Pandemic Exposes Social Disparities Inside Appalachia


The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated societal inequities.

Black and Latino populations have suffered higher infection rates. People working low-income jobs are more likely to be considered essential — and therefore required to work in-person — while others have the luxury of working remotely.

The pandemic has pushed many people who were already living paycheck to paycheck out of work. Despite programs to provide rental and utility relief, some have lost their homes. At one point last summer, 60 percent of people in West Virginia said they were at risk of being homeless, according to a study by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

And now, another divide is forming between those who have received the vaccine and those who are still waiting.

This week’s episode of Inside Appalachia looks at some of the divides the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed, starting with how it’s affecting people without stable homes.

Seeking Shelter

The Harmony House in Huntington, West Virginia functions as a day shelter, but it also has an outreach team to find other homeless people who are still on the streets. Once they make contact, they offer supplies and other support.

Kyle Vass, a reporter with the Us and Them podcast, spent a day with Harmony’s outreach team, visiting sites where homeless people are gathering this winter.

In a separate story, Us & Them host Trey Kay spoke with Mitch Webb, the director of the Huntington City Mission, about how it’s changed to accommodate additional people in need, while still trying to follow pandemic protocols and keep everyone safe.


Vaccine Disparities

When news arrived last year that scientists had successfully formulated not one, but multiple vaccines for COVID-19, people across the globe were relieved to finally see a potential end to the pandemic. These scientific breakthroughs were achieved at a remarkable pace, but it soon became clear that distributing these vaccines would be a monumental undertaking.


Dave Mistich
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Dr. Albert Gest (pictured right) gets a dose of the coronavirus vaccine from Hayden Carmody at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.

West Virginia has become a national leader in its vaccine rollout. So far, the state has delivered at least one shot to more than nine percent of the state’s residents, second in the nation, after Alaska, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But not everyone across West Virginia has had the same access to the vaccine.

Reporter Lauren Peace investigated West Virginia’s vaccine rollout for Mountain State Spotlight, an online, nonprofit news site. Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams spoke with her recently about what she uncovered about where the vaccine’s available, and what that reveals about health disparities across Appalachia.

Peace is a Report For America Fellow and the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. Her story about vaccine distribution in West Virginia, co-written with Ian Hodgson, was published on Jan. 21. Eleven days later, in early February, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced that free vaccination clinics will be held in all 55 West Virginia counties.

The vaccine is providing a ray of hope that the pandemic will end. But more people may lose their homes in the months ahead. President Joe Biden has extended the moratoriums on evictions, but only through March 31, 2021. Clearly, many challenges still lie ahead as Appalachia begins to emerge from the pandemic.

Us & Them is produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In an upcoming show, Us & Them digs into the racial disparities that the pandemic has exposed and made worse.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Spencer Elliot, and Nathan El.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

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Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.