Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hemp industry, once booming, now on a downward trend as federal government drags feet on regulations

The hemp boom could go bust, despite the early efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to champion it, Mona Zhang and Paul Demko report for Politico.

After the 2018 Farm Bill legalized widespread hemp cultivation, largely thanks to the Kentucky senator, farmers and manufacturers rushed to get in on the ground floor of the industry, leading to oversupply and low wholesale prices. But patchwork local, state and federal laws have left producers, processors and consumers confused about the legality of hemp and left the door open to snake-oil peddlers who tout hemp-derived CBD as a cure-all without evidence. "All of those factors are hurting the very farmers hemp legalization was supposed to help," Zhang and Demko report.

Meanwhile, a slew of cannabis companies have declared bankruptcy over the past year, including two in McConnell's home state. "Many CBD producers, especially in Kentucky, seemed to be counting on McConnell's influence and FDA regulation," Zhang and Demko report. But McConnell "seems to be missing from the debate in recent months as they clamor for regulatory clarity that could help stave off the economic downturn for the industry."

House Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., introduced a bill in January that would make the FDA regulate CBD products as if they were dietary supplements, "but the chances for such legislation are close to zero in the middle of the public-health crisis," Zhang and Demko report. "Hemp advocates are focused on inserting similar language in a coronavirus package, arguing that it could help boost an industry without additional costs to the federal government." Hemp is not eligible for the $16 billion direct-payment fund for farmers hurt by the pandemic.

Farmers and processors told Politico that it would be unfortunate if quibbles over CBD regulation tanked the hemp industry, since not all hemp is grown for CBD, and the plant has many other uses.

Pandemic could weaken disaster response, since most volunteers are seniors; rural residents tend to be older

Government agencies at all levels rely on volunteers to help survivors of natural disasters. "However, the covid-19 pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in this system: Most volunteers are older people at higher risk from the virus, so this year they can’t participate in person," Christopher Flavelle reports for The New York Times.

Rural areas often have a harder time recovering from natural disasters, and have a disproportionate population of seniors, making such areas likely to be hurt by a lack of volunteers.

Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, told Flavelle that more than five million volunteers usually pitch in with disaster relief each year, but said he expects this year's turnout to be half that, which won't be enough.

Complicating the possible lack of volunteers, the highly trained staff of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is already spread thin from responding to the pandemic, Flavelle reports.

"It is the latest in a cascading series of problems facing an already fraying system ahead of what is expected to be an unusually severe hurricane season combined with disasters like this week’s dam collapse and flooding in Michigan, a state particularly hard hit by covid-19," Flavelle reports. "FEMA says it has taken steps to prepare for hurricane season, including expanding its coordination center in Washington, hiring staff and working with state and local officials and nonprofits to adapt to the pandemic."

Because of the pandemic, FEMA said last week it intends to rely on "virtual" disaster aid as much as possible, Flavelle reports. The frequent lack of broadband in rural areas could complicate such efforts.

Democrats criticize USDA for giving food-box delivery program contracts to inexperienced distributors

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is facing increasing criticism from Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee for awarding contracts for its food-box delivery program to poorly vetted distributors, the Food & Environment Reporting Network reports. The recent coronavirus relief bill allocated $3 billion for the government to buy products from farmers and distribute them to food banks and similar non-profits. USDA recently announced it will accomplish that through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, and has awarded $1.2 billion in contracts thus far.

Some distributors who got large contracts appeared to have little experience with large-scale food distribution, including a Texas wedding and event planner who was awarded a $39 million contract after making dubious claims about credentials, FERN reports. USDA also awarded a $40 million contract, now canceled, to a small California produce company that sells avocados online.

Three leaders of House Agriculture subcommittees (Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Jim Costa of California, and Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands) asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to explain his decisions, and why contracts were awarded to distributors without the proper experience: "At a time when the farm economy continues to suffer and families across the country face increasing food insecurity, it is our shared goal that this program fulfill its stated mission to support the domestic agriculture industry and provide critical assistance to families in need."

Wednesday webinar to discuss state and local government efforts to make records more accessible after crises

Route Fifty will host a free webinar from 2 to 3 p.m. ET Wednesday, May 27, to discuss state and local government efforts to make records more accessible to reporters after crises.

Many government offices are trying to digitize government records and incorporate tools to make them easier to edit and share with reporters, auditors and more. But that takes time, know-how and money, and government offices must prioritize and budget to make it happen.

Route Fifty Senior Editor Alisha Powell Gillis will lead a panel of experts to discuss the issue. Click here for more information, including a list of speakers, or to register.

Inmates sue to be released from jail amid pandemic

As prisons and jails become covid-19 hotbeds, incarcerated people "with medical vulnerabilities and short times left on their sentence are suing for release—and if that fails, they want masks, gloves, and the space to socially distance," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. "In courtrooms across the country, lawyers are pushing to release more people from jail in order to allow them to quarantine at home and free up space for those inside to socially distance. The issue is particularly urgent for people with chronic medical conditions—about 40 percent of those held in state prisons and local jails."

Thousands of people were released from jails in the early days of the pandemic, especially those awaiting trial for minor offenses or serving time for non-violent crimes. "But so far, judges have been largely resistant to allowing categorical releases of those not eligible for those earlier reprieves who are medically vulnerable, have short times left on their sentences, or are in jail awaiting trial," Coleman reports. "Instead, some judges are ordering that jails follow CDC recommendations, such as providing soap and sanitizer and making space for people to socially distance.

Most jails have said they're doing they best they can, but family members of the incarcerated, jail reform advocates, and some jail employees say it's not enough to prevent the spread of covid-19. "People in jail say there is little air ventilation and cramped sleeping quarters. They’ve repurposed garbage bags as gloves and socks as masks. In written testimony filed with lawsuits, several described watching people die in the bunks next to them," Coleman reports.

But some communities and victims rights organizations have argued that offenders shouldn't receive clemency because of the pandemic, and some governors, like Greg Abbott in Texas, have barred the release of some detainees, saying it would threaten public safety, Coleman reports.

"Health experts counter that not releasing people is the bigger risk to public safety. Jails and prisons with high infection rates become vectors for the surrounding communities—in one prison 80% of the population inside tested positive," Coleman reports.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Rural census response is running behind, especially online; interactive maps show how your county is doing

Housing Assistance Council maps, labeled, with legend below; for interactive versions, click here.
Rural residents are filling out their census forms more slowly than other Americans, reports the Housing Assistance Council, which helps build homes in the rural U.S.

As of May 17, almost 60 percent of U.S. households had responded to the census. HAC used Census Bureau data and a tract-level analysis to estimate response rates for rural, suburban, and urban census tracts. Suburban areas had the response rate, 66%, rural and small-town tracts were at 53%.

Almost half of census responses have been made online, and in that category, rural residents lag even more. Among internet responses, the rural rate was only 35 percent, far below the suburban rate of 56% and the urban rate of 48%. County rates for overall and online replies are on an interactive map.

"This year’s census response was always a concern for rural communities given long-established internet deficiencies, household dynamics and poor connectivity in many rural markets," HAC notes. "Lower response rates in rural America are likely due to a combination of factors, but many rural households have not received their census invitations and have had no opportunity to participate."

About 5% percent of households, most of them rural, were scheduled to have their census forms hand-delivered between March 15 and April 17, HAC reports: "However, the Census Bureau suspended all field operations due to the covid-19 pandemic. According to the Census Bureau’s latest guidance, field operations will now take place June 13-July 9, and the census has resumed field operations in some limited markets."

NYT page with covid-19 obits relied on local newspapers

Screenshot of page, near halfway through, with largest text box; for a larger version, click on it.
The New York Times all-text front page with names and short descriptions of covid-19 victims was a remarkable piece of journalism, but the online version is even more so. It's one long page of nearly 100,000 silhouettes, with text boxes appearing at different scrolling points.

The names and descriptions came from more than 250 local newspapers, which are each given credit at the bottom of the page. A Times editor cited the obituaries as an example of why "local journalism matters, now more than ever."

Why wear a mask when you go out in public? Because you may have the virus and not know it, and it's very contagious

President Trump wore a mask on a private tour of a Ford plant Thursday but refuses to do so in public.
Wearing a mask when out in public is even more important as state economies reopen, medical professionals advise. Many Americans are skeptical.

"Some people have objected to masks, and the challenging part about that is you can object to a mask on your own personal health, but it is not your own personal health that it is going to impact," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said May 19. "It is other people's health, so it is more about your willingness to protect other people if you are wearing or not wearing one."

"The governor regularly points out that masks are recommended by the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Melissa Patrick reports for Kentucky Health News. "At one point he said they shouldn't be a partisan issue."

Kaiser Family Foundation Poll released May 22 found that Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to say they wear a mask every time they leave their house: 70% and 37%, respectively. Majorities of each party said they wear a mask "most of the time."

Kaiser Family Foundation chart; click on it to enlarge. More data and poll questions are here
The poll also found that while 72% of Americans think President Trump should wear a mask when meeting with others, only about half of Republicans, 48%, agree. The partisan difference in largely driven by Republican men.

Trump says he doesn't need to wear a mask because he is tested daily for the virus, but critics say he is missing an opportunity to set an example that would save lives. Thursday, he refused to wear a mask in front of news cameras while touring a Ford plant in Michigan, saying "I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it." He wore a mask when news cameras weren't around, but someone on the tour took a picture of him and it was widely circulated.

So, why should you wear a mask? "The simple answer is because the virus is primarily spread by tiny droplets from infected people, not just coughing and sneezing, but from talking and breathing," Patrick writes. "A mask can stop the spread of those droplets, especially from people who have the virus but don't know that they do." Kentucky Health Commissioner Stevn Stack says about one in four people with the virus have no symptoms.

Patrick writes that the value of wearing a mask is illustrated by a new study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows how normal speaking can launch thousands of droplets that can remain suspended in the air for eight to 14 minutes, allowing them to be inhaled by others. "There is a substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments," the study report says.

The researchers said in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine that the same experiment, using scattered laser light, found that use of a cloth face mask blocked nearly all droplets emitted when talking. They posted a video, the last part if it in slow motion, to show their finding.


Science supporting mask wearing is so strong that more than 100 prominent health experts have asked governors to require them. They write that the research "strongly suggests that requiring fabric mask use in public places could be amongst the most powerful tools to stop the community spread of covid-19."

So why did the CDC recommend not wearing a mask two months ago? "The Mayo Clinic says face masks were not recommended at the start of the pandemic because experts didn't know the extent to which people with covid-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appear, nor was it known that some people have covid-19 but don't have symptoms," Patrick reports. "The CDC now recommends the use of reusable cloth masks so that surgical masks and N95 respirator masks, which continue to be in short supply, can be saved for health-care workers."

The CDC guidance says cloth masks should: fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face; be secured with ties or ear loops; include multiple layers of fabric; allow breathing without restriction; and be able to be laundered and machine-dried without damage or change to shape. It also cautions that they should not be placed on children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or anyone who would have trouble removing the mask without help. The Mayo Clinic recommends that cloth face coverings be washed after every day of use.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Covid-19 outbreaks in rural areas with meat plants, prisons and political doubt create a checkerboard that will be filled in

There has been "a fundamental shift" in the spread of the coronavirus, The Washington Post reports after "an analysis of case data and interviews with public health professionals in several states. The pandemic that first struck in major metropolises is now increasingly finding its front line in the country’s rural areas; counties with acres of farmland, cramped meatpacking plants, out-of-the-way prisons and few hospital beds."

Post reporters Reis Thiebault and Abigail Hauslohner note that rural areas "are poorer, older and more prone to health problems such as diabetes and obesity than those of urban areas. They include immigrants and the undocumented — the 'essential' workers who have kept the country’s sprawling food industry running, but who rarely have the luxury of taking time off for illness."

Tara Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University, told the Post that the rural spread will be sort of a checkerboard. “It’s not going to be a wave that spreads out uniformly over all of rural America; it’s going to be hot spots that come and go,” she said. “And I don’t know how well they’re going to be managed.” That's because "In many of those places, where the health-care system is already stretched thin, even a minor surge in patients is enough to overwhelm," the reporters note.

The first hot spots have been in meat-processing plants. "Of the 25 rural counties with the highest per capita case rates, 20 have a meatpacking plant or prison where the virus took hold and spread with abandon, then leaped into the community when workers took it home," the Post reports. "Infection has raced through immigrant worker communities, where poverty or immigration status prevent some of the sick from seeking care and language barriers hinder access to information."

Politics and the media -- news and social -- play a role, too: "It has taken hold in counties where residents flout social distancing guidelines or believe the pandemic to be exaggerated, the virus’s lethality a myth spread by President Trump’s political foes and a liberal media," the reporters write.

They quote Rebecca Burns, a health officer Hillsdale County, Michigan, which last month had the highest death toll in the state's rural counties, after a nursing-home outbreak, and armed protesters "protecting" a barber shop opening in defiance of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency orders: “We’ve got a little bit of everything: folks who feel their rights have been taken away because they’ve been asked to stay home and they lost jobs and they’re really hurting, and we have folks who are very concerned and frightened and won’t leave their house.”

Jeffrey Lim, an internist in Texas County, Oklahoma, told the Post that he fears an outbreak there is being worsened by people not taking precautions: “If you go to the local Walmart, I would say 10 percent of people are wearing masks, and the restaurants … that are open are packed. I’m a registered Republican, by the way,” he added. “But [people] don’t seem to know the science behind it. Even though they see the news, they just think it’s all overblown.”

Friday, May 22, 2020

As food goes to waste in pandemic, agricultural economists offer USDA unorthodox solution: buy it, pack it, distribute it

The pandemic hit during a vulnerable time for farmers and ranchers, creating a "perfect storm" that has made it difficult for them to get their products to people who need them.

"While there are organizations from Second Harvest to local independent food pantries working to address the issue of hunger in the U.S., they currently do not have access to the resources needed to handle the massive amount of food that is being destroyed," Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray of the University of Tennessee write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column.

The Department of Agriculture has set aside $3 billion to buy agricultural products to distribute to food banks and other community organizations that feed people. But though that aid was promised in mid-April, USDA didn't begin making the purchases until this week. That meant tens of millions of pounds of produce went to waste during harvest.

Schaffer and Ray have a solution that they say will likely be expensive, but ultimately more effective.

"Rather than compensating farmers for their losses, we are suggesting that Congress should empower the USDA to use that money—and more if needed—to purchase the crop and have it packed in household-sized packages. We have not read of vegetable-packing facilities being shut down for the coronavirus, but as they are used, we should make sure that they are operated in ways that provide a safe working environment for those involved," Schaffer and Ray write. "Once the vegetables are ready for fresh or frozen distribution, rather than reinventing the wheel, we should use the commercial food-distribution systems that normally would be carrying those vegetables. They would then transport the vegetables and any affected fruits to their local facilities, with the federal government covering the costs. At that point the commercial food-distribution services can then make these food products available, free of cost, to various food pantries in their normal distribution area."

Dairy products should be treated much the same way as produce, write Schaffer and Ray. Meat is more complicated. Read more here.

USDA says it will guarantee $1 billion in loans for rural businesses and farmers hurt by pandemic

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "said Thursday it would provide up to $1 billion in loan guarantees to help rural businesses and farmers meet their working capital needs during the pandemic . . . with money from the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. "The new program is patterned on USDA’s existing Business and Industry program but with a higher loan guarantee level and lower requirements for collateral. Loan guarantees assure lenders that the government will pay off a loan if the borrower cannot." No maximum loan size was specified.

"The changes also allow the USDA to provide 90 percent guarantees on B&I CARES Act Program loans, set the application guarantee at 2% of the loan, accept appraisals completed within two years of the loan application date, not require discounting of collateral for working capital loans and extend the maximum term for working capital loans to 10 years," Daniel Uria reports for UPI. "The loans can only be used by rural businesses, including farmers, that were operating as of Feb. 15."

"Separately, the Farm Service Agency said it would broaden the use of its disaster set-aside loan provision so that it applies to the coronavirus," Abbott reports. "The provision allows the USDA to delay the payment date on a loan held by a farmer."

Shale-oil bust hits rural economies as royalty checks wither

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, which makes oil and gas in deep, dense shale easier to reach, turned the U.S. into the world's top energy producer before the crash. But the oil bust "has erased tens of thousands of jobs in the drilling and service sectors, dried up local tax revenues and charitable largess that flowed along with crude oil to Texas, North Dakota and Oklahoma," Jennifer Hiller reports for Reuters. It has also meant less income for about 12 million rural Americans who receive royalty checks for allowing frackers to drill on their land.

For example, Paul Ruckman, a retiree in DeWitt County, Texas, used to receive enough royalty money to build a six-bedroom vacation home with plenty left over, but told Hiller his checks have dropped 70 percent since January and said he imagines it'll get worse.

"Royalties, which can range from 12.5% to 25% of the value of oil and gas pumped, helped revitalize DeWitt and other communities in oil patches across the United States," Hiller reports. "The average oil-land owner collects about $500 a month, according to the National Association of Royalty Owners, but that will not last."

Quick hits: Virus kills Southwest rabbits; potato growers feel left behind by USDA; Biden targets rural Wisconsin . . .

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

A highly contagious virus is killing rabbits in the Southwest. Read more here.

Potato growers say USDA efforts to distribute the crop as part of their economic stimulus programs aren't enough to make up for losses they're suffering, since the sector relies disproportionately on food-service customers. Read more here.

A National Rural Health Association executive participated in a Q-and-A about the pandemic's impact on rural America. Read more here.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is staging a virtual campaign in rural areas of battleground state Wisconsin. Read more here.

Kansas relaxes meatpacking guidelines to allow workers possibly exposed to the coronavirus to stay on the job. Read more here.

Experts warn of pandemic second wave soon across South

Many areas of the South "that have been rapidly reopening their economies are in danger of a second wave of coronavirus infections over the next four weeks, according to a research team that uses cellphone data to track social mobility and forecast the trajectory of the pandemic," The Washington Post reports.

"The model, developed by ­PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and updated Wednesday with new data, suggests that most communities in the United States should be able to avoid a second spike in the near term if residents are careful to maintain social distancing even as businesses open up and restrictions are eased."

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Post this week that he has no doubt there will be a second wave of cases this fall, and that the nation should take this time to prepare for it.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Failure of 95-year-old dam in rural Michigan draws fresh attention to the nation's crumbling dam infrastructure

Water breaches the Edenville Dam in Michigan on Wednesday, May 20. (CNN photo by Sarah Tilotta)
Thousands of Michigan residents were forced to flee their homes yesterday evening after heavy rains caused the Edenville Dam to fail. The hydroelectric dam unleashed so much water down the Tittabawassee River that the 2,600-acre Wixom Lake essentially drained itself and breached the nearby Sanford Dam as well, Paul Murphy reports for CNN. Most of Midland, a city of 41,000 downstream, was told to evacuate.

The incident highlights the poor condition of many of the nation's dams, and the difficulty of regulating privately owned dams. According to the National Inventory of Dams, the Edenville and Sanford dams are both privately owned by Boyce Hydro Power LLC ; both were built in 1925, and both were last inspected on June 26, 2018, and rated as a high hazard to the public if they fail.

About 64 percent of the nation's 91,000 dams are privately owned, which can make them trickier to regulate. It's difficult for "regulators to require improvements from operators who are unable or unwilling to pay the steep costs," David Lieb, Michael Casey, and Michelle Minkoff report for The Associated Press.

Another problem is that the nation's dams are aging: 69% were built before 1970, and 17.1% are high-hazard. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it would take more than $70 billion to modernize the nation's dams, the AP reports.
Federal Emergency Management Agency map, based on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data

Survey shows impact of the coronavirus pandemic on rural schools' meal and food-assistance programs

A recent survey by the School Nutrition Association shows how the pandemic has affected school nutrition programs in different geographic areas and population sizes. SNA is a nonprofit that includes school-district employees involved in school meals, state lawmakers who oversee child nutrition programs, and suppliers of food, equipment and software for school cafeterias.

School nutrition directors from rural areas made up 569 of the 1,890 directors surveyed from April 30 to May 8. The numbers among geographic types were similar, but rural areas were outliers in a few areas. Among the rural directors surveyed, 3.7% said that their school district had once provided meals or food assistance, but had stopped. This was the highest rate among all the geographic types.

Asked how meals and food assistance were being provided, rural areas had the lowest percentage of meal recipients who walked up to feeding sites or participated in drive-through feeding services. They also had the lowest rates of districts that partnered with food banks or other organizations to provide meals or food assistance. Rural areas had the highest rates of meals delivered to students' homes or delivered along bus routes.

Though rural areas have higher poverty rates than suburbs, rural directors were only slightly more likely to have access to school meals or food assistance for at least five days a week.

Rural directors were most likely to report that their district was serving more meals than usual during the pandemic, and least likely to report that it plans to operate a summer meals program if federal waivers for school meals during the pandemic expire on June 30 (which won't happen, since the waivers have been extended). Rural schools were also the least likely to have a reserve fund.

May 27 webinar aims to help journalists cover complex emergencies and climate change during the pandemic

How can reporters best cover complex emergencies such as natural disasters or civil unrest during the pandemic, and how can they best assess and report governments' ability to respond effectively to such challenges? The Society of Environmental Journalists will host a webinar from 2 to 3 p.m. ET Wednesday, May 27 to discuss the issue. The webinar is free, but registration is required.

Judy Fahys, Mountain West reporter for InsideClimate News, will moderate. Featured speakers will be:
  • Geoff Dabelko, professor and associate dean of the George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University
  • Juliette Kayyem, faculty chair of the Homeland Security Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government; former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security
  • Mark Schleifstein, environment reporter at The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Click here for more information or to register.

Expanding Paycheck Protection Program to chain-owned newspapers gets bipartisan support in both chambers

The idea of letting chain-owned newspapers apply for Small Business Administration loans under the Paycheck Protection Program now has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, reports the News Media Alliance, a lobbying group. The measure was included in the latest coronavirus relief package that House Democrats sponsored and passed last week.

In the Senate, the Local News and Emergency Information Act of 2020 was introduced by Republicans John Boozman of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa and Democrats Maria Cantwell of Washington, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

An identical House version was filed by Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman and ranking member of the House Antitrust Subcommittee. The bills would let chain-owned papers apply as individual, independent entities, falling under the 500-employees for the forgivable loans, which are, in effect, grants.

More than two-thirds of U.S. newspapers are chain-owned; among community newspapers, the latest available figure is 62 percent. "The Wall Street Journal calculated recently that titles accounting for around 80% of national newspaper circulation were ineligible under the program’s terms, because they’re 'affiliated' with bigger companies," Columbia Journalism Review's Jon Allsop reports.

570 at Tyson plant in N.C., 1/4 of its total, have the virus

Wilkesboro, N.C. (Wikipedia map)
"Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest food companies, has revealed the scale of the novel coronavirus outbreak at its poultry plant in Wilkesboro," Charlotte's WSOC-TV reports. "Facility-wide testing found that 570 people out of the plant’s 2,244-strong workforce were positive for covid-19, the majority of whom 'did not show any symptoms and otherwise would not have been identified,' the company said in a statement Wednesday."

Most of the workers were tested May 6-9; those who tested positive are receiving paid leave and will return to work only after they've recovered, according to a Tyson statement. The plant was shut down for several days for sanitizing, but production is beginning to ramp back up. Tyson is carrying out increased testing, safety measures, and on-site health care options at more than 30 of its plants, including the one in Wilkesboro, WSOC-TV reports.

Meatpacking plants have become major rural pandemic hotspots partly because of working conditions that workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, have little power to challenge.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Outbreak near Navajo Nation overwhelms rural hospital

Gallup, in McKinley County, N.M.
(Wikipedia map)
The hospital in a rural New Mexico town sometimes called the "Indian Capital of the World" has been overwhelmed by covid-19 cases, Morgan Lee reports for The Associated Press.

Gallup, a prosperous town of about 21,000, relies heavily on shopping and recreation from the five Native American reservations around it. The town made national headlines earlier this month after Mayor Louie Bonaguidi asked the governor to shut down access to the town in an effort to contain the virus, which has hit reservations hard.

But the shutdown apparently came too late: the evening before the statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses, restaurants and bars in Gallup were packed with people seeking one last night out on the town. About 100 people were sent to sober up at a detox center that doubles as a homeless shelter that night, and the virus spread among them, Lee reports.

"The outbreak seeded at the Na’Nizhoozhi Center would combine with the small, local hospital’s ill-fated staffing decisions and its well-intentioned but potentially overambitious treatment plans to create a perfect storm that has overwhelmed doctors and nurses and paralyzed this community in the state’s hard-hit northwest," Lee reports.

USDA releases details for pandemic-related aid to farmers

On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture released long-awaited details about its $16 billion direct payment program for farmers and ranchers struggling economically amid the pandemic. Farmers and ranchers can start applying for aid Tuesday, May 26; USDA says checks will begin going out as soon as a week later.

"USDA maintained the payment limit of $250,000 per farmer, but the initial $125,000-per-commodity cap was lifted following bipartisan backlash from Congress. Corporations and other entities can get up to $750,000 based on the number of shareholders who spend at least 400 hours on farm labor or management," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Because of high demand for aid and a limited pot of money (which Secretary Sonny Perdue, lawmakers and industry groups virtually all agree is too little), the department will send producers 80 percent of their payment and distribute the rest later if the funds haven’t been depleted."

Some crops and livestock aren't eligible for aid because their prices didn't drop by at least 5% since January, including some kinds of wheat, rice and peanuts, older sheep and egg-laying hens, and more. "But the department left the door open to 'reconsider' if those producers can demonstrate their market damage, except for two crops: hemp and tobacco," McCrimmon reports.

Ky. soldier’s heroism, and 20-year campaign to recognize it with Medal of Honor, are subjects of documentary to air on Kentucky TV at 8 p.m. ET Monday, May 25 – Memorial Day

Lt. Garlin Murl Conner, 1945
As Americans honor patriotic sacrifice on Memorial Day, Kentucky Educational Television and perhaps other state networks will premiere the story of a Kentucky soldier who repeatedly put his life on the line for his country – but wasn’t fully honored for it until 73 years later.

"From Honor to Medal: The Story of Garlin M. Conner," airing on KET at 8/7 p.m. ET/CT Monday, May 25, tells the story of one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II – who received the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, only after a 20-year campaign by his widow and friends.

Their campaign ended June 26, 2018, at the White House, when President Trump presented the medal to Pauline Conner, who still lives on their small farm near Albany, just down the road from their son Paul. She said in a speech at the Pentagon the next day, "This is what Murl would want me to say: God bless these United States of America."

Murl Conner served more than two years in the Third Infantry Division, suffering many wounds and earning four Silver Stars. On Jan. 25, 1945, he volunteered to be a forward observer for artillery that was needed to stop a German attack – an attack that came so close he finally called in artillery on his own position, offering his life for his country.

Conner survived that day in a ditch in the French province of Alsace, and came home to a Kentucky farm with no electricity or running water. He had a family, gave them a good life, and was a leader of his fellow farmers and veterans. He suffered in body and mind from his Army service, but said very, very little about it.

Only after Conner died in 1998 was his story told – first by a rank stranger who became his greatest advocate and inspired others to join his campaign to get Conner the Medal of Honor. Led by a neighbor who wouldn’t take no for an answer, they struggled for 20 years to break through Army bureaucracy, losing at every turn – but remaining inspired by Murl Conner’s battlefield examples of determination and resolve.

In the end, in an amazing turn of events, they won. And now their story is being told, along with the story of Lt. Conner, who now may be the most decorated American soldier of World War II.
"He was a combination of Kit Carson and Davy Crockett," says Walton Haddix of Albany, who took up the campaign begun by Richard Chilton, a Green Beret veteran from Genoa City, Wisconsin. He met Conner and learned his story while researching the service of his uncle, who died at Anzio under Conner’s command.

"He cared about his men more than anybody I ever knew," Chilton says. "If you want to save your life, go out with Murl. Don’t go out with anybody else."

The documentary was produced by Lexington filmmaker Jeff Hoagland and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. Al Cross, the executive producer and Institute director, says: "I grew up in Albany and knew Murl Conner, but like almost everyone else in town, I had no idea of his war record, and when my brother David said I should do this documentary, I immediately agreed."

The one-hour documentary was sponsored by private donors and the Veterans Trust Fund of the Kentucky Department for Veterans Affairs, a state agency that assisted the Conner team's legal efforts at the direction of then-Commissioner Heather French Henry, whose cause was veterans when she was Miss America.

She says in the documentary, "Just to know that you are part of this great mission that has lasted so long, and that you could at some point in your future, tell your kids, tell your grandkids, that once upon a time you were part of this fight . . . "

Trailers for the documentary are online at honortomedal.us, along with information about Murl Conner and some of the major players in the effort to get him the Medal of Honor. Check local listings for possible broadcasts outside Kentucky.

April survey of rural bankers in farm-and-energy states shows lowest confidence level since survey began in 2006

Creighton University chart compares current month to month and year ago; click here to download it and chert below
April marked a record-breaking drop in economic confidence for the second month in a row among rural bank CEOs surveyed for Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in 10 states where agriculture and energy are critical to the economy: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The overall index, a measure of how bankers see their local economy doing for the next six months, was at 12.1 in mid-April, the lowest it's been since the survey began in 2006, Creighton economist Ernie Goss reports. Anything below 50 is growth-negative. The index was a lukewarm 51.6 in mid-February, buoyed by the freshly signed Phase I trade deal with China, but by mid-March it was at 35.5, a then-record drop of 16.1 points. The slide from March to April was even larger, 23.4 points. One banker said low commodity prices and the coronavirus pandemic were his major concerns.

More than nine in 10 rural bankers surveyed said they expect the pandemic to push their community into a recession. That's a significant jump from March, when six in 10 held that opinion. About 94 percent of bankers surveyed said they had seen a drop in client or customer visits over the past two weeks because of the pandemic, and nearly a third said fewer people were able to make loan payments on time during that same period, Goss reports.

When asked to assess the Paycheck Protection Plan, 45.5% said it was too confusing for borrowers to navigate, though some said they had had a positive experience with the program, Goss reports.
Creighton University chart

Rural domestic violence victims may have a harder time getting help during pandemic

Shelter-in-place orders slow the spread of the coronavirus, but such restrictions could prove dangerous for domestic violence victims, especially in isolated rural areas, Mary Tuma reports for the Texas Observer. That's because victims are being forced into increased contact with abusers while dealing with pandemic-related stresses such as job loss, lack of childcare, and more.

Nationwide, domestic violence seems to be increasing during the pandemic, but rural shelters say they're seeing a troubling decrease in clients. Glenna Harkness, program director at the Family Crisis Center of East Texas in Lufkin (pop. 35,510) told Tuma her shelter has seen a 60 percent drop in shelter clients since the state issued stay-at-home orders. "It’s troubling because we know there’s a need," Harkness said. "Unfortunately, it looks like victims are afraid and anxious to leave and get help. They’re hunkering down and just enduring a lot right now."

Gloria Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, said rural domestic violence victims may recognize that it's more difficult to access legal remedies such as emergency protective orders, and that they may not feel that police can protect them, especially since law enforcement officers are trying to arrest fewer people to keep jails from becoming overcrowded, Tuma reports.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Index shows counties most vulnerable to covid-19 due to underlying health issues; many of them are rural

Covid-19 health risk by county, compared to the national average. New York Times map; click on the image to enlarge it.
Many areas of the U.S. that haven't yet seen major pandemic outbreaks could still be hard-hit in the coming months because of higher chronic health issues like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other ailments. Many of those counties, are rural.

"Large parts of the South and Appalachia are especially vulnerable, according to a health-risk index created for The New York Times by PolicyMap, a company that analyzes local health data," Nadja Popovich, Anjali Singhvi, and Matthew Conlen report for the Times. "The index for the first time identifies counties with high rates of the underlying conditions that increase residents’ risk of becoming severely ill if they are infected with the coronavirus. Even in lower-risk counties, a significant proportion of the population is living with these conditions."

The index's top 11 highest-risk counties where coronavirus cases are growing are all in rural, heavily African American counties in the Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta. Among them, Dallas County, Alabama, has the highest population, at about 44,000.

Georgia, one of first states to reopen despite high rural infection rate, has posted bad data on health agency site

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp began to allow businesses in his state to reopen in late April, making it one of the one of the earliest states to do so, even though rural parts of the state had some of the nation's highest infection rates. But data from the state Department of Public Health data, which Kemp invoked to justify the reopening, has several times been faulty in ways that makes Georgia look less hard-hit by the pandemic than it is, and in any case makes it more difficult to tell what's really going on in the state, Willoughby Mariano and J. Scott Trubey report for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Observers "have noted sloppiness in case counts, death counts and other measures that are fundamental to tracking a disease outbreak," they report. That's a problem when opinion writers such as The Wall Street Journal's James Freeman cite Georgia's DPH data to encourage other states to open back up for business, so this could serve as a cautionary tale for other states.

A recent bar chart on the health department's website "appeared to show good news: new confirmed cases in the counties with the most infections had dropped every single day for the past two weeks," Mariano and Trubey report. But that trend only appeared because the dates were out of order.

"Some of these errors could be forgiven as mistakes made during a chaotic time. But putting days in the wrong order, as the recently withdrawn chart did, makes no sense," Mariano and Trubey report. "In fact, there was no clear downward trend. The data is still preliminary, and cases have held steady or dropped slightly in the past two weeks. Experts agree that cases in those five counties were flat when Georgia began to reopen late last month."

The health department changed the graph last week after widespread ridicule, and Kemp's office promised that such an error would never happen again. But the error was the third in as many weeks, and though some of the errors make the pandemic look worse—the department erroneously reported at least twice that children had died—some make it look not as bad.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, who received her doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics at Emory University, told the Journal-Constitution: "I have a hard time understanding how this happens without it being deliberate . . . Literally nowhere ever in any type of statistics would that be acceptable."

EPA moving ahead with biofuel blending mandate

The Environmental Protection Agency "sent the White House its regulation governing next year’s blending requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard, but the Trump administration is holding firm on its 2020 mandate, for now," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Biofuel and refining industry members say the White House is reluctant to reopen this year’s blending rules despite appeals from both sides, especially after President Donald Trump has spent years struggling to find a balance between oil and agriculture."

See latest county-level pandemic data, including the 25 rural counties with highest infection rates

Rural infection rate as of May 17. (Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
"Coronavirus hotspots at meatpacking plants – especially in the Midwest – are a major source of Covid-19 in most of the rural counties with the worst infection rates," Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for The Daily Yonder. "Fourteen of the 25 counties with rural America’s highest infection rates link the spread of the virus back to food-processing facilities. Prison and nursing homes were the other major sources of infections in the 25 rural hotspot counties."

Read more here for a list of the top 25 rural counties with the highest infection rates.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Key player in nonprofit that helps rural weekly will discuss local news landscape in Zoom talk Tues. at 10:30 a.m. ET

A veteran journalist who helps support the weekly newspaper in his adopted home county will discuss the current and future landscape of local news in a Zoom talk at 10:30 a.m. ET Tuesday.

Andy Alexander
Andy Alexander, a former Washington Post ombudsman who spent much of his career as Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, co-chairs the Research and Journalism Committee of Foothills Forum, a nonprofit the funds in-depth, fact-based journalism about issues in Rappahannock County, Virginia, where Alexander lives. To get access to the talk, email Kathryn@rappathome.org.

His Zoom talk is part of the Rapp at Home series of The Rappahannock News, the weekly supported by the nonprofit. The newspaper notes, "Local newspapers have been disappearing at an alarming rate, with roughly 2,100 vanishing during the past 15 years. Most were weeklies. Over the past two months, more than 35,000 news employees have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced. Covid-19 guarantees that this number will grow, with disturbing consequences for democracy and for the preservation of an informed citizenry. Studies show that when local news outlets disappear, civic engagement suffers while voter participation declines. Fewer people run for office. Political polarization grows.

"The Rappahannock News has not been spared. It faces significant economic challenges. But it has been able to maintain — and expand — its news coverage through a unique partnership with Foothills Forum, . The partnership between Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News is now seen as a model that can be replicated in other communities where local journalism is in danger of disappearing." (Google map, adapted)

Weekly publisher, president of Texas Press Assn., says pandemic is a chance for them to reconnect with audience

By Ramona Ferguson
President, Texas Press Association

Only we can tell our local readers how many ventilators our local hospital has, or how many testing kits our local authorities have access to. People seek local news during national and international disasters because they want to know how it will impact them, and because they know us. They know our reporters, publishers and ad sales people. We go to PTA, church and Lions Club with them, and they know they can trust what they read within our pages or on our websites.

The second part is what we owe our readers during a time like this. Only we can serve as the community watchdog to make sure authorities respond properly. We owe our neighbors an unvarnished assessment of what is going on on the ground right here at home. Only we have the local knowledge to let our communities know what is happening day to day concerning covid-19. Are our nursing homes seeing high infection rates? Are our neighbors receiving their stimulus checks? What are our legislators and members of Congress doing to affect the lives of our readers? We must work our Rolodexes or cellphone contact lists like never before to get facts to our communities.

Regardless of what’s happening at higher levels of government, every locality is impacted differently and is handling this pandemic differently. We owe our readers the who, what, when, where, why and how of that impact — both to our health and to our economy. And when appropriate, we must use our opinion pages to praise or to call out local leaders according to how well they’ve responded to the crisis.

Ramona Ferguson
We are the only ones that can provide service like this. Television news can’t do it for every community covered by their broadcasts. Only local newspapers can. I challenge each one of you to realize — and to remind readers — that this pandemic can have a bright side for us and our communities: it is a chance for local newspapers and our communities to reconnect with each other.

Hold a Facebook Live virtual town hall with local officials, and take questions from your readers. Put your staff in front of the camera, and let them answer questions based on the knowledge they’ve gained from their stories. Use other platforms to reach those audiences who have become disconnected with the print pages, and push them back toward our websites and print editions. Be the leader for providing accurate, local information to your communities.

As difficult a time as this is, it can serve as a renaissance for local news in Texas and around the country. For almost 200 years, Texas newspapers have served their communities and their state with distinction. Along the way our predecessors covered the local effects of a revolution, statehood, a civil war, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, epidemics, droughts, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes and wars halfway around the world. Texas newspapers have been there for all of it, chronicling the joys and the sorrows of life and suffering and celebrating alongside their readers as the stories unfolded. Texas newspapers have endured. And with hard work and God’s help, they will endure covid-19 as well.

Stay safe and well, and above all, take this opportunity to connect with YOUR community.

Ramona Ferguson is publisher of The Banner Press in Columbus, Texas. She wrote this for the Texas Press Messenger, the newspaper of the Texas Press Association, of which she is president.

Rural roads need $211 billion in improvements and repairs, says report funded by road construction industry

Top 25 states with highest percentage of major rural roads in
poor conditions (TRIP map; click the image to enlarge it.)
A new report from a non-profit supported by road-construction companies says "America’s rural transportation faces a $211 billion backlog in repairs that contributes to high fatality rates," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "At the same time, states transportation revenues are anticipated to see a $50 billion decrease in revenues leaving experts to question whether rural roads will see any improvements at all in the coming year."

The report comes from TRIP, which stands for The Road Information Program, its original name. TRIP says its "main objective is to generate widespread public concern about the need for continued reconstruction and improvement of America’s system of roads and bridges."

The report rated 13 percent of the nation's rural roads as being in poor condition and 21% in mediocre condition. Only 8% of rural bridges were listed in poor or structurally deficient condition, but 47% were deemed in fair condition, meaning they're structurally sound but have minor deterioration.

Rural roads are more than twice as deadly as urban roads, the report says, and that's often because of factors like "narrow lanes, limited shoulders, sharp curves, pavement drop-offs, steep slopes, and limited clear zones alongside roadways," Carey reports. But many rural roads are facing increased wear and tear because of increased traffic from large trucks from new oil and gas fields.

Rural road and bridge repairs will be more difficult for states in the short tern, since they're projected to lose nearly one-third of their transportation revenue over the next 18 months, Carey reports: The pandemic has caused a decrease in traffic, meaning a decrease in purchases of gasoline and therefore a decrease in gasoline taxes collected.

The report defines rural areas as anything outside census-designated urban areas with a population of 2,500 or more. By that definition, about 60 million people, or 19% of the population, is rural.

Tuesday, Friday webinars set on ethanol and pork industries

The Farmdoc project at the University of Illinois will host two webinars this week to discuss timelyagricultural economics issues. Click here for the overall schedule.

On Tuesday, May 19, at 11 a.m. CT, they'll host a webinar about the outlook for the ethanol industry. Demand for ethanol has plummeted because of reduced energy consumption, and many plants have shuttered. The webinar will examine the financial damage to the industry and what the rest of 2020 could look like. UI agricultural economists Scott Irwin and Todd Hubbs will discuss the issue with Eric Moseby, general manager of LincolnLand Agri-Energy in Palestine, Ill.

On Friday, May 22, at 11 a.m. CT, the webinar will cover the pandemic's effect on the pork industry. UI agricultural economist Gary Schnitkey will discuss the issue with Bradley Wolter of The Maschhoffs, an Illinois pork production company.

The webinars are expected to last about 45 minutes each. Participation is free, but pre-registration is required. Click here for more information or to register.

Some pandemic protesters see news media as an issue

Protesters in Augusta, Maine (AP photo by Robert Bukaty)
By Tom Jones
Senior Media Writer
The Poynter Institute

Kevin Vesey is a reporter for News 12, a streaming news outlet on Long Island. Over the weekend, he was covering a protest from those who want the country to be reopened. As he filmed the protesters, Vesey was verbally harassed with comments of “fake news” and “enemy of the people” and chants of “fake news is not essential.”

Another protester wearing a Trump shirt repeatedly stepped toward Vesey even after Vesey asked him to back away. The protester said, “No, I got hydroxychloroquine, I’m fine” and then gave the camera a middle finger.

I recently wrote how protesters in Phoenix mocked reporters for wearing masks, saying things like “you’re on the wrong side of patriotism” and calling the reporters “communists.” The New York Times’ Marc Tracy has also written about reporters being confronted by protesters in Ohio, Michigan and California, where a man pulled a knife on a reporter.

Here’s the part I don’t get. Isn’t a big part of protesting to draw attention to your cause? Wouldn’t you want the media to be there?

So why would you threaten the reporters who are there to broadcast what you are saying? Few things put a damper on a protest like a lack of attention. A good way to make sure nobody knows about your protest is to menace the reporters there to cover you.

The sad part for the protesters is instead of discussing the merits and arguments for reopening the country, the only discussion coming out of those protests is how they treated the media. That’s the protesters’ fault.

Instead of giving thoughtful quotes about their personal experiences and why it’s important for the economy to get back on track, these protesters chose to use valuable airtime to accost the media and make sarcastic remarks about hydroxychloroquine. It’s a baffling choice that is short-sighted and pointless to their cause.

You might argue, “What’s the big deal?” These protests, in the grand scheme of things, don’t involve that many people. But here’s what makes it a big deal: The president of the United States is supporting these kinds of attacks on the media.

President Donald Trump retweeted the video of the Long Island protesters to his nearly 80 million Twitter followers and said, “People can’t get enough of this. Great people!”

With Trump condoning such behavior, it seems as if it’s only a matter of time before the verbal attacks become physical.

Sadly, I predict something tragic is going to happen as the protesters become bolder and bolder and their contempt for the media grows — a contempt fueled by the president.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Missouri River basin is drier than it was during the Dust Bowl, and a new study says it'll happen again

Two men ride bicycles on the riverbed of the Little Missouri River in North Dakota in June 2017.
(Associated Press photo by Carey J. Williams)
"For the first decade of the century, the Upper Missouri River basin was the driest it’s been in 1,200 years, even more parched than during the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post, citing a study. "The drop in water level at the mouth of the Missouri — the country’s longest river — was due to rising temperatures linked to climate change that reduced the amount of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains in Montana and North Dakota, scientists found."

Human-caused global warming is a big contributor to an emerging megadrought in North America, according to the study. Thus far, it has been mostly seen in the Western U.S., with California clocking a record-dry February and Western states fighting over who gets the water rights that once belonged to shuttered coal plants. Midwestern states, meanwhile, have seen record precipitation over the past few years.

Book examines opioid epidemic through women's stories

A new book, Rx Appalachia: Stories of Treatment and Survival in Rural Kentucky (Haymarket Books) examines women's experiences with the opioid crisis in Central Appalachia through a series of in-depth interviews.

Author Lesley-Marie Buer, an applied medical anthropologist and director of research at Choice Health Network Harm Reduction in Knoxville, Tenn., says the book is an extension of her work and research on how place, gender, ethnicity, class, drug use and sexuality intersect. "Documenting how people navigate state policies, socioeconomic inequalities, and networks of relatedness in Appalachia contests depictions of people who use drugs or Appalachians as helpless victims or creators of some moral crisis," Buer writes in 100 Days in AppalachiaClick here to read an excerpt.

Pandemic makes more people long for the rural life

File under silver linings: according to a new Harris poll, the covid-19 pandemic has made many Americans want to leave the cities for (literally) greener pastures.

Three in eight Americans surveyed (37 percent) said the pandemic makes them want to live in a rural area more than 21 miles away from a major city or a suburb within 10 miles of a major city (35%).

Older Americans are more likely than younger ones to have such a wish, with 44% of Baby Boomers saying they want to move to the country, compared to 34% of Millennials and 31% of Gen Xers.

Overall, 28% of urban residents surveyed and 25% of suburban residents said the pandemic makes them want to live in a rural area.

The urge to flee the cities during the pandemic isn't new; some small towns, fearing the spread of the virus, have asked people with summer homes to stay away.

Quick hits: Rural neighborliness a lifeline; rural pharmacies struggle; webinar on farmers' aid short of information

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Rural neighborliness, which one writer dubs "the front porch network," is a lifeline in Appalachia during the pandemic. Read more here.

Pharmacies in rural Colorado struggle to compete with big chains to remain in business—and remain cornerstones of their communities. Read more here.

"More than half of the political comments posted publicly on social media in rural parts of six swing states last week criticized President Donald Trump for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic," The Daily Yonder reports. That's an increase since the last such analysis a few weeks ago.

A USDA webinar on Thursday promised to give more details on how the agency will distribute $16 billion in aid to farmers, but it lasted only 15 minutes and gave few answers, Politico reports.

Crowded rural prisons could usher in pandemic health care crisis in rural America

Meatpacking plants became covid-19 hotspots because of the difficulty in observing social distancing and hygiene practices. Prisons could go the same way and for many of the same reasons. And since almost 70 percent of prisons are in non-metropolitan areas, an outbreak could spread the virus to the rural communities through prison workers and overwhelm local health care resources, L.J. Dawson reports for Kaiser Health News.

"A breakdown of New York Times data tracking covid-19 cluster sites on April 26 revealed that out of 100 top cluster sites, 35 were tied to correctional facilities. In comparison, 28 percent of infections were linked to nursing homes," Tana Ganeva reports for The Intercept. "Those numbers are astounding when you consider that nursing home residents are at much higher risk of serious infection because of their age, while incarcerated people and prison staff vary in age. Seven of the top 10 cluster sites are linked to American prisons or jails."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are frequently moved to prisons after weeks in crowded and unsanitary detention camps on the border, alarming prisoners who protest that not enough precautions have been taken to screen the sick. Public health and corrections officials have warned that conditions in prisons and jails could spread the disease.

But many of the rural hospitals that would need to care for sickened prisoners have struggled in recent years, and more than 120 have closed nationwide in the past decade, Dawson reports. County jails are a problem too: a report from The Justice Collaborative last month found that 12% of people in jails nationwide (and up to one-third in some states) are in counties without any intensive care unit beds.

The prison-related death toll could top 100,000 if incarcerated populations are not dramatically reduced, according to an epidemiological model released last week from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many cities, counties and states have been releasing non-violent inmates in recent weeks, making fewer arrests, and suspending visitation in an effort to keep prisons and jails from becoming too crowded. Prison reform organization The Vera Institute for Justice recently released recommendations for how jails and prisons can reduce the spread of the virus.