‘I’m Just Praying’: Miners Fear The Impacts Covid-19 Could Have In Coal Country

‘I’m Just Praying’: Miners Fear The Impacts Covid-19 Could Have In Coal Country
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Jimmy Moore barely leaves the house. When he does, the 74-year-old is usually parked outside his local pharmacy in Dorton, Kentucky, until someone brings out his regular meds. As soon as Moore arrives home, he changes his clothes and washes his hands. Religiously. This wasn’t his routine before, but Moore can’t take any chances with the

referred to Appalachia as the “diabetes belt.” That’s unrelated to the coal mining, though. These diseases result from the socioeconomic problems entrenched in Appalachia, including less access to healthcare, higher poverty, and rural isolation.

“You have a large population that is on Medicaid or Medicare, and that does not cover the cost of a lot of hospitals,” Allen said. “¨

Plus, hospitals with critical care units may not be a simple 10-minute or even 30-minute drive away. All this can further complicate the region’s covid-19 response. That’s a large part of the concern. Just as outbreaks are overwhelming the healthcare systems of metropolitan areas, such as New York City and Seattle, a similar situation would devastate this rural region.

“If a healthcare worker gets sick, for example, the impact is going to be greater in a community with fewer healthcare resources than in a larger city with many hospitals,” Leonard Go, a research assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Gizmodo. “Prevention is really the name of the game here.”

West Virginia, for one, ain’t playing. Governor Jim Justice already shut down non-essential businesses and ordered residents to stay home earlier this week despite having only 39 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday. For comparison, New York didn’t issue a similar order until the state saw its cases shoot past 7,000. In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear has also ordered the closure of non-essential businesses earlier this week. The governor has already received praise for his handling of the situation, including from Moore, who always tunes into Beshear’s daily televised briefings.

“I think Beshear is doing a fine job,” Moore said, highlighting what he’s learned from the governor, such as to avoid the hospital if you’re sick but able to recover at home. “I watch him every evening,”

What makes this whole situation all the more tricky is that in West Virginia, at least, coal mining remains ongoing as an essential business. The United Mine Workers of America supports this, Phil Smith, its director of communications and governmental affairs, told Gizmodo. That is, so long as workers have the proper protections in place. That means wipes to clean off equipment, proper protocol to keep workers six feet apart in the mines, and allowing sick workers to stay home.

“We think [coal mining] is an essential industry, but we think it’s incumbent upon the companies and the government to make sure that these people can work safely,” Smith said.

Though the mines remain open, some health centres for retired coal miners in the region are slowly starting to pause rehabilitation services for black lung patients in order to protect them.

New River Health in Scarbro, West Virginia, typically sees some five to eight patients (most of whom suffer from black lung) on a regular day. Some days, patients come in for pulmonary rehabilitation, which involves supervised exercise and educational sessions on how to live with the disease. Other days, another group of patients comes in for pulmonary maintenance, where they exercise to prevent further lung decline. These individuals get access to treadmills, exercise bikes, vital health information, and, most importantly, each other. As of March 18, all that had to end for their safety.

“Everyone almost simultaneously at the ground judged that the risk of them coming in and being exposed to us and each other was greater than the benefit of being there,” Daniel Doyle, a family physician and medical director of the Breathing Centre for Black Lung with New River Health and Cabin Creek Health Systems, both of which have multiple sites throughout the state, told Gizmodo. “So we said, “˜stop coming.'”

The facility remains open for individuals who need medical attention for any respiratory issues, but the team is being incredibly vigilant to screen every patient before allowing them inside the building. If patients exhibit symptoms related to covid-19″fever, dry cough, shortness of breath”then they must wait in their vehicles until a physician can come out and examine them in full protective equipment.

This is life in Appalachia under the coronavirus. Doyle remembers thinking his black lung patients weren’t worried enough about the virus. Or perhaps they were looking to him and his colleagues to tell them when to worry. Either way, the time to worry has come.

But worrying isn’t going to save anyone. Proper government action to keep people at home will. These coal workers have suffered enough from their contribution to the U.S. energy economy, and it’s incumbent on not just state but federal government to care for them. They won’t become a sacrifice as some Republicans have suggested.

Moore expects black lung to kill him one day. His breathing has diminished in recent years. He can’t go on raccoon hunts anymore. He can’t fish. That doesn’t mean, however, covid-19 should cut his life any shorter.