Friday, February 26, 2021
Patchwork government oversight makes it difficult to investigate, assess the impact of CAFO pollution
Some local Republican politicians fire up base with social-media posts promoting conspiracies, supporting Capitol riots
"A faction of local, county and state Republican officials is pushing lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that echo those that helped inspire the violent U.S. Capitol siege, online messaging that is spreading quickly through GOP ranks fueled by algorithms that boost extreme content," The Associated Press reports. "The bitter, combative rhetoric is helping the officials grow their constituencies on social media and gain outsized influence in their communities, city councils, county boards and state assemblies. And it exposes the GOP’s internal struggle over whether the party can include traditional conservative politicians, conspiracy theorists and militias as it builds its base for 2022."
AP reviewed social media accounts for nearly 1,000 Republican officials at the local, state and federal level. Many posts, some deleted, have voiced support for the Jan. 6 Capitol riots or said the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and should be overturned. "Some Republican officials are posting theories related to QAnon, which the FBI has called a domestic terrorism threat. And the Department of Homeland Security has warned of the potential for lingering violence from extremists enraged by Biden’s election and emboldened by the Capitol attack," AP reports. "Although some Democrats also have used incendiary and aggressive language online, AP focused its research on the GOP because court documents show the overwhelming number of people arrested in association with the Capitol insurrection are longtime supporters of Trump, who has a huge Republican fan base after leaving office."
When AP asked Republican National Committee spokeperson Mandi Merritt about the incendiary rhetoric, she declined to answer specific questions and instead referred AP reporters to a Jan. 13 statement by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel that said "Violence has no place in our politics, period."
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association called on the federal government to establish more rural-friendly rules for broadband grants. Read more here.
James Fallows, who crisscrossed the U.S. writing about rural America and its newspapers for The Atlantic, writes now about how we can apply the lessons from FDR's New Deal to rebuild the economy from the pandemic. Read more here.
President Biden reverses his predecessor's freeze on certain green cards and temporary work visas for farmworkers and other skilled workers. Read more here.
At the Agricultural Outlook Forum this week, USDA leadership committed to helping control the pandemic as well as tackling deep-seated farming issues. Read more here.
Scientists are forecasting a drought for much of the Western U.S. this spring. Read more here.
Twenty percent of Wisconsin wolves are to be killed after a court sided with hunters. Read more here.
Extreme winter weather has caused shipping nightmares for grain barges. Read more here.
The internet has played a critical role in farmer networking during the pandemic. Read more here.
An explainer shows the ins and outs of how the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund broadband auction works. Read more here.
Frozen pipes in Texas are the latest warning of what will happen to water systems across the U.S. if policies and aging infrastructure are not updated to account for the increase in extreme weather climate change brings. Read more here.
Thursday, February 25, 2021
Pew report on how Americans got news about 2020 election and pandemic illustrates a deepening partisan divide
- About a quarter of Democrats and Republicans consistently got their news from "partisan news media bubbles" with audiences of like-minded people.
- Those who got their news only from such echo chambers were generally more ideological than others in their parties, and more likely to hear about and believe false or unproven claims.
- Just under half of Republicans who got their news from echo-chamber sources are 65 and older.
- Trump was a major source of election and/or pandemic news for 32% of Republicans and conservative independents. People who relied on Trump for information were more likely than other Republicans to think the pandemic was overblown, more likely to believe voter fraud was a significant threat to election integrity, and more likely to believe the news media had covered both issues poorly.
- In November 2019, the vast majority of Americans surveyed said they were "very" (48%) or "somewhat" (34%) worried about the impact of fake news on the election. Liberals and conservatives were equally concerned about this. A year later, 60% of respondents said they felt fake news had had a major impact on the election.
- Overall, older Americans, people who paid more attention to the news, and people with greater knowledge of politics were more worried than average about the impact of fake news.
- People who relied mostly on social media for political news were less likely to worry about the impact of fake news.
- What people deemed "fake news" varied widely; many identified factual news as fake because it didn't fit with their perceptions of reality.
- News diets within parties played a big role in commonly held partisan beliefs. That phenomenon was more pronounced among Republicans because they tended to rely on a smaller mix of news outlets (especially Fox News and talk radio).
- About 18% of people surveyed said in November 2019 that they relied mainly on social media for political news. Such respondents were the youngest group overall by far, with nearly half under age 30 (compared to 21% of respondents who get their news from news websites or apps, for example). People who relied primarily on social media for news were also less likely to be white.
- Social media was a major source of news for many Americans, but it was not widely trusted by Republicans or Democrats.
- Those who got their news mostly from social media were less likely to pay attention to other news sources such as print or cable TV, less likely than most others to be knowledgeable about current events, and more likely to have heard unproven claims and theories.
- Similar percentages of liberals and conservatives paid attention to pandemic news coverage in March 2020. In late November, liberals reported about the same numbers, but far fewer conservatives were paying attention to the news.
- Over 2020, Republicans perceptions shifted on pandemic-related issues. They generally paid less attention to news coverage, became more critical of the news media, and grew more likely to say the pandemic was being exaggerated. They also appeared to have less favorable views about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public-health officials. Democrats responses on those issues remained largely unchanged over 2020.
Toolkit aims to help rural communities plan, create and fund early childhood health promotion programs
It's almost that time of year again. Sunshine Week is coming up on March 14-20, so it's time to start planning your coverage. The observance, launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association) is a celebration of open government and freedom of the press.
Click here to learn more or access a content toolkit with a special reporting package free for republishing. The Sunshine Week site will provide other tools, including op-eds, editorial cartoons, logos and a list of open-government questions that journalists can ask federal candidates. The site also features freedom-of-information story ideas and work from past Sunshine Weeks, a list of participants and a calendar of events.Sunshine Week 2021 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and by generous donations from the Gridiron Club and Foundation. For more information about Sunshine Week, visit sunshineweek.org. Follow Sunshine Week on Twitter and Facebook. You can find or create social-media posts by using the hashtag #SunshineWeek.
Pandemic roundup: Health-care workers delivering vaccines to seniors; clergy risk death to minister to the sick...
Health-care workers administering the coronavirus vaccine are some of the happiest people in medicine right now, overjoyed to be doing something concrete to fight the pandemic. Read more here.
Biden administration to send 25 million cloth masks to community health centers and food pantries in low-income areas beginning in March. Read more here.
Clergy risk illness and death to minister to the sick and their loved ones. Read more here.
Fact checkers debunk a claim by conservative radio host Buck Sexton, who says that scientific research indicates that life should go back to "normal" now and that schools should reopen and people should stop wearing masks outside. But that's false, say scientists. Read more here.
As vaccine supplies increase, some states and localities are now struggling to find enough people to administer the vaccines. Read more here.
As American health-care workers begged for more N95 masks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a waiver in the final moments of Trump's presidency to allow a Texas company to export 5 million masks overseas. Read more here.
Health-care workers are delivering vaccines to homebound seniors. Read more here.
In Minnesota, rural seniors are more likely than their urban counterparts to receive a vaccination. Read more here.
States rush to catch up on delayed vaccines and expand access after bad weather caused clinic closures and shipment backlogs. Read more here.
Bills that would bar employers from requiring employee vaccination have been proposed in at least 23 states. Read more here.
The Food and Drug Administration has deemed the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine safe and effective in a clinical trial and completely protective against hospitalizations and deaths. Read more here.
Opinion: in-person visitation for dying loved ones must be part of the national Covid-19 response. Read more here.
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Chuck Abbott of FERN covers Vilsack's to-do list, climate-change farm subsidies, and minority farmer debt relief
Chuck Abbott of the Food & Environment Reporting Network has a trio of articles this week about agricultural issues. Here's a short summary of each:
Tom Vilsack, confirmed in a landslide Senate vote Tuesday for his second stint as agriculture secretary, is coming out of the gate with a "blockbuster" to-do list, Abbott writes in the first article.
Vilsack, who will be the Biden administration's chief link to rural America, "has a panoramic approach to farm prosperity and rural economic development as a cabinet secretary with initiatives that include biofuels and broadband access," Abbott writes. "He also argues that Democrats, for lasting political success, need to be more active in rural areas and find areas of agreement with rural voters, who are heavily Republican. The rural vote was instrumental in Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016."
Under Vilsack, he Agriculture Department aims to further President Biden's goal to make the U.S. the first country to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions from farming through initiatives such as paying farmers to conserve land and plant cover crops. Vilsack said in his Feb. 2 confirmation hearing that he believes farmers are "prepared" and "anxious" to adopt greener practices as long as they're voluntary, market-based, and incentive-based, Abbott reports.
Abbott's second piece explores farmers' views on eco-friendly farming practices, as reported by farm leaders at the USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum last week. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest agriculture group, said farmers expect to be paid for climate-change initiatives but not if they take money from traditional crop subsidies.Chuck Connor, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former USDA deputy secretary, agreed: "You cannot do climate on the backs of the American farmer . . . They just simply don’t have the resources for that." Abbott notes, "Farm country opposition was a prominent factor in the defeat a decade ago of a cap-and-trade program to combat climate change."
"The relief plan also allots $1 billion for land access, 'heirs property' issues and legal aid for socially disadvantaged farmers," Abbott reports.
More than 160 Confederate symbols removed or renamed after racial justice protests, more than in previous 4 years
Rural Covid-19 death rate last week a third lower than the week before; new rural infections down 75% from January
|Daily Yonder map of new-case rates; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.|
"Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year during the first half of 2020, a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks and diseases that accompanied the outbreak, according to government data released Thursday," Lenny Bernstein reports for The Washington Post. The provisional data was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.
A new social-media campaign aims to fight misinformation and promote positive messaging about the coronavirus vaccine through a network of more than 25,000 health-care workers nationwide. Founded by Atul Nakhasi, a 33-year-old doctor in Los Angeles, #ThisIsOurShot hopes to influence the public conversation through "collective impact," Allyson Chiu reports for The Washington Post.
Like many other health-care workers, Nakhasi spends a considerable amount of time on social media fighting misinformation. "You wrap up your day, and you’re hoping the fight ends," Nakhasi told Chiu. "You’re fighting for lives that whole day … keeping people here to the next morning. And then you get home and you feel like the fight never stopped. It just changed turf. The landscape just changed."
Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a county health officer and family medicine doctor in Fredonia, Kansas (pop. 2,500), "responds to a daily flood of pandemic-related texts and social media messages while running her clinic and taking emergency room shifts," Chiu reports.
McKenney told Chiu that the misinformation is "one of our worst enemies" and said it was "almost worse than the virus itself . . . We have strategies to deal with the virus. There’s not a great strategy to deal with the random memes, or the stuff that’s presented as data that’s not actual data, or the bogus YouTube videos or whatever that look like they’re scientific and there’s no basis. It’s amazing the people that believe it and share it, and there’s not a strategy against that."
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Haaland poised to become first Native American cabinet official, at Interior; Vilsack USDA nomination also proceeding
|Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., during today's hearing.|
(Photo by Jim Watson, The Associated Press)
Haaland is a controversial pick, with many conservatives concerned about her views on energy development. During the hearing, "numerous Republican Senators focused their questioning on Biden's oil and gas leasing 'ban' on federal lands, citing projected economic and job losses from the executive action," Rott reports. "Haaland repeatedly pointed out that the president has not banned new oil and gas leasing, but paused it while his administration reviews the federal leasing program."
Her nomination is historic on several levels. "Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, along with U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas. And if confirmed, she will be the first Native American to head the agency that administers the nation’s trust responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives," Traci Morris writes for The Conversation. Morris, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is the executive director of Arizona State University's American Indian Policy Institute.
Many Native Americans say they're excited to see Haaland's nomination, and said she has worked hard to represent their interests, The Associated Press reports. The story includes interviews with Native Americans reflecting on how she has helped them or how they believe she will help them.
EPA sides with corn and ethanol producers on small-refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard
The Environmental Protection Agency "is changing course on small-refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard, announcing Monday it agrees with a Court of Appeals decision last year that the agency had mismanaged the program under the Trump administration," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. The marked increase in such exemptions over the past four years hurt rural America and the biofuels industry, EPA said.
"The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, had ruled in January 2020 that EPA mishandled the exemptions program when it came to three small-refinery exemptions in particular. The Trump administration delayed action on the Renewable Fuel Standard to reflect the court's decision," Neeley reports. The Biden administration said it agrees with the ruling, which said the exemptions were meant to be temporary and that the agency can only extend pre-existing exemptions.
With the appeals court ruling "before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, the EPA statement Monday means the Biden administration will not be defending the Trump administration's stance on the small-refinery exemptions to the RFS," Neeley reports.
The announcement was welcomed by corn growers and the ethanol industry, as well as the states where they have a large footprint, Neeley reports: "Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said although the Biden administration's decision is welcomed, she wants to see the Supreme Court uphold the RFS."
Climate change, and deforestation from surface mining or wildfires, put mountainous areas at risk of expensive floods
|Counties ranked in ranges of percentages of property at risk for flood damage|
First Street Foundation map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
Climate change and deforestation are putting hundreds of small communities at risk of expensive flood damage they can ill afford, according to new data from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit organization that researches flood risk and housing. Climate change has driven rising sea levels and heavier rainstorms. Areas at the highest risk of flooding are on the coasts and in mountainous areas where surface mining or wildfires have removed the trees that can mitigate flooding.
Monday, February 22, 2021
- $4 billion for the Agriculture Department to buy and distribute agricultural products to those in need, to extend grants and loans to smaller producers, to improve agricultural supply-chain resiliency, and help pay for necessary expenses related to crop losses (including weather-related losses).
- $100 million from the overall USDA funding to reduce the amount of overtime inspection costs borne by small and very small federally inspected meat, poultry or egg processors.
- $500 million from the overall USDA funding for need-based grants to help rural health-care providers with pandemic-related expenses.
- $1,400 in direct aid for people earning up to $75,000 per year, with declining amounts on a sliding scale to a hard cut-off at $100,000.
- An increase of the child tax credit from the current $2,000 per child to $3,000 for each child 6 to 17 and $3,600 for those under age 6. The credit would have the same income thresholds as the stimulus checks, and it would become fully refundable so more low-income parents could take advantage, Payments would be distributed monthly rather than as a lump sum once a year.
- Continuation of tax credits through Oct. 1 to employers who choose to offer paid family leave and sick leave. The mandatory leave approved in a previous relief package would not be reinstated.
- A 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly food stamps) would continue through September, instead of expiring at the end of June.
- $880 million for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
- States would be allowed to continue the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides families whose children's schools are closed with funding to replace free- and reduced-price meals that the kids would have received, through the summer.
- $195.3 billion to state governments, including the District of Columbia.
- $130.2 billion to local governments, to be divided evenly among cities and counties.
- $20 billion to tribal governments and $4.5 billion to territorial governments.
- $19.1 billion to state and local governments to help low-income households cover back rent, rent assistance, and utility bills.
- About $10 billion to help struggling homeowners pay their mortgages, utilities and property taxes.
- $5 billion to help state and local governments help the homeless.
- $14 billion for coronavirus vaccine research, development, distribution, and compliance outreach efforts.
- $46 billion for coronavirus testing, contact tracing and mitigation, including laboratory capacity, community-based testing sites, and mobile testing units, especially in medically underserved areas.
- $7.6 billion to hire 100,000 public-health workers to support the coronavirus response.
- $128.5 billion for K-12 schools to make them safer to reopen by reducing class sizes, modifying classrooms to enhance social distancing, installing ventilation systems, buying personal protective equipment, and hiring more nurses and counselors.
- Nearly $40 billion for colleges and universities to defray pandemic-related expenses and provide emergency aid to students for expenses such as food, housing, and computer equipment.
- $39 billion to help child-care providers with operating expenses.
- $25 billion for a new program benefiting restaurants and bars hurt by the pandemic. The grants would provide up to $10 million per business with a limit of $5 million per physical location.
- $7.25 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program. The bill would also make more non-profit organizations eligible for PPP funds.
- $175 million for outreach and promotion to help target businesses eligible for PPP funds.
- Expanded federal unemployment benefits would be extended, with an increase from $300 a week to $400 a week through Aug. 29.
- The federal minimum wage would gradually rise to $15 per hour by June 2025, and then be adjusted to increase at the same rate as median hourly wages. This provision may violate the parliamentary rules being used to pass the bill.
- Federal premium subsidies for Affordable Care Act policies would be made more generous, and the maximum income cap would be eliminated for two years. Enrollees would pay no more than 8.5% of their income towards coverage, down from nearly 10% now. And those earning more than the current cap of 400% of the federal poverty level (about $51,000 for an individual and $104,800 for a family of four) would become eligible.
- Federal subsidies for lower-income ACA enrollees would be eliminated completely, as would those for people collect unemployment benefits in 2021.
- Laid-off workers who want to remain on their employer's health-insurance plans would have to pay only 15% of the premium through the end of September.
- Federal matching funds for states that that expand Medicaid to low-income adults would be boosted by 5 percentage points for two years.
- $15 billion for the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides long-term, low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration. Severely impacted businesses with fewer than 10 workers will be given priority for some of the money.
Rural Texans face disproportionate struggles during winter weather crisis, but many say they can count on neighbors
Most Texans are struggling after last week's freak winter weather, but many rural residents may be having a harder time overall. "Like other parts of Texas, rural communities were hammered by the winter storm that left families without the basic necessities of heat and running water," Melissa Taboada and Sarah Vasquez report for The Texas Tribune. "But temperatures in the country dipped lower than in cities, plummeting to the low single digits. Fewer resources serve that larger geography, and without city services, mobility can be more limited. Many living in the rural areas are ranchers and farmers who also had to worry about and prioritize livestock and crops."
Russell Boening, a dairy farmer and president of the Texas Farm Bureau, told the Tribune he's never seen winter weather like this in South Texas in his nearly 40 years of farming, and said he's hearing horror stories from across the state from the organizations 500,000 members.
Rural schools and food banks are having a hard time coping, and some water utilities say their pipes have frozen, leaving families without clean water. Still, "Rural Texans also told stories of joy amid the hardship," Taboada and Vasquez report. "Neighbors helped neighbors, letting them stay at their homes or shoveling ice and snow from their sidewalks. Volunteers worked overnight to cook for warming centers and keep them staffed. While the icy roads kept [Milam County Judge Steve] Young from reaching his 93-year-old father whose pipes froze at his Rockdale house, leaving him without water, local police officers delivered a case of water bottles Friday morning. A Goodall-Witcher emergency room nurse, who volunteers at a local animal shelter, checked on a patient’s dogs."
Jerry Kenney, who invited neighbors to come to his house to shower, told the Tribune the neighbors paid it back by offering to pick up supplies for them all. "I love living in rural communities and East Texas," Kenney told the Tribune. "There’s a sense of belonging and a resilience that is unique. I have no doubt that I can rely on my neighbor in a time of trouble."
In a separate interview with The Daily Yonder, Kenney continued reflecting on the lessons the emergency has brought: "Life without water and electricity gets simple. For the past few days, I haven’t spent much time pondering the things that divide us. It’s hard to hate your neighbor when he’s sharing water with you. Who can indulge social media debates when it’s so cold you can’t feel your fingers?"
An article from the rural Breckenridge Texan reinforces Kenney's sentiment about rural neighbors pulling together, recounting a reporter's all-night ride-along with the county judge (an adminisytrative office in Texas) as he worked to help his community.
Pfizer announces its coronavirus vaccine can be stored in regular freezers, opening up more options to rural areas
Pfizer announced Friday that its coronavirus vaccine can be stored in a regular freezer, not the expensive, ultra-cold freezers they originally indicated were necessary. That could mean more vaccine options for rural providers who were unable to afford the new freezers."Pfizer submitted data to the Food and Drug Administration showing the vaccine is stable when stored between minus 13 degrees and 5 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers and refrigerators," Jessie Hellmann reports for The Hill. "The company is asking the FDA to update its authorization of the vaccine to allow for vials to be stored at these temperatures for a total of two weeks as an alternative or complement to colder freezers."
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the most prevalent in the U.S., but the Moderna vaccine has been more attractive to rural areas from the start since manufacturers have always indicated it could be stored in a regular freezer. Many rural hospitals, already struggling financially even before the pandemic, said they couldn't afford the $10,000 to $15,000 for one of the ultra-cold freezers.
Pandemic roundup: Some states not prioritizing farmworkers for vaccine; farmers' feelings of isolation have worsened
Here's a roundup of recent stories about the coronavirus pandemic:
Some states still aren't prioritizing farmworkers for the coronavirus vaccine as the federal government has recommended. Read more here.
Some California fire departments are distributing vaccines to rural areas. Read more here.
West Virginia has one of the highest coronavirus vaccination rates in the world. Read more here.
Thousands of U.S. service members are refusing to get the vaccine, or delaying. Read more here.
The New Yorker does a deep dive into rural Alaskan towns with high vaccine distribution rates. Read more here.
Some rural counties in Missouri are seeing mixed results in efforts to get vaccines to residents. Read more here.
FactCheck.org has some new stories vetting popular social media posts about the pandemic, plus a video explainer about why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance on wearing face masks. Read more here.
Some health officials in New York state believe that a few rural counties' location is related to why they're so far behind the rest of the state in vaccination rates. Read more here.
A former U.S. surgeon general is urging the Biden administration to prioritize rural America in vaccine outreach efforts. Read more here.
The pandemic has exacerbated farmers' feelings of isolation. Read more here.
Are your school boards representative of the districts' families and children? Probably not, this research shows
Friday, February 19, 2021
Weather hits farmers: 'Mother Nature is a really tough business partner, and she has been pretty unforgiving'
|Montana feedlot operator Jake Feddes sent Bloomberg this photo of calves with ears taped to prevent freezing|
Oklahoma Agriculture Commissioner Blayne Arthur summed it up for Bunge: “Mother Nature is a really tough business partner, and she has been pretty unforgiving here the past few days.”
For Reuters, Tom Polansek reports from Texas, the state perhaps worst hit by the extreme weather, and the No. 1 cattle state. Newborn calves "are particularly vulnerable to the shock of the cold when they leave their mothers’ warm wombs covered in fluid," he noted. "Struggles to care for surviving livestock are the latest challenges for ranchers who over the past year have dealt with Covid-19 cutting demand for meat at restaurants and shuttering slaughterhouses."
Polansek reports, "Ranchers said they are spending long, cold hours breaking up ice in water tanks and on frozen ponds so animals have something to drink. Icy conditions have turned diesel fuel into a useless gel in tractors. Ranchers said they are using gasoline-powered pickup trucks to transport hay that cattle can eat and use for warm bedding."
|U.S. Department of Agriculture map shows major cattle counties in dark green; for a larger version, click on it.|
Small water systems may have a hard time beefing up cybersecurity at a time their vulnerability has been revealed
The Feb. 5 hacking attempt on a small Florida water system shines a "highlights dire weaknesses in critical infrastructure and has federal policy-makers paying attention to industrial control systems, such as those also used by electric utilities, which are often managed by local municipalities," Mariam Baksh reports for Route Fifty.
The attack, which cybersecurity experts say was likely carried out by amateurs, was possible because of an outdated operating system, poor password security, and other weaknesses, Baksh reports. Federal authorities have issued recommendations to other water systems to stave off similar attacks, but such strategies may be difficult for rural utilities with little funding or personnel.
Joseph A. Davis of the Society of Environmental Journalists provides an excellent explainer about public water systems in the U.S., including the security weaknesses many face, what funding is available to protect against cyberattacks, and story ideas and reporting sources.
The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 required water systems above a certain size to conduct vulnerability assessments and submit the results to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those assessments are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and are meant to be kept secret, but loopholes can allow hackers (or journalists, for that matter) to learn more: "The same water systems were also required to draw up Emergency Response Plans for dealing with a terrorist attack," Davis reports. "In doing so, utilities were to coordinate with other agencies like police or hazmat units. The 2002 law did not require these to be disclosed, but did not explicitly forbid disclosure either. So a resourceful journalist could possibly get a look at the local plan."
Though Congress authorized and appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in grants in the early 2000s to help local utilities beef up their security, few agencies and utilities seem to have improved their security much, Davis reports. Some funding was specifically earmarked for smaller water systems, according to a federal report. The report also says water systems may also find funding through Department of Homeland Security grants.
However, Davis notes that garden-variety water pollution is likely a greater threat to water systems ill-equipped to deal with it.
A look at the little-known, but critical, work of Depression-era Black workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps
|Black CCC workers built a bridge at White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. (CCC photo)|
Just in time for Black History Month, Dan Chapman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a look at the little-known history of Black workers—many of them from rural areas and working in rural areas—in the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.
FWS archaeologist Richard Kanaksi is compiling information about their role in creating national wildlife refuges across the South, hoping to highlight the "major, yet largely hidden role played by African-Americans in rebuilding this country from the depths of the Great Depression," Chapman reports. Read more here.
Applications open for science, health, and/or environmental reporting fellowships; deadline is May 10
The application deadline is May 10. Click here for more information or to apply.
Here's a roundup of recent pandemic and coronavirus vaccine-related news stories:
Crippling winter weather is hampering vaccine delivery and distribution. Read more here.
Efforts to distribute the vaccine in rural areas are complicated by staffing shortages, low vaccine allocations, and transportation barriers. Read more here.
A pastor in rural Florida used his clout to get 600 local residents vaccinated. Read more here.
Hospital workers in rural Louisiana discuss their struggle to cope with the pandemic, and what problems have persisted even after the arrival of vaccines. Read more here.
Family caregivers, who are routinely left off vaccine priority lists, worry about what would happen if they got sick and were unable to care for an ailing or disabled loved one. Read more here.
Manufacturers are churning out N95 masks, but many medical workers still don't have enough because of federal failures over the past year to coordinate supply chains and provide hospitals with clear rules about how to manage their medical equipment stockpiles. Read more here.
Texas has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to combat vaccine hesitancy. Read more here.
Some veterans in rural Montana got their coronavirus vaccines via airplane delivery. Read more here.
Quick hits: Firefighters face lies, biased studies when trying to uncover truth about carcinogenic chemicals in their gear
Firefighters face lies and biased studies when trying to uncover the truth about carcinogenic chemicals used to make their firefighting gear flameproof. Read more here.
Members of Congress are calling on the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration to clarify Paycheck Protection Program guidelines to make more farmers and ranchers eligible for forgivable loans, but it may be too late. Read more here.
New York Times contributing author Margaret Renkl will speak at the Rural Assembly Everywhere conference in April. Read more here.
Book review: Robert Gipe's Pop, the latest in a trio of illustrated novels set mostly in Eastern Kentucky, "shows the power of telling our own stories." Read more here.
Here are eight novels with rural settings that you can curl up with while the weather outside is frightful. Read more here.
Some experts say the new crop-insurance supplemental option is worth considering even if it's pricey. Read more here.
An initiative is helping farmers market products from heritage livestock sheep breeds. Read more here.
Thursday, February 18, 2021
Mike Hodges, Texas Press Association director, said in an email to The Rural Blog that, though he doesn't have exact numbers on how many papers are being delayed, "suffice it to say that the challenge is widespread." Many papers face staff shortages and electrical outages (which sometimes means no heat, water, and/or internet), and mail delivery has been slow because of road conditions. But, Hodges wrote, papers are persevering: "I am not aware of any publishers failing to produce their product this week. However, my staff and I did field an abundance of phone calls and emails from publishers who were having difficulty in meeting deadlines, getting the paper to the printer, getting to and from the press, etc."
Key roles of Iowa and N.H. in presidential nominating process are more threatened than ever, Politico reports
New Hampshire law requires the state to hold its presidential primary at least seven days before any “similar election” in another state, and "Iowa has a similar law on its books, stating that it must hold its caucuses at least eight days before any other nominating contest," Politico notes.
Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, a Democrat, told Politico the bill to set a primary for the second-to-last Tuesday in January was designed to start a “national conversation about what makes sense. It would not be ideal to just have a back-and-forth and just have a leapfrog exercise, so the hope is that we can coordinate with the national party as well as our states, and work something out.”
Three years later, project to bridge political divide between residents in rural Massachusetts and Eastern Ky. still going
Thanks to modern technology, the pandemic hasn't stopped a cross-cultural effort meant to bridge the political divide between two rural communities, one liberal and one conservative.
Three years ago, a handful of rural residents from communities in Kentucky and Massachusetts began meeting to see if they could find common ground. Hands Across the Hills was established just after the 2016 election when liberal residents of Leverett, Mass., reached out to residents of Whitesburg, Ky., because they wanted to better understand not just why people voted for Trump, but Appalachian culture overall.
The initiative started out with in-person visits with home stays, local field trips, and lots of sharing and listening, and has continued via Zoom meetings and phone calls throughout the pandemic, according to CBS News, which has a video update of the project (above).Paula Green, a Leverett resident who has led similar cross-cultural efforts for decades in war-torn areas like Bosnia and Rwanda, leads the project along with her Whitesburg counterpart Gwen Johnson. In a recent column, Green cautioned that initiatives like Hands Across the Hills are illuminating but not a large-scale solution: "Dialogue groups help but are too small to balance out the political rewards of those who stoke hatred for their own gain. When I consider where we are as a country today, it seems clear that my conservative correspondent, our friends in Kentucky, and millions of others are telling us that our country needs an overhaul. Too many people are hurting, and the solution is not just interpersonal, as important as that is. What is needed is a new vision for our economic, political, and social policies, all of which are on life support. Until we get these structures right, blaming and demonizing each other provides too easy a reach, an outlet for our frustration."
Rural heartland banker survey shows highest economic outlook since 2011, but hiring and retail sales are still down
|Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download the full report.|
A February Creighton University survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states that rely on farming and energy showed sunny economic predictions for six months from now, with the highest confidence index since 2011. Still, hiring and retail sales remain weak, and low loan volume is still a concern. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
|Percentage change in all fatal drug overdoses from the 12 months ending in June 2019 to the 12 months ending in May 2020. CDC map; click the image to enlarge it.|
The coronavirus pandemic and an influx of fentanyl have driven record drug overdose deaths in the U.S. between June 2019 and June 2020, according according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in December 2020. "
"The Ohio Valley, an early epicenter of the opioid crisis, saw overdose fatalities soar, and in parts of the region the rate of increase surpassed the national average," Corinne Boyer reports for Ohio Valley ReSource.
Overdose deaths spiked in 10 Western states as well, driven mainly by fentanyl. "The increases are particularly troubling for rural counties in those states, some of which have the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the country," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder.
Overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl increased more than 98%, according to the report. Out of 38 jurisdictions, 37 saw increases in such deaths from the 12-month period ending in June 2019 to the 12-month period ending in May 2020, Carey reports.
The geographic shift is noteworthy, the report says: "Historically, deaths involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl have been concentrated in the 28 states east of the Mississippi River…In contrast, the largest increases in synthetic opioid deaths from the 12-months ending in June 2019 to the 12-months ending in May 2020 occurred in 10 western states (98.0% increase)."
People in Western states who use opioids recreationally tend to use a heroin variety that reacts poorly with fentanyl, so fentanyl hasn't been as deadly there. But starting in 2018 fentanyl deaths began rising in Western states because fentanyl was contaminating other drugs or disguised to look like it. So someone might believe they were taking a Xanax but were actually taking fentanyl, Carey reports.
Some public officials say the coronavirus pandemic has also contributed to the increase in overdose deaths, Carey reports. Tom Jeanne of the Oregon Health Authority said in a recent statement: "Food insecurity and disruptions in access to safe housing and mental health services have compounded stress from job losses, school and social isolation, and other problems brought on by the pandemic." Jeanne noted that the pandemic had also made it more difficult for people with substance use disorder to attend 12-step programs or access addiction clinics.
Many addiction treatment programs moved to a virtual setting after pandemic shutdowns, but that's not practical for people with limited or no internet access, Boyer reports. One clinic in Lexington, Ky., provided wi-fi access so people could participate in group therapy sessions from their cars. For those without a phone or internet, the clinic created an isolated space in the clinic with computers for telehealth visits.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Surge in opioid deaths sparks renewed calls to deregulate key addiction treatment drug, buprenorphine
Drug overdose deaths have soared to record highs during the pandemic. That has sparked a debate over the ease of prescribing the addiction treatment medication buprenorphine, a synthetic opioid that can be prescribed for a month at a time. The issue is especially pressing since patient access to buprenorphine and other medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is limited in many areas, especially rural. Only 18% of the 1.6 million Americans who struggle with opioid addiction are receiving any kind of MAT, Christine Vestal reports for Stateline.
Doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants must take an eight-hour online course and submit to Drug Enforcement Administration oversight to be allowed to prescribe buprenorphine. A growing number of medical experts say it's unnecessary red tape, "but opioid addiction treatment providers and a major patient group argue that, in fact, more training is needed to protect patients. Some also worry that looser rules will result in the pills being resold illegally," Vestal reports. "The Biden administration and Congress are set to decide whether revoking provisions in the two-decade-old federal narcotics law that require the training is worth the potential harm of pills becoming more readily available."
One reason for controlling buprenorphine prescriptions is the fear that the drug might make it onto the streets. Dr. Shawn Ryan, an addiction specialist on the board of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told Vestal he supports eliminating the training requirement because buprenorphine diversion to illegal markets hasn't been a serious public health problem."But addiction treatment providers who are not physicians argue that the training requirement is needed to ensure quality treatment," Vestal reports. That includes Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence. "Instead of removing the guardrails designed to protect patients, Parrino argued, the federal government should consider policies that would increase Medicaid and private insurance reimbursement rates for treatment with buprenorphine and remove time-consuming pre-authorization rules that impede access to the medication."
Buprenorphine was approved for opioid addiction treatment in 2000, but medical experts have long argued over whether it should remain regulated. "heated up last month when the Trump administration proposed eliminating the training rule without congressional action. In a Jan. 14 announcement, the Department of Health and Human Services said it would publish 'practice guidelines' exempting physicians from the requirement," Vestal reports. The Biden administration put that initiative on hold and promised to examine the issue and find ways to increase access to buprenorphine. On Feb. 8 a small bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate asked Biden to work with Congress to quickly eliminate the training requirement, citing a bill filed by Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska."According to the bipartisan group, the training requirement 'reflects a longstanding stigma around substance use treatment and sends a message to the medical community that they lack the knowledge or ability to effectively treat individuals with substance use disorder,'" Vestal reports. "It’s unclear how quickly Congress might move on the buprenorphine proposal, but a recent warning from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about a surge in drug overdose deaths adds urgency to the issue. According to provisional CDC death data, more than 83,000 people died of drug overdoses, primarily related to opioids, in the 12 months ending June 2020—a more than 21% increase over the previous 12 months."