o-ruraltests

It usually starts with a text.

A “hey, I just tested positive, so you should probably get tested” kind of text. 

Then it’s a race against the clock.

If it’s after noon, it doesn’t matter when you test because your sample won’t be shipped until the next day. If it’s before noon, you’ve got only a few hours to get a test scheduled before the collection period for the day is over. So you dial up your local health center for the referral you’ll need to get tested. 

You’re placed on hold and get dropped once. Twice. Three times. You call another health center 30 minutes away, but they’re out of tests until next week. You call a place an hour and a half away. They tell you to start driving. You’ve been on the phone for 2 hours at this point, and you realize this test is all you’re accomplishing today.

The test is painful but okay — one of those nasal swabs that feels like it's touching your brain. You go home, and you stay at home. The test won’t return for a few business days.

This is what it’s like to track down a COVID-19 test in rural Nebraska. And believe me, I know. The experience above is exactly what happened to me last summer when I tried to get tested before returning to campus in the fall. 

It’s a story I like to tell my native Lincoln friends because they almost don’t believe it, and they also don’t get it. They try to fit this knowledge with their preexisting assumptions about my very rural, very politically red hometown. “Maybe people in rural areas just don’t want to get tested,” they tell me. “Maybe the healthcare workers don’t want people to get tested.”

I know where they’re coming from. But I also know they’re wrong.

Nebraska often feels like a state torn in two — urban and rural, blue and red, bustling and remote. It breeds conflict, yes, but it also allows Nebraskans on both sides to dismiss the other and relax in their ignorance. In my time in Lincoln, I’ve heard groans, seen eye rolls and witnessed outright disgust at my rural, red background. But when we take a closer look, shining a light on these communities that rarely receive a spotlight, we see structural issues, not mere issues of attitude, complicating the fight against COVID-19.

For over a year, a COVID-19 testing resources gap between urban and rural communities has had severe consequences on the latter region’s ability to fight the virus. Rather than sink into inaction, dismissing rural Nebraska as an ignorant environment filled with lost causes, we must take action. Whichever place you call home, do not dismiss your fellow Nebraskans as simple stereotypes doomed to the problem they created. It’s time to close the gap.

The Wall Street Journal calls them testing deserts — U.S. counties that lack a single COVID-19 testing site. These deserts are home to 7 million people, particularly in poorer rural areas, and this lack of testing has caused a major shift in the testing experience rural communities face, including here in Nebraska.

The goal of encouraging COVID-19 testing is to make the tests attractive — that is, we want people to want to take them, but let’s look at my scenario. In rural Nebraska, a participant must spend hours on the phone negotiating a test. They may have to drive long distances, and even though rapid testing may be available, it’s a gamble whether health centers have tests available. The participant may have to wait for days, losing hours and money, often to receive a negative test three to five days later. It’s costly, and it requires time and energy many people do not have.

Compare this to Lincoln, the city I’ve called home for over two years now. A simple Google search gives you 15 of the closest testing locations. Some of them accept walk-ups. Some of them offer drive-up testing. One single location requires a referral. 

Many of these locations are chain pharmacies or grocery stores — Walgreens, CVS, Hy-Vee — that just don’t exist in smaller communities. This explains why the gap exists. However, this fails to explain why the state government has not recognized and closed this gap.

For the most part, I think our state government balances our twofold nature well. We’re a complex state with our hands in many different industries and interests, but I expected more. In my time out west, I rarely encountered state-endorsed testing programs, and when I did, they weren’t helpful. The COVID-19 test I actually received after hours of driving and calling was through a program called Test Nebraska, which sought to “crush the curve.” My hometown of Ogallala had a registered Test Nebraska site, so why did I drive a three hour round trip? 

Ogallala’s site was only open one day per week. 

Test Nebraska actually closed in July, citing low infection numbers, but I can’t help but wonder. What would’ve happened if the project focused on the rural communities, the places without five Walgreens to satisfy their testing needs? These are the questions that need to be asked. Without commercial testing sites, something must keep the testing numbers in the area afloat. Someone has to help.

All this said and done, I want to make it clear that this article does not absolve rural, red communities of all COVID-19 blame. In the last three months, I have seen an outpouring of anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiment from peers and neighbors back west. In my own hometown, a vaccine clinic was closed because of harassment from a community member. As of a week ago, I’ve had a distant relative pass away from COVID-19 after using ivermectin, a horse dewormer controversially used by some as a COVID-19 treatment. 

By advocating for greater resources in the state’s rural communities, I don’t want to dismiss that some members of these communities have fallen victim to far right misinformation and out of the realm of reality. However, there are too many logical, understanding and suffering people in these communities to dismiss them as hopeless hotspots of ignorance. The truth is our state has failed many of them. I feel for them, and I am among them, angry and frustrated with a system that doesn’t care.

There’s a part to my COVID-19 testing horror story that I don’t talk about. You know, I almost didn’t get in the car and drive to Sidney, Nebraska, the one Test Nebraska site open in a three hour radius. I almost convinced myself that it was alright — I probably didn’t catch it. I almost convinced myself not to get tested.

It sounds shameful to write it out and read it over. You can view it as ignorance. You can view it as recklessness. You can view it as western Nebraska poppycock. But hopefully, when you read through it all again, you can see it as I do.

More than anything, see it as a cry for help. In hindsight, I know I do.

Emma Krab is a junior English and journalism major. Reach her at emmakrab@dailynebraskan.com