Woeful in Wise: County at epicenter of rural Southwest Virginia’s deadly COVID-19 surge

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on COVID-19’s current impact in Southwest Virginia. As in many rural parts of the country, the area has lower vaccination rates than more urban parts of the state. The delta variant has produced case rates double those in the state as a whole, with even more disproportionate death rates. News Channel spent a day in Wise County — one of nine Southwest Virginia counties in our market area, with a total population of just 289,000. We spoke to half a dozen people — from an ICU nurse to a small business owner, an elected attorney to a respiratory therapist. We gained a firsthand look at life in an area where, as one local business owner whose mother died of COVID last year, put it, “a lot of people … will wear a gun in Walmart to protect you from a robber but they won’t get a vaccine to protect the community from the virus.”

BIG STONE GAP, Va. (WJHL) – Rural America’s “trending” right now as pockets of the country deal with disproportionate effects of COVID-19’s delta variant surge.

Often underresourced and under-vaccinated, the country’s rural areas as a whole are seeing higher rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The statistics are attracting national news outlets to far-flung corners of flyover country and yielding stories with headlines like this one (Healthline, Sept. 7, 2021): “Freedom, Religion, Mistrust: The Recipe Driving the COVID-19 Surge in Rural America.”

Nowhere are the surge’s impacts much more evident than in far Southwest Virginia’s nine counties. Beset by multiple challenges already, including the coal industry’s demise and an 8.9% population decline in the last census, the area is older, poorer and sicker than the state as a whole.

It also has a much lower vaccination rate than Virginia, and once the delta surge reached Southwest Virginia, case rates began pulling away sharply from those statewide.

The hard times have both brought together and divided communities where the saying “everybody knows everybody” is close to true – and where many people would give a stranger the shirt off their back.

News Channel 11 visited Wise County as the delta variant was wreaking havoc on the region’s small communities.

The effects are felt in several overarching ways — impact on families and friends, impact on business and day-to-day life and impact on the already strained rural healthcare system. They’re also felt in that division over COVID-19 as some people fully embrace vaccine availability and mitigation measures like masking, while others fight it tooth and nail.

The division befuddles Bobby Bloomer, who runs a bicycle shop in Big Stone Gap and serves on the town council.

Bobby Bloomer walks through his late mother’s formalwear shop in Big Stone Gap, Va. Bloomer’s sister has been opening the iconic business on weekends only since their mother’s death from COVID-19 last Christmas Eve. Photo: WJHL

“I grew up here,” Bloomer said inside Iron Works Cycling, one of several small businesses he operates. “Born here, grew up here. It’s been tough. I mean, it has hurt our community – a lot of divide. A lot of people don’t believe in the science, but I do.”

Bloomer’s mother, Carolyn Litton Bloomer, died of COVID on Christmas Eve at the height of the winter surge. Also an entrepreneur, the 76-year-old was busy running Litton’s Uptown Bridal and Formalwear right up to the point she entered the hospital.

The average number of new weekly cases per 100,000 population has been more than double the state’s since Sept. 15. At the end of July, Southwest Virginia was at 77, Virginia was at 71. On Oct. 5, Southwest Virginia stood at 445 to Virginia’s 211.

Those higher rates, which also occurred during the winter surge, mean almost everyone knows families who’ve been impacted, Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp said.

“I think if we look around our community, we all probably have somebody in our families that we love, that we care deeply about who’ve passed, or been very very very sick because of this disease,” Slemp, who also grew up in the area, said.

The higher case numbers and poorer overall health have produced hospitalization and death rates with even wider gaps from the state. The case surge is now playing itself out in those statistics.

COVID-19 case rates rose much more quickly in Southwest Virginia than the rest of the state once the delta variant took hold.

Southwest Virginia’s seven-day population-adjusted death rate of 13.1 per 100,000 as of Oct. 5 was nearly four times Virginia’s rate of 3.6. Its hospitalization rate of 15.5 was about 2.5 times the state rate of 6.4.

Since Sept. 1, those death rates are 36.6 in Southwest Virginia and 12.6 in Virginia. The hospitalization rates are 78.8 in Southwest, 39.0 statewide.

Lori Looney, a registered nurse who oversees Norton Community Hospital’s intensive care unit, said she and her colleagues are seeing those statistics borne out every day at work.

“Our COVID beds are staying full our ICU COVID beds, especially,” Looney, a native of nearby Dickenson County, said. “And right now, most of the patients we have are on ventilators that have COVID. And we’re not having great outcomes.”

Looney’s colleague Heather Long has been a respiratory therapist for 13 years. Her duties have included working at one of the nation’s busiest black lung clinics, so she’s no stranger to people having difficulty breathing.

Heather Long, left, and Lori Looney have seen far more of their friends and neighbors than they’d like to inside Norton Community Hospital’s COVID-19 unit.

“If you’ve worked in the field as long as I have, or any amount of time really, you know you deal with a lot of death, whether it’s trauma, anything really,” Long said. “But never this amount of death and this many patients at one time.”

Even as the lives lost have piled up, Southwest Virginians have felt the sting of disruption to businesses, schools, government — all the normal functions of daily life — no less than areas with much lower health impacts.

For Slemp, it’s manifested as backlogs in the court system.

“Every single week, there’s somebody else who either as a witness that can’t show up for court because they’re positive or somebody came to court anyway positive, and then the whole system has to shut down or at least be quarantined,” he said.

Bloomer said the restaurant business has been hit hard, but that even when COVID has produced unexpected benefits, it’s been in the form of a double-edged sword.

“We had a really, really good year last year,” Bloomer said. “Unfortunately, we sold everything we had basically and haven’t been able to get a new bike in almost a year now.”

Tension over vaccines in ‘The Fightin’ 9th’

Bloomer said he “can’t grasp what people are thinking,” when they refuse to get vaccinated.

“We’ve all been vaccinated from many diseases, and I just don’t understand the hesitancy with this vaccine,” he said.

Slemp chalks some of that hesitancy up to the area’s culture.

Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp

“We’re an independent sort west of the Blue Ridge,” Slemp said. “We’re frontierspeople, we’re hardscrabble, we want to go our own way and do our own thing.”

He said he doesn’t “think that’s something we should be ashamed of. Obviously, the term, ‘the fighting ninth’ the Ninth (Congressional) district, we’re known for that because of that nature.”

But like Bloomer, Long and Looney, Slemp is fully vaccinated. He said he chose to do that “to protect my community.”

“And while I support the concept of the idea that people should have the freedom of choice, I also celebrate those who’ve made that difficult choice and decided ‘you know what, this is bigger than me. I’m going to protect my family, I’m going to protect my community. I’m going to get vaccinated because I want to make sure and protect those that I love the most.'”

Long, the respiratory therapist, said as the waves of new COVID patients just keep arriving in need of breathing assistance, she wonders whether people who resist vaccines and masks “just aren’t thinking or what.

“I think if they realized and saw what we saw on a daily basis, that they would do one or the other, get the vaccine or wear a mask to try to help stop the spread,” Long said. “Because it’s — I don’t know how long we can keep this up.”

Next on Wednesday — Family matters and business disruptions

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