Celebrities are fleeing urban coronavirus hotspots for Wyoming, Montana and other Western rural regions, a move experts are criticizing as dangerous to those who live in those areas year-round, fearing their relocation may cause added stress to an already severely limited healthcare infrastructure.
"These moves have been a huge concern for us," Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), told NBC News. "It's such a bad idea for upper income urban people to hunker down in these areas and potentially place added pressure on a health care system that was designed for primary care and general surgery, not for pandemic surge response."
Morgan said that as of Friday afternoon, there are more than 16,000 cases of coronavirus scattered across rural counties nationally. Hospitals in these areas have one to two ventilators on site on average, he said, and more than half of rural counties in the United States have no intensive care beds at all, according to a recent Kaiser Health News Data analysis.
Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel were the most recent celebrities to come under fire for the phenomenon some have branded "disaster gentrification" after Timberlake recently revealed that the couple has settled into their home in the Yellowstone Club, a 15,200-acre private community west of Gallatin County, to wait out the coronavirus outbreak. Kelly Clarkson has also decamped to her Montana ranch during the pandemic. Neither Timberlake nor Biel responded to NBC News' request for comment. Clarkson was not immediately available for comment.
"To be honest, we thought the best way to kind of do our part was ... We have a place in Montana and so, we came up here," Timberlake said in an interview with SiriusXM Hits1 on Wednesday.
Travel from urban centers is believed to be spreading coronavirus to rural areas
Gallatin County is among the top 10 rural counties with highest reported COVID-19 cases, according to data obtained by NBC News from NRHA, which is independently tracking national numbers. In comparison to the surge of cases, there are currently eight ICU beds available in the country — one for every 2,141 residents aged 60+, according to Kaiser Health News.
"In Utah, in Colorado, all around the country, we're hearing the same stories," Morgan said. "People are moving in to these understaffed, underfunded areas that are tinder boxes for the outbreak. Many of the populations in these communities are exactly those who are least equipped to get the virus, older, sicker people with preexisting conditions who can't afford to be exposed to it."
Jessica Carson, a research assistant public policy professor at the University of New Hampshire, recently conducted a rapid response project that appears to corroborate Morgan and the NRHA's assessment that continued travel from those who do not live in rural communities is causing the spread of COVID-19.
After analyzing data from the New York Times, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service and the U.S. Census Bureau, Carson determined that in the nation's nearly 200 rural counties where seasonal housing accounts for 25 percent or more of available houses, coronavirus cases were more than twice as high as in other rural counties and 15 percent higher than in urban areas as of April 5.
Carson said that one reason for higher counts could be "that folks are coming in to hunker down in short-term rentals, seasonal rentals or family properties." However, she added higher numbers in these areas may also have to do with the fact that the areas are home to retirement communities, who may be getting tested at a higher rate because they are more susceptible to illness and likely have health insurance.
"We will likely never know the exact data when it comes to COVID-19 cases. It's a moving target and is always going to be higher than we've recorded," Carson said. "But even though the data's not perfect, it's enough to cautiously inform the next practices and policies communities can put in place to slow the outbreak."
'The more troubling aspect is how out of touch and self-pitying these celebrities are'
Some officials have already taken steps to curtail travel to rural destination areas. Gov. Jared Polis, D-Co., ordered ski resorts to close and Dare County officials barred non-residents from entering North Carolina's Outer Banks last month.
Yet while Montana and certain counties of Wyoming and Utah are under stay at home orders, meaning that residents should remain home unless their job is considered essential or they need to complete a necessary task like going to the grocery store, that does not necessarily prevent residents of other states from hunkering down there.
"While I do find it to be a big problem that smaller communities are being inundated with wealthy outsiders, especially from celebrities who have a following and could unintentionally cause people to travel, I don't know if they are going to tip the balance off for resources when these communities are already strapped," Montana Miller, an associate professor of pop culture at Bowling Green State University, said. "I think the more troubling aspect is how out of touch and self-pitying these celebrities are and their complete lack of perspective."
She cited Ellen DeGeneres' joke comparing social distancing in her home to prison and a video of celebrities led by Gal Godot singing John Lennon's "Imagine" — both of which were publicly ridiculed — as examples.
"They're singing 'imagine no possessions' surrounded by possessions, meanwhile there are healthcare workers who can't get PPE [personal protective equipment]," Miller said.
At least one celebrity has donated money to buy ventilators for Montana
Celebrities have been buying homes in rural areas of the country in recent years. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian-West own at least two properties in Wyoming, though it is unclear where they are staying during the outbreak. And Kelly Clarkson purchased a ranch in Montana with her husband, Brandon Blackstock, around two years ago. While they live in Los Angeles full-time, the couple is currently residing at the ranch along with their children. Clarkson will soon produce episodes of NBC's "The Kelly Clarkson Show" there.
One positive aspect of their moves may be that they shine a light on rural areas that are often "left out" of the national dialogue, Morgan said. The musician John Mayer, who grew up in Connecticut, forged strong ties to Montana when he bought a home in the state in 2012. Mayer recently made a "generous" donation for an unspecified amount to the Livingston HealthCare hospital to purchase ventilators, according to the Livingston Enterprise.
In conjunction with other local organizations, the Yellowstone Club, where Timberlake and Biel are residing, has made a $1 million donation to Bozeman Health. As per the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Bozeman Health, which runs the Big Sky Medical Center and Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, will use the money to build four hospital rooms, doubling Big Sky Medical Center's in-patient capacity from four to eight beds, and purchase 11 additional ventilators, which will allocated between the hospitals.
"We need the help. We're concerned about the shortage of healthcare professionals in rural areas," Morgan said. "In the long-term, we want more people to move to rural areas, but it's a bad idea to come hunker down here at this time."