2020 has amplified historically rooted disparities between urban and rural communities,” the study from the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center said. “The disparities exist across a wide scope of public policy areas and are even more pronounced in rural, persistent-poverty counties.”

The report found there were an average of 218 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020 for the 25 Black Belt counties, almost 30% greater than the average of 168 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 in the non-Black Belt counties.

The report is a continuation of the EPC’s Black Belt 2020 series that showed how the Black Belt’s population decline, school enrollment decline, persistent unemployment and lack of labor force participation all feed into the closure of rural hospitals.

Today’s report details the number of available physicians within the region and said non-Black Belt metropolitan areas of the state have an average of 109 primary care physicians per county as opposed to 17 per county in the Black Belt. That number drops to eight if Montgomery County is removed from that average. Lowndes County has one primary care physician for its nearly 10,000 residents.

The report includes policy recommendations to better prepare Alabama for future health crises,  including securing more outside investment and developing strategies to mitigate and reverse population decline, investing in healthcare and infrastructure, and incentivizing health care workers to work in the Black Belt; not just with higher pay, but also housing accommodations, student loan forgiveness and child care.

“To better prepare the Black Belt for future emergency scenarios, there needs to be significant investment to ensure there are enough supplies and facilities, as well as to incentivize healthcare professionals to work in the Black Belt and rural Alabama generally,” the brief said.

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