I’m worried about my friends in Moundsville. We spent a whole year working together to tell the story of their town in a documentary headed for PBS this spring, and I think of those we worked with as extended family.
Like thousands of American towns left behind by globalization, Moundsville (pop. 8,000), and surrounding Marshall County, are full of old people and don’t have the resources to cope with a global pandemic. The brain drain to the bigger cities has left these towns undermanned and underfunded in a way that is going to be badly exposed by the sweep of the Coronavirus. The light of truth is about to shine on America’s abandoned towns, rotting infrastructure and scattershot health care system.
Twenty-two percent of Marshall County’s population of around 30,000 is over 65, compared to 16% in the general population of the U.S., and 13.7% of those under 65 have a disability, compared to 8.6% in the rest of the country. Local newspapers have been pared down, meaning it’s harder for people to get accurate information and help each other.
West Virginia was the final state to record a case of Covid-19, which it finally did this week, and it’s now proceeded to shut down schools. More closures are planned, and Gov. Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency, and is asking for federal help.
As a state, West Virginia has the highest percentage – 51%, compared to a national average of 41% — of inhabitants vulnerable to infection from the disease, according to study by the Kaiser Foundation. It’s older, and has high rates of diabetes, black lung disease from coal mining, obesity, opioid addiction, and smoking.
To be sure, its towns and hollers are more disconnected than cities like New York and Washington, so the disease will spread more slowly. But over the next few months, it will extend its reach, as it has in rural communities elsewhere.
The upshot, as gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith put it to Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, will be “an inequality of pain.”
The Moundsville area has a few hospitals, but in September, one of them, the Ohio Valley Medical Center, announced it was closing. The hospital, which opened in 1914 and had 200 beds, employed over 1,000 people, who were laid off.
For a while, West Virginians weren’t worried. Somebody printed a T-shirt that said: “West Virginia: COVID-19 National Champions, Self-Isolating Since 1863.” Moundsville city councilman and former mayor Phil Remke, when I emailed him a couple days ago, dismissed worries as “panic” caused by “the media, all media.” Remke is a Fox News watcher, and that had been the network’s tune, echoing President Trump’s before the real damage caused by the virus made confronting its reality inevitable. When I texted him back today, he wrote: “Live and learn, politics aside, it’s time we all work together, Democrats and Republicans, instead of criticizing each other.”
Everybody in Moundsville “is taking this very seriously,” said Susan Board, who works at St. Francis Xavier, the town’s Catholic church. “Everything’s getting canceled. The fish fry. Even the bingo.”
People are worried, said Board. “While they might not have paid too much attention when it was on the West Coast and the East Coast, now they are because there are a lot of cases in Ohio. It’s coming closer and closer.”
Stores in Moundsville have sold out of toilet paper. “We’re like the rest of the country,” said Board.
“We’re distancing and isolating ourselves, but we’re not really ready,” said Fr. That Son Ngoc Nguyen, who’s cancelled mass. “It’s mostly elderly people. That’s why it’s worse for us.”
If a person is sick, he would visit them. “I’m not worried about my own health because I’m young, I think I would make it, but 75% of our parishioners are elderly.”
Steve Hummel said he’s keeping his museum, Archives of the Afterlife, open for now but is using hand sanitizer and keeping his distance. I asked about his grandfather, Les Barker. Both are stars in the movie. Les even has my favorite line (“What do you want out of this world? You wanna set the world on fire? Or do you want enough for a weenie roast now and then.”)
“Well, he’s recovering,” said Steve. “We went fishing today, and he slipped in the mud.”
Rose Hart, a retired mail carrier featured in the film, is in the middle of moving her Appalachian Outreach charity, which helps poor people in the state, to an abandoned furniture store from an abandoned supermarket.
Hart had to cancel her April fundraiser, which was to bring in $12,000. “That’s a big hole to plug,” she told me. “I’m trying to get people to commit to quarterly donations but it’s tough.” In addition, other charities she works with around the region, including one fixing homes damaged by the 2016 flood, have had to cease activities, she said.
You can contact Rose or donate to Appalachian Outreach here.
She’s most worried about her three female employees, all of whom have children. “With the schools closing, that means they have to find child care if they want to come to work,” she said.
Rose said she’s been battling a sinus infection but doctors told her it wasn’t Covid-19 and gave her antibiotics. “I had an infection from a surgery last year,” said Rose. “I know I’m vulnerable.”
John W. Miller