(The Center Square) – Georgia's rural leaders said communities continue to face a lack of support from the state as the COVID-19 pandemic deteriorates the qualify of life in rural areas.
David Bridges, interim director of the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation, said the pandemic has exacerbated hurdles in educational attainment and health care access and shortages in the workforce in rural Georgia. Bridges stressed the need for aid in smaller towns and cities this week to the Georgia Legislature's House Rural Development Council.
"I think most of you realize the urgency of the situation, but I think there are some who do not," Bridges told the council Wednesday. "Maybe we need to prod them along to help them understand that we really need to call for more action as rural Georgia falls into ruins."
Rural community leaders said health outcomes for rural Georgia have worsened because of the pandemic. With limited access to primary care and emergency care, the health care problem has created a domino effect in the region.
Schools and businesses have closed because of sick workers, and low-skilled workers struggle to prop up the economy without expanded unemployment benefits. Bridges said the gap between revenue and expenses in rural communities continues to widen in the wake of the pandemic. As a result, local governments have abandoned hopes of ever resolving infrastructure troubles.
Glenda Grant, executive director of the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center at the Mercer University School of Medicine, said rural communities faced severe health challenges along with a lack of access, availability and staff. There are disparities in maternal and pediatric care, health literacy, mental health, substance abuse and health care infrastructure.
Grant said the health innovation center's focus is tackling vaccine hesitancy. The center's research shows unvaccinated people are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those vaccinated. It also shows unvaccinated people are five times more likely to be infected with the delta variant. All hospital beds in rural Georgia are occupied, Grant said.
Bridges said it is impossible to get a good education in rural areas without access to quality health care. There is a shortage of school buses and cafeteria workers because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Rural communities also lack the skilled workers and education needed to compete in today's workplace or attract new businesses, Bridges said.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows 16% of rural Georgians have obtained a bachelor's degree or higher, while that number is 32% among Georgians in urban areas. Data also shows most rural counties have older populations, and rural areas in southeast and central Georgia have experienced population loss.
"I hear people all over the state, all over state government, all the way to the highest level say we're the No. 1 state in which to do business. I have one question for the people that continue to say that over and over," Bridges said. "How much time do you spend in rural Georgia, and how do you define the state? The state is not limited to counties around Atlanta."
State lawmakers created the House Rural Development Council in 2017 and the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation in 2018 to address economic obstacles in rural areas. Bridges said with a lack of funding and abundant red tape, progress has been slow.
"I have spent so many sleepless nights, so many mad hours this year because we have identified things that need to be done. Everybody agrees they need to be done but can't get anybody to help do it," Bridges said.
Lawmakers allocated $40 million to support rural communities during the current fiscal year, but Bridges has not been able to get answers on how to retrieve the funding. He also has spent time helping rural governments and organizations apply for the $4.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding for recovery.
The prosperity and innovation center has worked on forming regional partnerships to address issues. Among other projects, the center needs help buying a meat processing plant and supporting its farm-to-hospital collaborative.
Bridges said lawmakers need to pass legislation targeting improvements in rural Georgia and demand accountability from state agencies and institutions. They also must explore ways to attract young people to rural areas, he said.
"You have a sense of urgency today, or you will have a sense of regret tomorrow," Bridges said.