SEBRING, Fla. — It's hard to imagine in our information age, that access to it might be hindered. But that’s the reality for many people living in our rural communities. And as we’ve discovered, they’re often left behind when it comes to getting important information about health and safety issues.
The pandemic has certainly heightened those problems.
The CDC has a “Social Vulnerability Index,” which details how vulnerable counties in the U.S. are based on health and income. Often, the more vulnerable areas are in rural communities.
“About 46 million Americans live in rural areas in the United States. That’s about 1 in every 7 individuals lives in a rural area,” said Dr. Jason Salemi, Assoc. Professor of Epidemiology at USF.
A significant portion of the population is often left to fend for themselves in a sense. And when it comes to a global health crisis, the situation is only amplified.
“They’re really, in many ways, at higher risk of adverse outcomes from COVID-19, and that’s in part because, in general, in rural areas you have people who are older, they have higher rates of chronic disease even after you adjust for the fact that they’re older, they’re more likely to have multiple disabilities which places them at higher risk for things like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer,” said Dr. Salemi.
They’re more vulnerable, yet less likely to have access to information needed to protect themselves.
Dr. Edwin Michael, a Professor of Epidemiology at USF, said he believes one of the biggest challenges a rural community faces in a situation like a global health crisis, is access to information.
To get the firsthand perspective of this, ABC Action News reporter McKenna King traveled to Highlands County, straight to the home of a family in a rural community that has tackled every curveball this pandemic has thrown.
“COVID was not the first thing on our mind, so when I dropped him off I really was shocked to get the phone call that it was COVID and they were going to admit, having no idea it would be 125 days later until I would see him,” said Christi Scaglione, whose husband was hospitalized with COVID-19 for 4 months.
Christi’s husband John was hospitalized for 125 days and in 3 different hospitals.
“They admitted me, and next thing I know I woke up in a second hospital. I spent 29 days in a coma in the first hospital,” said John Scaglione.
When John was hospitalized, COVID-19 hadn’t really hit Highlands County.
“It did come a little later. About 4-6 weeks later than Tampa and other bigger cities were hit,” said Dr. Bindu Raju, Chief Medical Officer at AdventHealth Sebring.
John Scaglione’s COVID-19 diagnosis came as a big shock to him, and not long after, doctors at AdventHealth Sebring informed his wife Christi that he only had a 5 percent chance of survival.
“Some places said ‘oh it’s just the flu, you know, it’s just like the flu!’ It’s not like the flu,” said John Scaglione.
The COVID-19 diagnosis wasn’t the only uphill battle the Scagliones would face.
“A lot of times, we had patients, unfortunately, all by themselves in the hospital, and so now, not only are they sick, but they’re having to advocate for themselves,” said Dr. Raju.
John Scaglione didn’t have the ability to advocate for himself, because he was in a coma. So his wife took that upon herself, even from outside the hospital.
“Communication was just really difficult. It’s so important to have an advocate for your health, so I really just had a lot of contacts, a lot of phone calls I made to different people throughout the hospital staff, to try and actually get them to establish doing video calls,” said Christi Scaglione.
Advocacy is something people in rural communities are used to.
“I actually put up a Facebook post and put a call out for the convalescent plasma, to work as his advocate,” said Christi Scaglione.
They say if you want the information, you put in a little extra effort to seek it out yourself.
“You need an advocate, you need to be your own advocate,” said John Scaglione.
“If you’re not going onto social media, or things like Facebook, you’re not seeing it. So I’m not getting things in the mailbox, I’m not seeing posters around,” said Christi Scaglione.
Getting that crucial information takes an ongoing effort.
If you would like to donate to the Scaglione family’s GoFundMe fundraiser to help them pay for their portion of medical bills, click here.