ST. PAUL — As Americans watch metropolises like New York City get ravaged by the novel coronavirus, Minnesota's U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is bracing for an upcoming blow to rural America.
In a sweeping plan rolled out on Thursday, April 16, the Minnesota Democrat is looking to dedicate federal dollars to rural areas' health care, agriculture, economies and local resources, saying structural difficulties make rural populations more vulnerable to the virus that has already killed 31,000 Americans.
"The coronavirus pandemic is a national crisis — it affects every American, no matter where they live," Klobuchar wrote.
Coronavirus may take longer to spread to rural America, Klobuchar said, but once it arrives, its impacts could be severe thanks to under-resourced health care providers, aging and vulnerable residents, a long-declining agricultural economy and on average, lower incomes. And for the one in five rural Americans who are of color or are Native, those risk factors are exacerbated, as the nation sees people of color die of COVID-19 at higher rates than their white counterparts.
Already in Minnesota, the virus has been detected in all but 17 of the state's 87 counties.
From the outset, Americans living in rural communities have greater health risk factors than those in cities: They are, on average, older and have higher rates of chronic illness — two crucial risk factors that dramatically increase a patient's chances of dying from COVID-19. Many are uninsured or under-insured, and may live a long drive from the nearest hospital.
For many, those driving distances have become even longer in the past decade, with more than 120 rural hospitals completely closing in the last 10 years. Part of Klobuchar's plan is to reopen those hospitals for overflow patients who may exceed hospitals' capacities. For the hospitals that still are open, many do not have the bed space or resources to take on a surge of patients.
In her plan, Klobuchar said the federal government needs to pump $100 billion into the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, plus streamline the process for rural hospitals to get loans and grants — and give them longer to pay loans back — so they can stay up and running, hire more staff, buy supplies and accommodate an influx of patients.
Klobuchar added that rural hospitals' financial disadvantages should be considered when deciding which facilities can access the federal stockpile of medical supplies.
Farmers were already up against a lot before the pandemic struck: flooding, a trade war, low commodity prices. Klobuchar said those issues have only been exacerbated as dairy farmers suffer $5.7 billion losses in five weeks, hog producers estimate losses through the end of the year and ranchers see their cattle lose 30% of their value since the start of 2020.
Klobuchar said farmers need increased flexibility and forgiveness with their Farm Service Agency loans now, and expanded commodity and crop insurance support.
After Sioux Falls' Smithfield meatpacking plant emerged as a national hot spot, with over 700 detected cases of COVID-19, Klobuchar is also calling for protections for farm, food processing and transportation workers, with updated safety rules available in multiple languages, and money for personal protective equipment.
Economy and quality of life
Though a giant, agriculture isn't the only industry keeping rural America alive. Klobuchar said the service sector is actually the largest employer in rural America, and it has suffered a blow amid the pandemic: In Minnesota alone, with nonessential businesses like restaurants and bars closed to the public since March, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development reports that over 29,000 food and beverage servers have applied for unemployment benefits.
Small businesses also need relief, Klobuchar said, and rural Americans need expanded access to broadband. As families shelter in place, millions of adults are working from home and children are learning online. She also said Congress should take action to expand child care access, reformulate education funding to offset rural school districts' higher costs and support affordable housing.
And as the U.S. Postal Service falters thanks in part to coronavirus, Klobuchar said rural America needs mail service more than ever. Calling it an essential service, she said Congress needs to step in to offer USPS financial relief.