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Finding Ways Forward For Rural Communities That Already Faced Big Challenges Pre-Pandemic

Dr. Sameer Vohra
SIU School of Medicine

For Dr. Sameer Vohra and his colleagues, a focus on improving the lives of people in southern and central Illinois has long been at the heart of their work. But now, in the age of COVID-19, the urgency of their mission is more obvious than ever.

Vohra leads SIU School of Medicine's Department of Population Science and Policy as its founding chair, and the coronavirus pandemic has magnified many of the challenges that the region’s small cities and rural communities already faced.

As Vohra and crew continue their research, interventions and policy recommendations aimed at addressing existing health disparities and building stronger communities throughout the state, the impacts of the current crisis loom large.

“The issues before and after COVID-19 are very similar,” the practicing pediatrician told St. Louis on the Air, “but the way we view them has to be through the lens of what [the pandemic] has done.”

And even though many of the communities in the 66 Illinois counties Vohra’s department serves have not seen nearly the same number of COVID-19 cases as more metropolitan areas have, the broader impacts of the crisis could be devastating.

On Tuesday’s show, Vohra joined host Sarah Fenske to share his insights on these challenges — and what can be done to address them.

“We think about health in rural areas ... similar[ly] to how we think about health in certain areas in the cities, too,” Vohra said, “[in that] there are disparities, disparities in the way that people live that results in a sicker rural and kind of underserved areas. And that leads to higher rates of smoking, obesity, child poverty, teen pregnancies, compared to those urban counties.”

He added that the challenges in getting health care and related disparities “have only gotten worse because of the pandemic and then the resulting economic challenges that have gone with it.”

The conversation also included comments from Audrey Gough, the health director for Shelby County, in northeastern Missouri, about what she’s observed on the other side of the Mississippi River.

Listen to the discussion:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.