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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

The South is deeply conservative and widely impoverished — especially the Deep South. That combination could portend awful consequences for us as the spread of the new coronavirus, now officially a pandemic, accelerates.

The confluence of reactionary politics and an impoverished population will exacerbate the already frightening consequences of COVID-19. For one thing, many of the white voters of this region are not only diehard supporters of President Donald J. Trump, but they are also a dedicated audience for right-wing news outlets such as Fox News, whose hosts have repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus.

Following Trump’s lead, conservative talk show hosts have told their listeners that the coronavirus is a “hoax” concocted by the “liberal media” to bring down his presidency. Even after Anthony Fauci, the highly respected head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before Congress about the lethality of the virus, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience, “This coronavirus … all of this panic is just not warranted. This … virus is the common cold.” That means local leaders in this region will be ill-equipped to order shutdowns of mass gatherings or to urge the social distancing measures that are necessary.

But it also means we have a population dependent on hourly wages who are reluctant to stay home even if they have a fever. Further, it means that many of the sick will not have access to the medical care they will need. The ultraconservative governors and state legislatures that control this region have refused — just refused — to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government picks up most of the tab as one of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

(Perhaps political scientists even now are writing books about this utterly catastrophic and inexplicable rejection. I do hope so because I can think of no rational reason for this behavior except that Republicans are determined to portray Obamacare as a failure. Among Southern states, only Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky have expanded Medicaid, and two of those have Democratic governors.)

Traditional Medicaid covers poor children, impoverished pregnant women, poor senior citizens and the poor disabled. The Medicaid expansion, significantly, covers low-income able-bodied adults, including many men and women who work every day but can’t afford health insurance. Think of short-order cooks, restaurant wait staff, housecleaners, painters and even owners of small businesses such as pool-cleaning or plumbing. Sure, they can go to an emergency room, but those will become increasingly overwhelmed when the virus spreads through the region, as it surely will.

Oh, wait! What if the town they live in doesn’t have a hospital? Hospitals across the rural South — in rural areas across the nation, actually — have been shutting down because they cannot afford to stay open. They have been losing money for decades because so many of their patients are uninsured or underinsured.

The Medicaid expansion threw many of those hospitals a lifeline. But not here in my home state. Not in Georgia or Mississippi or Tennessee or South Carolina. Rural hospitals in those states continue to shut down. Last year, GQ reported that 106 rural hospitals had shut down across the country since 2010. Seventy-seven of those “were in deep red states where local politicians refused the Obama administration’s Medicaid expansion,” GQ said. More hospitals have likely closed since then.

Public health officials have already stated that the nation’s health care system could easily be overwhelmed by the virus as hospital beds are filled, all ventilators are in use and, of course, some nurses, doctors and other medical staff get sick. Patients in towns where hospitals have been shuttered will swamp already-overburdened facilities in larger cities.

House Democrats have put together an emergency aid package that includes funding to pay for coronavirus tests for those without insurance and paid sick leave for workers whose employers don’t provide it. Guess what? Republicans have already criticized it. (So, they want sick food service employees to show up for work?)

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi could tell their leader, Mitch McConnell (whose Kentucky constituents have access to Medicaid, thanks to a Democratic governor), to get on board with the aid package because their constituents need the assistance. But I’m not gonna hold my breath.

Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.