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Jerome Antone said he is one of the lucky ones.

After becoming ill with COVID-19, Antone was hospitalized only 65 miles away from his small Alabama town. He is the mayor of Georgiana — population 1,700.

“It hit our rural community so rabid,” Antone said. The town’s hospital closed last year. If hospitals in nearby communities don’t have beds available, “you may have to go four or five hours away.”

As COVID-19 continues to spread, an increasing number of rural communities find themselves without their hospital or on the brink of losing already cash-strapped facilities.

Eighteen rural hospitals closed last year and the first three months of 2020 were “really big months,” said Mark Holmes, director of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Many of the losses are in Southern states like Florida and Texas. More than 170 rural hospitals have closed nationwide since 2005, according to data collected by the Sheps Center.

It’s a dangerous scenario. “We know that a closure

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