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Coronavirus comes at a terrible time for reeling Appalachian Kentucky

ELCOMB, Ky. — The two men sat on the covered porch of an aging mobile home along an Appalachian creek, a loud rain pinging off the sheet metal roof. 

Joe Goans’ four children were packed inside, shut out of school by the spreading coronavirus. He hadn’t worked in two weeks, and his carpentry jobs had all canceled. One small consolation was that a yellow school bus wound each morning through the one-time coal camp with free meals for his kids.

Next to him, longtime coal miner Robbie Jonathan smoked a cigarette. He wasn’t certain if his recent health problems were black lung, but he knew he’d be in trouble if he contracted coronavirus.

“These here don’t help none,” he admitted as he took another drag.

Shaking their heads at some people failing to take the social distancing orders seriously, they agreed on one thing: Coronavirus, if it arrived in force, would cut deep in a place weakened by recent coal layoffs, floods and generations of poverty and poor health.

“It’s about time for Jesus to come back,” Jonathan said.

“I wish he’d hurry,” Goans responded dryly.

Along Appalachian Kentucky’s winding two-lane roads this week, where restaurants, daycares, nail salons and bingo parlors are closed, some said they feel protected by the social distancing that naturally comes with the region’s geography of remote hills and hollows.

But on porches and in some churches, in school food lines and small-town grocery aisles stripped of toilet paper and soup, a palpable sense of foreboding pervades, reflecting what one public health expert said was Appalachia’s “perfect storm” of vulnerabilities to the virus.

In Appalachian Kentucky, some worry about a “perfect storm” of vulnerabilities to the Coronavirus.

While 46% of adult Kentuckians are considered at risk of serious illness if they were to get COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, few other places concentrate those health conditions that substantially raise the risks.

It’s an area of higher-than-average cardiopulmonary disease, diabetes, cancer, disability and resurging black lung. Smoking rates are high, and the population is aging. Add in a rural drug epidemic that only two years ago helped fuel the nation’s largest and deadliest hepatitis A outbreak.

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