Celebrities are fleeing urban coronavirus hotspots for quarantining in Wyoming, Montana, and other Western rural regions. Experts are criticizing this move as dangerous to those who live in those areas year-round. Fearing their relocation may cause added stress to an already severely limited healthcare infrastructure.
These include celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, and Kelly Clarkson to name a few.
“These moves have been a huge concern for us,” Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of NRHA, told NBC News. “It’s such a bad idea for upper-income urban people to hunker down in these areas. It potentially places added pressure on a health care system that was for primary care and general surgery, not for pandemic surge response.”
Morgan said that as of Friday afternoon, there are more than 16,000 cases of coronavirus scattered across rural counties nationally. Hospitals in these areas have one to two ventilators on site on average, he said. More than half of the rural counties in the United States have no intensive care beds at all.
Celebs moving to the countryside
Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel were the most recent celebrities to come under fire for the phenomenon. Some have branded “disaster gentrification” after Timberlake recently revealed that the couple has settled into their home in the Yellowstone Club. It’s a 15,200-acre private community west of Gallatin County, to wait out the coronavirus outbreak. Kelly Clarkson has also decamped to her Montana ranch during the pandemic.
“To be honest, we thought the best way to kind of do our part was. We have a place in Montana and so, we came up here,” Timberlake said in an interview with SiriusXM Hits1 on Wednesday.
Travel from urban centers spreading coronavirus to rural areas
Gallatin County is among the top 10 rural counties with the highest reported COVID-19 cases, according to data obtained by NBC News from NRHA. In comparison to the surge of cases, there are currently eight ICU beds available in the country. There’s just one for every 2,141 residents aged 60+, according to Kaiser Health News.
“In Utah, in Colorado, all around the country, we’re hearing the same stories,” Morgan said. “People are moving into these understaffed, underfunded areas that are tinderboxes for the outbreak. Many of the populations in these communities are exactly those who are least equipped to get the virus. Basically older, sicker people with preexisting conditions who can’t afford to be exposed to it.”
Jessica Carson, a research assistant public policy professor at the University of New Hampshire, recently conducted a rapid response project that appears to corroborate Morgan and the NRHA’s assessment that continued travel from those who do not live in rural communities is causing the spread of COVID-19.
After analyzing data from the New York Times, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and the U.S. Census Bureau, Carson determined that the nation has nearly 200 rural counties. The seasonal housing accounts for 25 percent or more of available houses, coronavirus cases were more than twice as high as in other rural counties and 15 percent higher than in urban areas as of April 5.
Carson said that one reason for higher counts could be “that folks are coming in to hunker down in short-term rentals, seasonal rentals, or family properties.” However, she added higher numbers in these areas may also have to do with the fact that the areas are home to retirement communities, who may be getting tested at a higher rate because they are more susceptible to illness and likely have health insurance.
“We will likely never know the exact data when it comes to COVID-19 cases. It’s a moving target and is always going to be higher than we’ve recorded,” Carson said. “But even though the data’s not perfect, it’s enough to cautiously inform the next practices and policies communities can put in place to slow the outbreak.”
At least one celebrity has donated money to buy ventilators for Montana
Celebrities have been buying homes in rural areas of the country in recent years. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian-West own at least two properties in Wyoming, though it is unclear where they are staying during the outbreak. And Kelly Clarkson purchased a ranch in Montana with her husband, Brandon Blackstock, around two years ago. While they live in Los Angeles full-time, the couple is currently residing at the ranch along with their children. Clarkson will soon produce episodes of NBC’s “The Kelly Clarkson Show” there.
One positive aspect of their moves maybe that they shine a light on rural areas that are often “left out” of the national dialogue, Morgan said. Celebrity musician John Mayer, who grew up in Connecticut, forged strong ties to Montana. He bought a home in the state in 2012. Mayer recently made a “generous” donation for an unspecified amount to the Livingston HealthCare hospital to purchase ventilators, according to the Livingston Enterprise.
The Yellowstone Club, where Timberlake and Biel are residing, has made a $1 million donation to Bozeman Health. As per the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Bozeman Health, which runs the Big Sky Medical Center and Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, will use the money to build four hospital rooms, doubling Big Sky Medical Center’s in-patient capacity from four to eight beds, and purchase 11 additional ventilators, which will be allocated between the hospitals.
“We need help. We’re concerned about the shortage of healthcare professionals in rural areas,” Morgan said. “In the long-term, we want more people to move to rural areas. But it’s a bad idea to come to hunker down here at this time.”
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