BusinessWilliam J. Ford

Broadband Access, Infrastructure Improvements Seen as Key to Post COVID-19 Recovery

Nina Griswell said one of the biggest challenges in her native Tyrrell County, N.C. remains broadband access.

Griswell, vice chair of Tyrelli county’s board of commissioners representing 4,000 residents, said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the gap that exists in technology.

Although the county received a $500,000 grant toward broadband, she said officials try to close the gap through partnership with a private company to help boost its technology, such as cell phone reception.

“In a rural area where I live, it’s so hard to get internet [access],” she said Friday, July 9. “A lot of the kids are either going to their public libraries, or going to a lot of the churches the schools collaborated with…and children sat outside the churches to get internet. Broadband access is a number one need for our kids.”

Griswell joined about 2,000 county leaders and officials July 9-12 at the National Association of Counties (NACo) annual conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, established in 1935 to advance and promote the nation’s nearly 3,100 counties, listed broadband access as a key need for counties.

NACo leaders stressed lack of internet access also negatively affects urban areas such as Fulton County, Ga., which encompasses the city of Atlanta.

Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said about 27 percent of the county’s 1.1 million population is without high-speed internet access.

“Even in the highly populated areas there are gaps,” Hausmann said during a media briefing Saturday, July 10.

Other important NACo items include additional federal money to provide COVID-19 relief for housing, public health and other services, strengthen election integrity and safety and promote workforce opportunities such as teleworking.

Through the American Rescue Plan instituted by President Joe Biden, it allocated $65.1 billion for counties.

Gary Moore, NACo president and county judge/executive in Boone County, Ky., said each county must allocate its funding by the end of 2024 and spend it by 2026.

Moore said the goal must be to “wisely invest this money.”

“Let’s not go out and rush to spend the money. I’d like to be able to look 10 years from now and really say, ‘We wisely invested and it made a difference,’” he said. “To counties, my advice is to be patience and be wise.”

In terms of COVID-19 vaccinations, NACo officials said that according to their data, they estimate that about 52 percent of county residents nationwide have been vaccinated.

Prince George’s County announced that, by Friday, the majority Black jurisdiction achieved a 70 percent vaccination rate for those 18 and older.

The county said success is linked to a program where canvassers knocked on 284,000 doors that included Southview Apartments in Oxon Hill, one of the biggest apartment complexes in the county.

Only 35 percent of residents in the mostly Black jurisdiction of DeKalb County, Ga., are vaccinated, said county commissioner Larry Johnson, who also serves as NACo’s first vice president.

Johnson attributes the low figure to fewer pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreen, compared to affluent, high-income areas.

Similar to efforts in Prince George’s, community efforts are now underway in DeKalb County such as mobile vaccination units traveling in neighborhoods and homes.

“When we first started with the pandemic to get a test, you [needed] a primary care physician to sign off. We found out in our community that 35 percent of the people aren’t insured and these were essential workers. The disparities were there,” Johnson said. “We are just trying to move forward now.”

One positive aspect from COVID-19, NACo leaders say, comes from the government becoming more accessible for residents through Zoom and other online forms of communication.

In addition, workers are able to telework and handle various responsibilities on laptops and other computer devices at home or remotely.

To ensure a post-COVID-19 recovery, county leaders must work with municipal and state officials and maintain trust with their constituents, said Greg Puckett, a county commissioner in Mercer County, W.Va. and chair of NACo’s rural action caucus.

“Let’s create an environment where we have trust and open discussion where everybody’s on the same page and totally transparent,” he said.

To read about NACo and its policy priorities, go to www.naco.org/ resources/doc/233931.

William J. Ford – Washington Informer Staff Writer

I decided I wanted to become a better writer while attending Bowie State University and figured that writing for the school newspaper would help. I’m not sure how much it helped, but I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep on doing it, which I still thoroughly enjoy 20 years later. If I weren’t a journalist, I would coach youth basketball. Actually, I still play basketball, or at least try to play, once a week. My kryptonite is peanut butter. What makes me happy – seeing my son and two godchildren grow up. On the other hand, a bad call made by an official during a football or basketball game makes me throw up my hands and scream. Favorite foods include pancakes and scrambled eggs which I could eat 24-7. The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, or more accurately the most painful, was when I was hit by a car on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. If I had the power or money to change the world, I’d make sure everyone had three meals a day. And while I don’t have a motto or favorite quote, I continue to laugh which keeps me from driving myself crazy. You can reach me several ways: Twitter @jabariwill, Instagram will_iam.ford2281 or e-mail, wford@washingtoninformer.com

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