Coronavirus, Health

As Rural Hospital Shuts Its Doors, Public Health Experts Worry About Vulnerable Communities

Officials with Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center said in a statement that the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened financial difficulties the hospital has endured for years.
Officials with Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center said in a statement that the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened financial difficulties the hospital has endured for years.
Credit David Goldman / Associcated Press

A southwest Georgia hospital some 90 miles from the nearest Interstate is shutting down, despite a surge of coronavirus cases across rural America.

Officials with Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center said in a statement that the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened financial difficulties the hospital has endured for years. The Cuthbert hospital is about an hour from Albany, and is set to close its doors in October.

Public health experts have stressed that these hospitals miles from major cities like Atlanta are especially critical for rural seniors, or poverty-stricken communities that don’t necessarily have reliable transportation. For some, it could just mean they will have to journey much further to get intensive care. For others, it will mean inadequate care, delays, and possibly no intensive care at all, according to Dr. Ashish Jha, professor of global health at Harvard University.

Jha spoke to “All Things Considered” host Jim Burress about the fallout for those who have relied on rural medical centers for decades.

“What’s interesting about COVID is that, it began in the big cities. But what we know about disease outbreaks like this is that it often begins in more dense areas, and then over time spreads out from cities to the suburbs to the rural areas,” Jha said. He added that he is deeply worried about the devastation the coronavirus pandemic still has in store for rural America.

“Obviously rural America tends to have an older population, whose more susceptible to getting very sick from the virus. And what we know about rural America is there is less hospital care, particularly less intensive care availability,” Jha said.

Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center is managed by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. Officials wrote that they were unable to secure funding for critical hospital upgrades and renovations. The Randolph County Hospital Authority oversees Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center. The committee unanimously voted in favor of the move – and the authority’s chairman Steve Whatley told WFXL-TV that within a few months, the hospital wouldn’t have been able to even make payroll. 

Jimmy Lewis, CEO of the rural Georgia hospital collaborative Hometown Health, told WABE that the problem is it takes a rural population to support a rural hospital.

“The tax basis is in jeopardy,” Lewis said. He noted that the Cuthbert hospital likely serves a population of only around 7,000 people.

“That means that the sustainability under normal circumstances is tough,” Lewis said, and it is even tougher when a small institution is overrun by a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“The surge introduces major external forces and costs that typically the small hospital is not prepared to withstand. It tries to find people to staff, it tries to find cash to supply personal protective equipment. All things considered, it becomes the intersection of all bad things.”

WABE brings you the local stories and national news that you value and trust. Please make a gift today.Donate Now