By Stephanie Patton
As I write this column in mid-April, the Mississippi Delta is at the beginning of what we all hope is the downside of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fingers crossed that the researchers, health experts, elected officials, and anyone else with input into those modeling predictors are on track when they say that the curve is flattening.
I don’t know about you, but this is my first pandemic to experience. I realize I’m old enough to have lived through others—AIDS and SARS come to mind—but I don’t recall a total cultural and economic shutdown during those events.
COVID-19 has affected every part of our day-to-day life. The social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates forced anyone reluctant to embrace the conveniences of technology to finally do so. To attend our own church worship service, we figured out how to watch it via live stream on our smartphone or laptop. Business and social meetings turned into virtual meetings using Zoom or WebEx, where we quickly learned the merits of the mute button. Facetime has replaced in-person visits with loved ones. Face masks have become fashion.
While the Delta had about 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and we all knew of someone who had it, our mortality rate was low compared to other places. COVID-19, we learned, is a virus that spreads easily through personal interaction. If for no other reason than that, a rural region is a good place to be in a pandemic. Here’s looking at you, Issaquena County.
Our Delta hospitals didn’t see the surge of patients as did other, more populated, areas. Our respiratory intensive care units didn’t run out of capacity. Anyone that needed a ventilator, got one. Those of us who live in a Delta community where there is still a local hospital felt a little safer knowing it was there. But what will our local hospitals, who were already struggling economically, look like on the other end of this global yet local crisis?
Before we had ever heard of COVID-19, the Delta had already seen the closure of locally-owned hospitals in communities like Belzoni and Marks. Other smaller Delta hospitals were on the brink of closing. And now, we have to wonder if the economic crisis created by COVID-19 will push those on the brink, off the edge.
The reasons rural hospitals were struggling prior to the virus are still here: our physicians are aging out without new doctors coming in; the uncompensated care rate is disproportionately high; and Delta residents travel outside of the Delta for their medical treatments, even when those treatments are available closer to home. It’s up to the healthcare industry to address the physician shortage, and it’s up to the legislators to address the uncompensated care challenge. But you and I, as Delta residents and healthcare patients, can do something about that last issue.
In 2018-2019, according to data available through the Mississippi Hospital Association, about 8,400 patients who reside in the Delta sought inpatient medical care somewhere else in the state, outside of the Delta. Right at 60,000 Deltans sought outpatient care outside our region. Keep in mind, those numbers don’t include patient visits outside of the state to places like Memphis, Little Rock, Birmingham, or Nashville. Financially, those patient visits represent well over $250 million leaving the Delta healthcare industry in just one year.
The top inpatient services that are performed outside the Delta include pulmonary medicine, general cardiology, obstetrics, orthopedics, psychiatry, gastroenterology and general surgery. All of these specialties are available right here where we live.
In most of our communities, the hospital not only provides needed medical services, but is usually the largest employer in the county, sometimes only second to the school district. When we don’t support our own Delta hospitals, physicians and medical support services we put our local healthcare and local economy at stake.
As we look toward the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it created, there will be some things we can do ourselves to shore up our own local economy. One of the most important things we can do will be to keep our Delta money here in the Delta. Our hospitals were there for each respective local community during this pandemic. Now’s the time for us be there for them, by staying in the Delta for our medical needs.