Monday, January 24, 2022

Millions of rural properties seen to be at higher risk of severe flooding than FEMA estimates; see county-level maps

Hidden flood risk, estimated by county, 2020
(Map by Jeremy Ney, American Inequality; click image to enlarge or click here for the original.)

Many rural areas of the U.S. are at a far higher risk of severe flooding than Federal Emergency Management Agency maps reflect, according to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that charts property flooding risks. FEMA maps may be inaccurate because they don't adequately assess flood risk that comes from rainfall only. The Pacific Northwest and Central Appalachia in particular are hotbeds of hidden flood risk, which is "the discrepancy between how much flooding FEMA claims happens versus how much flooding actually happens," Alex Acquisto and Brian Simms report for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Read the report with state-level data here, and see the Herald-Leader article about Eastern Ketucky for an interactive county-level map.

Practices of insurance companies, pharmacy benefit managers (middlemen) lead to closures of rural pharmacies

Rural residents depend on local pharmacies more than ever during the pandemic, seeking masks, home coronavirus tests and vaccinations. "But even with that increased business, retail pharmacies, big and small, are closing their doors ... straining small towns where options were already limited," April Ehrlich reports for NPR affiliate Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Two major factors are creating the trend, said Rick Chester, owner of Medicap Pharmacy in Talent, a town of 6,500 between the Cascades and the Coast Range near the California line. First, insurance companies are pushing people to get prescriptions by mail, taking business from already struggling rural pharmacies and, because of slower mail service, is often impractical for rural residents.

The other issue is profit-seeking policies from lightly regulated pharmacy benefit managers, the middlemen that stand between pharmacies and insurance companies. "Basically, when someone gets a prescription through an insurance or Medicare plan, the PBM is supposed to reimburse the pharmacy for the drug cost and some overhead. But in recent years, PBMs started decreasing the amount they reimburse when pharmacies don't meet certain sales markers," Ehrlich reports. "According to a report by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, PBMs have increased their fees for Medicare plans by more than 91,000% in the last two years. PBM reimbursements have gotten so low that sometimes pharmacies say they actually lose money when they fill prescriptions from certain insurers. And some pharmacies ... just can't make it work financially. The PBM Trade Association disputes that PBMs are the reason for rural pharmacy closures.

Some states, such as Kentucky, have cracked down on PBMs; one big one is owned by CVS Health, a pharmacy chain. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wants Congress to increase oversight of PBMs because he believes current laws are vague and inconsistent. "They can kind of decide, gee, we really weren't making enough money, but we'll say the pharmacy's inefficient and just throw some more costs at them," Wydeon told Ehrlich.

Meanwhile, rural residents are having a hard time getting pharmacy services, especially people with busy schedules or chronic illnesses. In Baker City, Ore., for example, one of the town's four pharmacies closed last year. The other three pharmacies are often overwhelmed now, with lines sometimes going out the door, Ehrlich reports. The lines are so long that some people bring dinner to eat in line, and store clerks bring out wheelchairs for old or sick people who can't stand in line for long.

Thursday webinar will discuss rural infrastructure policy

A free webinar at 1 p.m. CT Thursday, Jan. 27, will discuss rural infrastructure laws and policy. It's part of the Rural Reconciliation Project, a University of Nebraska College of Law initiative that seeks to cut through popular narratives on both sides of the rural/urban divide and assess the past, present and future of big structural issues in rural America. Previous sessions have addressed rural jobs and power. Upcoming sessions will address broadband and water.

In Thursday's webinar, University of Iowa law professor Greg Shill will examine questions about rural infrastructure policy including:

  • What were original infrastructure goals and choices?
  • Who benefited and who did not?
  • Were those goals met and why?
  • Where should we invest now?
Click here for more information or to register.

Nursing homes in crisis as many low-wage employees quit

"Frustration is surging among the low-wage workers who make up the backbone of the nursing-home industry, as tens of thousands of their colleagues call out sick with Covid-19, inflaming shortages that already were at crisis levels," Rebecca Tan reports for The Washington Post. "Hailed as 'heroes' during the early months of the pandemic, these workers, most of whom are women and people of color, say they’re facing untenable levels of pressure. Government support has failed to end the crisis, advocates say, allowing care for the elderly and the infirm to worsen, forcing facilities to limit admission or close entirely and clogging up hospital beds. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nursing-home industry has lost more than 420,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic, reducing its workforce to the size it was 15 years ago."

There are many reasons for the shortages. Many workers retired early rather than deal with the pandemic, and others quit for higher-paying jobs that nursing homes can't compete with. That has compounded the temporary shortages caused by staff illnesses and resulted in a pressure cooker of stress for remaining workers, Tan reports. The problem has become so bad that many nursing homes and hospitals are telling Covid-infected workers to come back even if they may still be contagious.

"Even as the Omicron variant retreats, the staffing crunch will persist, nursing home leaders and unions say," Tan reports. "At community colleges, interest in skilled nursing courses has plunged, with some class sizes dropping to half what they were before the pandemic. Of those training to become nursing assistants, many are avoiding nursing homes, where they would earn a median annual wage of $30,120, according to federal data, and are looking instead for jobs as travel nurses or home health aides." That's particularly concerning as more Baby Boomers require skilled nursing.

"This is a crisis on steroids," David Grabowski, a Harvard Medical School researcher who studies the economics of aging and long-term care, told Tan. "The long-standing issue of underinvesting and undervaluing this workforce is coming back to bite us."

Despite relaxed pandemic telehealth rules, rural patients still have difficulty getting medication for opioid-use disorder

Experts agree that medication-assisted treatment is the best way to treat opioid-use disorder, but only one in nine people with OUD receive such treatment. Telehealth can increase access to medication-assisted treatments such as buprenorphine, especially since the federal government relaxed telehealth regulations during the pandemic.

However, OUD patients in rural and other under-served areas still face many barriers to access. In an interview with Stateline, emergency medicine physician Elizabeth Samuels discusses those barriers, how pandemic-era policy changes have helped overcome them, and what policymakers must consider to further increase access to underserved areas. Read the interview here.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Smaller communities worry they'll miss out on cybersecurity grant money from feds due to lack of expertise to ask for it

Many leaders of smaller city and county governments are excited about a new $1 billion federal cybersecurity grant program, but they're worried they'll miss out on the money because they don't have the resources or expertise to create proposals, Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline.

The funding comes from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, and will be distributed to states over the next four years through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. States must ensure that 25 percent of the money goes to rural areas, and 80 percent overall to local governments, Bergal reports.

The need for funding is dire in rural areas. "Ransomware has wreaked havoc on local governments in the past several years. It typically spreads when hackers email malicious links or attachments that people unwittingly click on. Malware then hijacks the computer system and encrypts data, holding it hostage until victims either restore the system on their own or pay a ransom, usually in bitcoin, in exchange for a decryption key," Bergal reports. "Last year, there were at least 77 successful attacks on local and state governments and another 88 on school districts, colleges and universities."

Local governments, particularly in rural areas, are far less equipped to deal with a cyberattack. Their computer systems tend to be older, and their staff tend to have less training in how to deter such attacks, Bergal reports.

"In rural communities, the IT person, who is probably also the public works director or the city recorder, is expected to know what software they need to buy or how at risk they are," Brenda Wilson, executive director of the Lane Council of Governments in Oregon, told Bergal. "They just don’t know. How can they put together a plan to submit to the state?"

Poll shows mental-illness stigma starting to decline in rural America, but remains a significant barrier to getting help

Rural adults on whether the above factors are obstacles to seeking help or treatment on a mental-health condition. (American Farm Bureau Federation chart; click the image to enlarge it)

An American Farm Bureau Federation poll shows that the stigma surrounding mental health issues and getting help for them is declining in rural and farming areas, though it's still a significant obstacle. "AFBF conducted the survey of rural adults and farmers/farmworkers to measure changes and trends in stigma, personal experiences with mental health, awareness of information about mental health resources and comfort in talking about mental health with others," it says. "The poll results were compared with previous surveys AFBF conducted in 2019 and 2020 focusing on farmer mental health, and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on farmer mental health, respectively."

Here are some of the top-line findings:

  • Rural stigma around seeking help or treatment for mental health has decreased over the past year, particularly in agriculture, but it's still an issue. Over the past year, there was a 4 percent decline in rural adults saying their friends and acquaintances attach stigma to such actions, and a 9% decline in saying people in their local community did so. But 59% of rural adults and 63% in farming communities say some stigma remains.
  • 83% of rural adults say they'd be comfortable talking about mental-health solutions with a friend or family member in need. And 92% of farmers or farmworkers say they'd be willing to do so—a 22% increase since April 2019.
  • 52% of rural adults and 61% are experiencing more stress and mental health challenges than they were a year ago, and many are seeking help for it. Younger rural adults are more likely to say they're experiencing mental health challenges, and they're more likely to seek help from a mental-health professional.
  • Rural adults cited cost as the biggest barrier to seeking help from a mental-health professional (see chart).

Pandemic roundup: Free N95 masks and at-home tests coming soon; rural hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients; rural kids have a harder time accessing vaccines

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:

Rural hospitals are struggling under influx of Covid-19 patients, and say they're having a hard time transferring critical patients to larger hospitals since those are also full. Read more here and here.

Labor and delivery services are already difficult to access for many rural Texans, but many hospitals are considering cutting those services because of staff shortages and exploding Covid-19 case counts. Read more here.

The White House will begin distributing 400 million free N95 masks starting next week. Read more here.

The U.S. Postal Service is taking orders for at-home coronavirus test kits. Each household can order up to four free rapid tests, which will be shipped for free in late January. Delivery will be prioritized to zip codes with high Covid infection and death rates. Read more here.

Rural kids can have a hard time accessing coronavirus vaccinations. Read more here.

Officials are struggling to regulate pop-up coronavirus testing sites, and warn patients to beware of fraudsters. Read more here.

A new podcast from the News Literacy Project discusses the politicization of the pandemic. Listen to it here.

Don't just rely on rapid tests to gather safely. Read more here.

Though the Omicron variant is milder, it's still a huge threat to immunocompromised people. Read more here.

A rural Alabama pharmacy became a frontline in the fight against Covid-19. Read more here.

Quick hits: Carhartt faces boycott over vaccine mandate; lead ammo hurts bald eagles' comeback

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

Popular rural brand Carhartt is facing a boycott after the CEO mandated that staff be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Read more here.

The pandemic has been especially devastating to migrant farmworkers. A new state program in North Carolina is trying to improve their broadband access so they can better access vaccines and other community support measures. Read more here.

Rural Californians confront growing risks from extreme weather. Read more here.

A new Slate podcast discusses how JD Vance's political aspirations typify a new strain of conservatism. Listen to it here.

Lead ammo hampers the bald eagle's rebound in the Northeast U.S. Read more here.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Exclusive data show rural Americans least likely to wear a mask, less likely to know which masks are most effective

Rural Americans are less likely than urban and suburban Americans to wear any kind of mask, less likely to understand what type of mask offers the most protection against coronavirus infection, and less likely to know what type of mask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, according to exclusive Covid States Project data provided to The Rural Blog.

The findings reflect rural Americans' overall more skeptical attitude about the pandemic and underscore the need for more public education about masking and other preventative measures (though lack of trust in the news media can make that more difficult).

Researchers surveyed over 17,000 individuals nationwide about their mask usage between Dec. 27, 2021 and Jan. 10, 2022. When asked what type of mask they wear, rural Americans—like all other population groups—were most likely to wear a cloth mask or other fabric barrier. But rural Americans were more than four times as likely as city dwellers to wear no mask at all.

Covid States Project charts here and below; click the image to enlarge it

Though 63% of rural Americans knew that N95 of equivalent masks offer more protection than cloth masks, that was the lowest percentage of any population group. Rural Americans were the most likely (29%) to be unsure about whether cloth masks or N95 masks offer more protection.

Rural Americans were the least likely (53%) to know that the CDC recommends an N95-type mask, but the most likely (16%) to believe the CDC recommends cloth masks and the most likely to be unsure of which type is recommended.

The Covid States Project is a joint effort of Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities. It receives support from the National Science Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and Amazon.

Jan. survey of rural Midwest bankers shows strong economy but worries about inflation, supply-chain problems

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.
Rural bankers in 10 Midwestern states that rely on agriculture and energy saw the 14th straight month of positive economic growth in a monthly survey, though they voiced concerns about supply-chain problems and federal financial policy. The Rural Mainstreet Index polls bankers in about 200 rural places averaging 1,300 population in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Solid grain prices, the Federal Reserve’s record-low short-term interest rates, and growing agricultural exports have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy," said Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index.

The overall Rural Mainstreet Index fell to 61.1 from December's 66.7; anything over 50 is above growth-neutral. However, the confidence index, which measures predictions of the area's economy six months out, rose from 55.2 to 61.1.

Bankers cited rising farm input prices as the greatest threat to the economy this year, followed by delivery disruptions of farm inputs, rising interest rates, a drop in federal financial support, tariffs and trade restrictions, and disrupted delivery of farm products.

Rural new-infection rate breaks records for second week

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Jan. 9-15
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"The rapid spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in rural America abated a bit last week, but for the second week in a row, rural counties broke the record for the largest number of new cases in a seven-day period," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. From Jan. 9-15, "new infections in rural America grew by 36 percent, with 534,000 new cases being reported. Two weeks ago new rural infections grew by nearly 110%. This week’s lower rate of increase may indicate that rural counties are starting to recover from the Omicron surge." New infections in metropolitan counties grew only 2% last week, with 4.3 million new cases reported.

Covid-related deaths in rural counties—a trailing indicator—fell by about 8% last week to 2,090. "Metropolitan counties, which began seeing higher new infection rates about six weeks ago, had a 20% increase in deaths, to just over 10,000 for the week," Marema reports.

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Vilsack highlights record agriculture exports, climate-change mitigation efforts in report to House on the rural economy

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified today before the House Agriculture Committee about the state of the rural economy over the past year. He acknowledged pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions and said they're proof that the ag sector must be diversified; he noted that the Agriculture Department will disburse $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan to expand meat and poultry processing capacity, Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

"On climate change, USDA pointed to a new ten-year strategy for forests to reduce fire risk. USDA also began the Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative to finance 'climate-smart commodity production.' Vilsack also cited USDA had 'overhauled' the Conservation Reserve Program and enrolled 5.3 million acres, surpassing a goal of adding 4 million acres to the program," Hagstrom reports. "USDA's Risk Management Agency also offered more flexibility for producers with prevented planting coverage to hay and graze cover crops as well. USDA Rural Development also provided over $1.6 billion in various funds for renewable energy programs."

Kentucky farmers are increasingly caught up in a debate over a new use for farmland, solar energy 'farms'

"With the push for renewable energy and the increased federal funding available for it, many in Kentucky are concerned about an onslaught of solar power farms. Some county officials say 'big solar' is moving in, getting huge tax credits while taking some of the very best farmland due to the premium leases they can offer aging farmers," Bobbie Curd reports for The Farmer's Pride, the statewide agricultural newspaper. "But with many companies coming in from out of the country and expecting local county governments to issue millions in bonds for the projects, county officials are worried about taking high risks and believe the issue will divide communities."

Henry County Judge-Executive John Logan Brent told Curd that he doesn't oppose solar energy, but feels that rural areas should not have to sacrifice prime farmland and viewsheds. "I don’t know too many folks who truly value the beauty of the countryside who want to look out their front window and see several hundred acres of black panels," he said.

Though there isn't much planned solar buildout in his county yet, Brent worries that proposed projects will cause discord among locals. Farmers will likely be tempted by high offers for land, he said, but he believes international companies will put profit before the interests of the community, Curd reports. A proposal in Clark County, just west of Lexington, already has caused conflict.

Larry Foxworthy, the judge-executive in Fleming County, said the solar projects may be too big a financial risk. Solar companies want counties to issue revenue bonds to finance the solar farms, and say counties would not be liable if a project fails, he remains skeptical because of the lack of details or guarantee, Curd reports. He and others also worry that the projects won't really create new local jobs. The issue has already caused division in the county; its governing body, the Fiscal Court, has refused to issue the bonds, which has angered local farmers who want solar projects on their land.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

National News Literacy Week, Jan. 24-28, is needed more than ever; here are tools to help your newsroom participate

National News Literacy Week is Jan. 24-28 this year, an annual initiative that the News Literacy Project and E.W. Scripps Co. designed to raise awareness of the importance of news literacy for students and the general public. It differs from Media Literacy Week in October. 

From the website: "This annual event underscores the vital role of news literacy in a democracy and provides audiences with the knowledge, tools and abilities to become more news-literate. It also aims to inspire news consumers, educators and students to practice news literacy and to strengthen trust in news media by reinforcing the role of credible journalism."

The site has free ads and social-media graphics you can share with readers, along with a host of other resources for teachers, the news media, and the general public.

The need for news literacy has never been greater. Only 29% of Americans said they trust the news, dead last among the 46 counties surveyed for a 2021 Reuters Institute report. Finland, which has dedicated considerable resources to increasing news literacy, had the highest percentage of news consumers who trust the press.

Conservative Americans were by far the most likely to mistrust mainstream news coverage in the study, with 75% who identified as conservative saying they believed coverage of their views was unfair. A recent study from Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism sought to better understand, through focus groups and interviews, about conservatives' disproportionate mistrust of the news media, especially regarding pandemic coverage. Researchers found that the mistrust was "fueled by misinformation or fostered by insular media echo chambers." Even participants who were exposed to accurate information did not believe it because they were primed to view it with suspicion.

Webinar at 2 p.m. ET today to discuss how real or perceived biased news coverage can mislead the public

Just in time for National News Literacy Week next week, the News Literacy Project is hosting a free webinar at 2 p.m. ET today to discuss the effects of bias in news coverage and how it can mislead and misinform the public. Hosts John Silva and Elizabeth Price will also discuss how unfounded perceptions of bias can cause people to dismiss credible reporting or mistrust established news media outlets altogether. From the website: "This session will help you think more clearly about what causes bias in reporting, what it looks like in coverage and what you can do when you encounter it in your news diet."

The webinar is the final in a series of four webinars called "Understanding Misinformation and How to Talk to People Who Believe It," aimed at fostering more productive, fact-based conversations among friends and family members. The series is meant to "help participants understand what misinformation is, how people come to believe it and how to effectively and compassionately communicate and debunk those beliefs. While older adults play a critical role in sorting fact from fiction and helping others to do so, everyone can benefit from resources and support to help prevent harm from mis- and disinformation."

Recordings of the first three webinars in the series are available on the website. They are:

  • The Misinformation Landscape, which discusses how to move beyond the unhelpful term 'fake news' to more precisely identify the many types of misleading, inaccurate and false information that we encounter regularly. The session explores how propagators of misinformation use our emotions and cognitive biases to manipulate us.
  • Essential Fact-Checking Skills shares tools and skills needed to fact-check and verify information.
  • Productive Conversations Without Confrontation discusses the skills needed to have a productive, non-confrontational conversation with someone whose beliefs are fueled by misinformation.

Growth in rural Covid-19 vaccination rate has slowed in the past month, even as new infections have skyrocketed

Vaccination rates as of Jan. 13, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations
not assigned to a county. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Even as new coronavirus infections have skyrocketed over the past month, "The number of rural Americans newly vaccinated for Covid-19 fell to its lowest level since vaccines became broadly available to the public in spring 2021," report Tim Murphy and Tim Marema of The Daily Yonder. "Since mid-December, an additional 500,000 rural residents completed their vaccination regimen for Covid-19. That’s a weekly average of 125,000 newly completed vaccinations. Previously, rural counties logged their smallest number of vaccinations the week before Thanksgiving 2021, when about 144,000 rural people completed their vaccination."

The metropolitan vaccination rate also fell, but not as much. As of Jan. 13, about 48 percent of rural Americans were vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to about 61% in metro counties. "That makes the rural rate about 22% lower than the urban rate (on a percentage-point basis, the difference is 13.2 points)," Murphy and Marema report. "Currently, the death rate from Covid-19 is about 30% higher in rural counties than in metropolitan counties, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. The rate of new infections is about 25% lower in rural counties compared to metropolitan ones."

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Wireless carriers delay 5G rollout near airports amid safety concerns; smaller airports could be more susceptible

AT&T and Verizon are launching their 5G (fifth generation) cellular service today, but have agreed to delay the rollout near some airports amid concerns that the new technology could interfere with some airplanes' navigational systems. Smaller and rural airports may be disproportionately affected, since 5G tech is more likely to interfere with old altimeters in the smaller planes that use them, CBS News reports. Other nations have rolled out 5G networks without issue, but 5G towers in the rural U.S. are permitted to emit stronger signals than those in other countries.

The Federal Aviation Administration and major airlines have repeatedly warned wireless carriers that 5G signals could interfere with older altimeters, critical instruments that measure a plane's altitude. AT&T and Verizon delayed the rollout twice in the past month or so, but said that regulators and airlines have had years to prepare for 5G, Niraj Chokshi and David McCabe report for The New York Times.

The FAA will allow planes with newer, more accurate altimeters to operate around 5G, but planes with older altimeters won't be allowed to make landings under low-visibility conditions. Airlines canceled or delayed flights at dozens of U.S. airports today in response to the rollout, CBS reports. Reuters has an excellent explainer on 5G and whether it threatens airline safety.

Retaliatory tariffs during trade war led to $27 billion in lost agricultural exports by end of 2019, USDA report concludes

Percent share of estimated annual losses caused by
retaliatory tariffs, by commodity. (USDA chart)
The Trump administration's trade wars with China and other nations led to a significant reduction in U.S. agricultural exports, a loss of more than $27 billion from 2018 through the end of 2019, according to a new report from the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.

The federal government tried to make up for the loses with $28 billion in payments, but the payouts weren't always equitable; corn farmers were paid too much, the Government Accountability Office concluded. Yet, soybeans were the hardest-hit commodity, accounting for nearly 71% of losses, or $9.4 billion annually, the ERS report says. The next largest annualized losses came from sorghum ($854 million), and pork ($646 million).

China accounted for about 95 percent of the losses, or $25.7 billion, followed by the European Union ($0.6 billion), and Mexico ($0.5 billion). Tariffs from Canada, Turkey and India accounted for smaller losses. The U.S. and China signed a trade agreement in January 2020, but China did not fulfill its commitment to buy $80 billion in U.S. agriculture, seafood and other food exports by the end of 2021. Through November 2021, China had only purchased $56.3 billion.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Indigenous newsrooms, nonprofits, bring deeper coverage of Native American news

"Native American communities have seen more robust news coverage in recent years, in part because of an increase in Indigenous affairs reporting positions at U.S. newsrooms and financial support from foundations," Katie Oyan reports for The Associated Press. "Journalism-focused philanthropy quadrupled from 2009 to 2019 as traditional newspaper revenue shrank, according to a Media Impact Funders report. At the same time, an increasingly diverse population and a renewed focus on social injustice have commanded greater media attention."

Nonprofit news organizations have been leading the way with an increased focus on Indigenous affairs, and some newsrooms are entirely dedicated to Indigenous affairs. "Colorado-based High Country News created an Indigenous affairs desk in 2017 that has published dozens of stories from journalists, authors and experts across Indian Country. Other non-Native outlets followed with new beats and staff," Oyan reports. "National service program Report for America provides funding to many outlets, including The Associated Press, and is helping finance temporary Indigenous affairs reporting positions at 10 U.S. newsrooms. They’re part of a corps of journalists the organization established in recent years to bolster coverage of underserved communities."

The increased focus is helping build trust with Indigenous communities that have historically had poor relationships with the news media after being ignored or misrepresented for years. "Despite the growing interest, advocates say much more needs to happen. Many mainstream news organizations still lack Indigenous affairs reporting positions, including some of the country’s largest," Oyan reports. "And there have been missteps. In 2020, CNN received backlash for an elections graphic that displayed returns by race as white, Latino, Black, Asian and 'something else' — a label that outraged many Native Americans."

Advocates also note that tribal media needs more attention and protection, since many such newsrooms are owned by their tribes and don't have free press protections, Oyan reports.

Trucking companies trying to attract young, new drivers, but they must be 21; infrastructure package funding could help

Truck drivers have been in short supply for years, "but the situation has exacerbated supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, resulting in congested ports and empty shelves at stores," Amanda Perez Pintado writes for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "The American Trucking Associations estimated that the U.S. is short 80,000 drivers, a record high, and the number could surpass 160,000 by 2030." That's partly because it's a demanding job, and partly because of an aging workforce. The average truck driver in 2019 was 46, and many retired at the beginning of the pandemic.

Trucking companies bumping up wages to attract and retain more drivers. The median pay for semi drivers in 2020 was $47,130, Pintado reports. But higher pay "increases the cost to the employer, and they have no choice but to pass along those costs to both consumers and small businesses," said Illinois Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Maisch. 

Companies are also trying to attract younger, more diverse workers who might not have considered truck driving as a career, Pintado reports. But, as the International Foodservice Distributors Association noted in a statement, "A key barrier to developing a pipeline of young professional drivers is that high-school graduates cannot immediately pursue a trucking career due to the federal regulations that prohibit them from operating across state lines or in interstate commerce until they turn 21."

The $1 trillion infrastructure package President Biden signed in November could help bring in younger drivers. "The package establishes a three-year pilot apprenticeship program allowing commercial truck drivers between the ages of 18 and 20 to drive across state lines. Though people under 21 can receive a commercial driver’s license in most states, federal regulations prohibit them from driving commercially across state lines," Pintado reports. "The White House in December announced a series of actions intended to recruit new drivers to bolster the trucking industry. The Truck Action Plan includes expediting the commercial driver’s license, a 90-day challenge to expand registered apprenticeships, and outreach and recruitment focused on veterans."

Survivors of mass killing at Capital Gazette were called journalism heroes, then the buyouts came; most are gone

Three and a half years ago, reporters at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, became First Amendment heroes after putting out the newspaper on its regular schedule the same day five staff members were killed by a gunman who was upset with the paper. Today, their collective and individual stories echo the challenges to local journalism, which seem greater than ever.

"In the years since the shooting, these journalists had become family — and not just because of what they had survived," write Emily Davies and Elahe Izadi of The Washington Post. "They had helped each other through a series of attacks: the physical one in their newsroom and the PTSD that made it hard to get through each day. And together they had faced the existential threat to their industry that compelled longtime colleagues to take buyouts, permanently shuttered their newsroom and, finally, led to their newspaper’s acquisition by a hedge fund with a reputation for deep cost-cutting."

Former reporter Selene San Felice, who had hidden under a desk during the attack, told the Post, “It felt like death all over again in a lot of ways when people would leave to take buyouts. We could feel each other being ripped apart when all we wanted to do was stay.”

"The survivors have confronted these intersecting traumas daily," the Post reports, but perhaps never as directly as throughout the criminal responsibility trial of Jarrod Ramos, which took place in Annapolis three years after he attacked their newsroom and days after Alden Global Capital acquired their paper. . . . The reporters who have stayed at the paper continue to struggle. Rachael Pacella, an education reporter who survived the shooting, had to take a second job at a restaurant in Baltimore to make ends meet. She said she is one of nine full-time newsroom employees left." She told the Post, "That number is so close to how many people died. If five people were gone today from the Capital, there is no way it would be able to move forward."

Alden's reply to the Post was a single sentence: 'The Capital Gazette is a prized jewel in American journalism and we are proud supporters and owners of its critical mission to provide valued local news and information that subscribers rely on.'"

Army Corps of Engineers announces it won't use relaxed Trump-era waters definition when making permit decisions

"The Biden administration last week quietly and abruptly announced that developers can no longer rely on decisions made under a high-profile Trump-era Clean Water Act rule about which waters are federally protected to obtain new permits," Hannah Northey reports for Energy & Environment News. "Legal experts say the move could have far-reaching effects throughout the building, mining and agricultural sectors."

At issue is how regulations define the Clean Water Act's definition of "waters of the United States," those regulated by the act. The Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama had expanded that term to include intermittent and seasonal waterways. Farmers and developers were unhappy with the move, saying it was government overreach and unnecessarily burdensome. The Trump administration scaled back the WOTUS definition but a federal judge tossed it on the grounds that it could harm the environment. "Notably, some argue the rule is still in effect until EPA completes the regulatory process of replacing the Trump rule with pre-2015 regulations updated to reflect consideration of Supreme Court decisions," Northey reports.

Conflicting rulings in federal district courts have sown confusion, so on Jan. 5 the Army Corps of Engineers posted on its website a new rule meant to clarify the matter. "Going forward, the Army Corps in its announcement explains that it will make new permit decisions based on the pre-2015 regulatory regime — not the Trump rule — and that the agency will talk to applicants about any pending or future permit action that relies on an approved jurisdictional determination made under the Trump rule," Northey reports. "Specifically, the Army Corps said they would talk to applicants about whether they want to receive a new determination based on pre-2015 regulations or proceed with a preliminary determination or none at all, according to the post."

The new policy could affect people who were told they had no WOTUS jurisdictional areas on their land. It could also affect developers. "Ellen Gilinsky, a former wetlands consultant and associate deputy assistant administrator for water at EPA under the Obama administration, said the Army Corps’ decision could affect anyone who had an approved jurisdictional determination under the Trump rule but figured they had five years to apply for a permit using that decision," Northey reports. "Developers that fit into that bucket, she said, are going to be surprised when they go in for a permit and are told their development plans are going to have to change."

Developers, mining companies, and farmers have objected to the Jan. 5 policy update; several legal experts told Northey the change will likely lead to multiple lawsuits. Meanwhile, EPA and the Army Corps are seeking farmers' input on a new rewrite of the definition.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Jenay Tate, who was the 'tough as nails' publisher of The Coalfield Progress in southwest Va., dies of cancer at 64

Jenay Tate (File photo)
Jenay Tate, the last journalist in an entrepreneurial newspapering family that told the stories of southwest Virginia for 95 years, died Saturday after a two-year battle with lung cancer. She was 64.

Until 2019, Tate was publisher of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, a title held by her grandfather, Kentucky native Presley Thornton "Pres" Adkins, and her father, Carroll Tate. Under her leadership, the twice-weekly paper was a frequent winner of awards from the Virginia Press Association, which honored her with its D. Latham Mims Award for editorial leadership in 1988. She was a founding member of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and a graduate of the University of Kentucky journalism school.

Tate stayed with the newspaper for 40 years despite numerous adversities. At her younger brother Michael's behest, the siblings sold the Progress to Tennessee-based American Hometown Publishing Co. in 2005, but she continued with the paper as both editor and publisher, also holding the latter title with other papers the family had owned, The Post of Big Stone Gap and The Dickenson Star. When AHP liquidated in 2019, the papers were bought by Missouri-based Lewis County Press, which eliminated her position two months later. "Tate said she was stunned . . . but she admitted she had struggled with and objected to some of the new company's direction so, in the end, should not have been entirely surprised," the Progress reported at the time.

"Simply put, newspapering was her life," her obituary says. "She wrote extensively about the coal industry, including the historic regional coal camps, and the importance of coal to the local economy. She professed the value of higher education through her coverage of happenings at regional colleges. She built contacts and sources and friendships across countless industries and experiences. And she advocated for the region with leaders and elected officials for 40 years. . . . She loved being involved in her community, defending its interests, and telling the important stories of the region." Her longtime friend Joyce Payne said, "She was tough as nails in searching the truth for a story and managing the paper, but she had a soft gold of heart for her friends."

Tate was preceded in death by her parents and her brother, and is survived by a sister, a niece and three nephews. Her visitation and funeral will be held Thursday at Hagy & Fawbush Funeral Home in Norton. Memorial gifts may be made to PAWS of SWVA, PO Box 576, Coeburn VA 24230.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Rural U.S. not ready for electric vehicles, witnesses tell House committee; Jan. 19 webinar to discuss rural EVs

"Though the Biden administration is going full speed ahead at expanding the use of electric vehicles, witnesses told the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday that rural America in particular faces a number of barriers to overcome," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The committee held a four-hour hearing that featured witnesses from the auto industry, rural power interests and the ethanol industry, who painted a cloudy picture of just how rural areas will contribute to the Biden administration's goal of electric vehicles (EVs) making up 50% of all auto sales by 2030."

Rural residents worry about the cost and practicality of EVs. Many have to drive long distances for work, shopping or appointments, and fear EVs won't be feasible because the vehicles must recharge every so often, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills said. Government subsidies could alleviate sticker shock, and fears about recharging are unfounded since most EVs on the market offer mileage rates comparable to regular cars, Neeley reports.

But, Mills said, a farmer with a heavy load might get far lower mileage. Another problem: recharging an EV battery takes about 10 hours, though supercharger stations can do it in 40 minutes. Upgrading available charging stations to superchargers would be an expensive proposition, especially since infrastructure costs more to upgrade in rural areas, Neeley reports.

Another problem Mills noted: Rural residents see 50% more power outages than urban areas. When the power is out, they rely on gasoline-powered generators. A good supply of gasoline is a few hundred dollars, but if homeowners had to rely on electricity, they'd have to spend over $30,000 on a home-based battery storage system, Neeley reports.

Renewable energy newsroom CleanTechnica will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Jan. 19, to discuss EVs and electrification in rural communities. CEO Zachary Shahan will moderate a panel including representatives from Dominion Energy Virginia and ABB, a tech company that makes EV charging stations. Click here for more information or to register.

Pandemic roundup: Interactive database lets you track local cases; dark days ahead for nurses and hospitals

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:

The pandemic highlights rural health-care disparities, writes the editorial board of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Read more here.

The New York Times has a new interactive database that allows you to track coronavirus cases in any state, county or metro area. Check it out here.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that all vaccinated participants with severe Covid-19 had at least one other risk factor, including age, poor immune system, heart disease, and more. Read more here.

Hospitals and nursing homes are so short-staffed that some are asking infected nurses to come in to work. Some facilities are also asking nurses to use vacation and sick days to stay home if they test positive for coronavirus. That could put some infected nurses in an impossible position: risk financial ruin if they don't have enough paid time off, or go to work sick and endanger patients and coworkers. Experts warn that darker days are ahead for hospitals.

NBC News has a new interactive map tracking hospital stress. Check it out here.

Quick hits: Drought reveals 'lost national park' along Colorado River; podcast explores coal in Appalachia

Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, walks through a Colorado River canyon that was filled by Lake Powell until a few years ago, when drought began lowering lake levels. (NPR photo by Claire Harbage)
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

A recent Inside Appalachia podcast explores coal's economic and health impacts on Appalachian coal communities. The hosts will also discuss the industry's past and future with regards to labor and climate change, and will talk to Indigenous communities about the future of coal. Listen to it here.

Hunters killed 20 wolves that wandered out of Yellowstone National Park in recent months, the most killed by hunting in one season since wolves were reintroduced to the area more than 25 years ago. The kills mean a "significant setback for the species' long-term viability and for wolf research," park officials said. Read more here.

The megadrought in the West has shrunk Lake Powell so much that it's revealing America's "lost national park," Glen Canyon. Read more here.

Sacramento radio station that connected with rural counties in early pandemic offers tips for other public newsrooms

Sacramento State University radio station CapRadio usually focuses coverage on local and state government, but when the pandemic began, the station realized its wide-ranging signal could reach and inform rural audiences that might not have much, if any, local news coverage on pandemic-related topics such as infection rates, economic impact, supply chains, and more, Jesikah Maria Ross and Olivia Henry report for Current, a newsroom focusing on public media.

Wikipedia map, adapted by The Rural Blog
So in the early months of the pandemic, the station built relationships in Plumas and Sierra counties, mountain communities about three hours away. "About a half-dozen planning conversations resulted in a seven-part feature series based on community feedback. Stories were shared back with residents through email newsletters, local Facebook groups and community newspapers," Ross and Henry report. "Back then, it was challenging for engagement practitioners in public radio to forge new connections because of the pandemic. And it still is. Not only are people and organizations exhausted, but in-person meetings can be risky in the face of Covid, extreme weather and wildfires."

Since Covid-19 caseloads are skyrocketing again, Ross and Henry offer ideas for how other public radio stations can build sustained relationships remotely:

  • Establish community partnerships with groups people trust for information and support.
  • Find an engagement tool (possibly surveys) that works with partners' networks and bandwidth.
  • Bring community partners and local journalists into the editorial process.
  • Plan for how to share the stories back with residents.

New virtual platform set up by land-grant universities lets farmers help other farmers with greener farming practices

A new virtual platform allows farmers to swap tips and tutorials on greener farming practices.

"One Good Idea was created to increase farmer-to-farmer learning about methods to improve soil, land and finances. Topics cover an array of subjects such as cover crops, conservation tillage, rotational grazing and nutrient management," Jordan Strickler reports for the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Farmers can submit videos, podcasts or ideas in other formats sharing how they successfully adopted such practices.

Farmers can share how they improve soil health and other such practices to help farmers considering similar practices, Strickler reports. The project is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and is a collaboration of land-grant universities: UK, Mississippi State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Arkansas and the University of Illinois.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Gates is nation's largest farmland owner for 2nd year in row

A timber baron and a philanthropist now own more land in the U.S. than any other American, according to a new report showing the top 100 landowners in the United States. Tech maven Bill Gates remained largest owner of farmland for the second year in a row, Eric O'Keefe reports for Successful Farming. O'Keefe unveiled the Land Report 100 at the 2022 Land Expo in Des Moines Jan. 11.

"In 2021, California’s Emmerson family, owners of Sierra Pacific Industries, acquired 175,000 acres in Oregon from Seneca Jones Timber. That transaction, which was announced on Oct. 1, raised the family’s holdings to more than 2.33 million deeded acres," O'Keefe reports. "Liberty Media Chairman John Malone ranked No. 2 with 2.2 million acres of ranchland out West and timberland holdings in the Northeast. Washington’s Reed family ranked No. 3 with 2.1 million acres. CNN founder Ted Turner ranked No. 4 with 2 million acres. Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke ranked fifth with 1,627,500 acres. In recent years, Kroenke Ranches has become a major player in the renewable energy sector and is on track to be able to power more than 1 million households." Jeff Bezos of Amazon came in 24th with 420,000 acres, mostly in rural Texas.

Gates, founder of Microsoft, took 47th place for overall land ownership with 268,984 acres, but owns the most farmland in the U.S. "Instead of what he bought, of note in 2021 was what Microsoft’s cofounder did not buy: Easterday Farms and Ranches," O'Keefe reports. "The extensive operations in eastern Washington were at the center of a megamillion-dollar scam that defrauded Tyson Foods, among others. At a bankruptcy court auction, Farmland Reserve paid $209 million, outbidding an investment company owned by Gates by $1 million."

Gannett to stop Saturday print editions at 136 newspapers, but will give subscribers online access to all its papers

Gannett Co., the nation's largest newspaper chain, will discontinue Saturday print editions at 136 of its 253 dailies starting March 5. Instead, subscribers will gain "new, additional benefits" such as online access to all other Gannett papers, according to an email to staff Wednesday, Don Seiffert reports for the Boston Business Journal.

"The move is the latest in a series of cost-cutting actions newspaper owner Gannett has implemented over the last several years," Bob Joseph reports for WNBF in Binghamton, N.Y., long a Gannett town. "Many newspaper industry observers had expected Gannett to drop more print editions in 2022. The company started the process by eliminating several print editions around holiday weekends last year."

Gannett won't say when or if it plans to drop select weekday print editions, but Mondays and Tuesdays are likely targets because print advertising is light on those days, Joseph reports.

Gannett spokesperson Lark-Marie Anton said in a statement to the Business Journal: "Our business — just like any other — is adapting to a competitive digital world. With more of our readers engaging with our content online, we are embracing our digital future with this evolved Saturday experience while ensuring our subscribers have unlimited access to the news, sports, events and information they value most."

Rural America keeps gaining dollar stores, though some residents oppose them

Anderson's County Store in downtown Pittsgrove, N.J. (Philadelphia Inquirer photo by Alejandro Alvarez)

Dollar General Corp. is a rural juggernaut, with more than 18,000 stores in the United States. But some rural residents don't want its stores. Local organizers in Pittsgrove Township, N.J., have been fighting to keep a Dollar General from opening in the community of just under 9,000, Jason Nark reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The town's organizing board recently gave Dollar General preliminary approval to open, but some residents say the store would be an eyesore. Nick Mesiano, a 27-year-old web developer, has spearheaded efforts to keep Pittsgrove retain its character. Last year he launched a website, Save Pittsgrove, that organized locals to successfully fight off a proposed industrial trash facility. He later used the site to rally opposition to Dollar General, but since the store's construction seems inevitable at this point, he's trying to at least make sure it fits in with the township's historic buildings.

Pittsgrove Township in Salem County
(Wikipedia map)

A Dollar General spokesperson said the stores fill a retail void in rural America, but there are two other Dollar General locations within five miles of the proposed store. It's also half a mile from Anderson's County Store, "a quintessential general store that dates back to the 1700s. The store features plank floors worn smooth over the centuries, hot coffee, and a deli that makes sandwiches, things you wouldn’t find at Dollar General," Nark reports. Dollar stores often hurt locally owned businesses.

Pittsgrover resident Erik Cagle told Nark he thinks Anderson's will thrive even though Dollar General offers cheaper merchandise. "I guess they’ve created a recipe for creating revenue," Cagle said of Dollar General, “but I think they might be underestimating the closeness of the community."

What's happening in Pittsgrove is happening all over rural America, as rural areas increasingly lose grocery stores and gain dollar stores and super centers. Recently published research from the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service also found that "although single-location grocery stores outnumbered chains in 2015, they have been decreasing in share of food retailers," USDA reports.

"Results showed that of the 1,947 nonmetro counties in the contiguous United States, rural nonmetro counties had fewer of all five types of stores than large and small urban nonmetro counties. In 2015, there were 23 counties without food retailers of any type, and all of those were in rural nonmetro counties. Of the 44 counties with no grocery stores, 40 were rural nonmetro and 4 were urban nonmetro. There were 41 nonmetro counties with just one food retailer, and 115 with only one grocery store," according to the report. "Single-location grocery stores, as opposed to chain stores, made up a larger percentage of the grocery stores in rural counties than in nonmetro urban counties. In 2015, single-location grocery stores comprised about 82 percent of all food stores in rural counties, compared with about 70 percent in large urban nonmetro counties and 74 percent in small urban nonmetro counties."

State legislatures' pandemic precautions — or lack thereof — reflect gap between libertarians and public health

State legislatures' pandemic precautions for lawmakers — or lack thereof — "highlight a persistent partisan gap in pandemic policy as states begin a third year of legislative sessions amid a virus outbreak that many had assumed would be waning but is instead surging to near peak levels of hospitalizations because of the Omicron variant," David Lieb reports for The Associated Press. "As lawmakers in some Democratic-led states meet remotely because of renewed Covid-19 concerns, their counterparts in many Republican-led legislatures are beginning their 2022 sessions on a quest to outlaw vaccine mandates and roll back pandemic precautions.

For example, in Democrat-led Washington state, most House business this week was conducted remotely. Anyone who wants to step onto the House floor must get a coronavirus test three times a week and show proof of full vaccination and booster shot. "By contrast, Missouri’s Republican-led legislature began a fully in-person session with no Covid-19 screening at the Capitol and no requirement to be vaccinated or wear masks," Lieb reports. "One week into their session, lawmakers already have filed nearly three dozen bills banning, discouraging or providing exemptions from vaccination requirements."

Resistance to vaccination, masking, and/or mandates for either is mostly rooted in libertarian ideology, Lieb reports, quoting Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association: “In many ways, the data around vaccines, masks and all these things is kind of bearing out as a proxy for the role of government. . . . We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality.” Benjamin sees an “intellectual schism” that is unlikely to be bridged and is “very disturbing. We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality.”

Op-ed: Towns with schools need newspapers; without one, their young people's achievements 'are left unsung'

Lloyd Omdahl
Rural newspapers have been closing "left and right" over the past two decades, but it's important to keep them open, especially in communities with schools, according to a column in the Minot Daily News in North Dakota by former lieutenant governor and political-science professor Lloyd Omdahl. One big reason: local newspapers highlight and increase community pride. 

"Much of our community life revolves around the local school. Towns without newspapers still have young people competing in a full array of sports and extracurricular activities. For them, school days leave indelible memories, supported by clippings of their feats from the local newspaper – if there is one. Without the paper, they are left unsung," Omdahl writes. "Every city with a school has youngsters eager to excel and to be encouraged. The local newspaper gives enduring evidence of their efforts. Every town with a school needs a newspaper."

Because newspapers are so important to communities, Omdahl proposed several months ago that city treasuries pitch in some funding. Many editors were skeptical of the notion out of a desire to retain independent from even perceived government influence. But other local governments have invested in their newspapers after recognizing the critical role they fill, Omdahl writes.

"Most of the nostalgics like to think of the days when their home towns had a healthy sense of community. While it is not possible to retreat to earlier days, it seems that communities ought to preserve what is left and find new ways to build a sense of place and belonging," Ohmdal writes. "Many of our communities are surrendering their sense of community without a fight. To conduct this fight, perhaps newspapers may have to become reoriented to the changing demographics and economics by accepting different ways of financing."

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Feds relax rules for local and state governments' relief funds; 'a major win for many smaller communities'

"State and local governments receiving pandemic aid payments under a $350 billion federal program gained new flexibility and further clarity with how they can use the funding, under a final rule that the U.S. Treasury Department issued," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "The 437-page rule-making document released Jan. 6 provides additional information on how aid recipients can spend money from the American Rescue Plan Act on capital expenditures, employee pay and water, sewer and broadband projects, among other areas."

According to the final rule, local governments can use $10 million of their relief payments to pay down revenue losses. That allows them "to spend the money on a broad range of general government expenses without jumping through administrative hoops outlined in an earlier version of the rule. This is a major win for many smaller communities," Lucia reports. The guidelines also clarify that governments can use some funds for water, sewer, and broadband projects.

The final rule takes effect April 1, but aid recipients can start following the final guidelines now, the department said. "Treasury made clear that state and local government aid recipients are still barred from dumping their aid into "rainy day" reserve funds, using it for debt service payments, or depositing it into pension funds to pay down liabilities," Lucia reports. "The rule also specifies that states cannot use their funding to "directly or indirectly" offset reductions in tax revenue resulting from changes in law or policy, beginning on March 3 of last year. The law's restrictions around offsetting tax reductions have been facing legal challenges brought by multiple states."

Does your state spend more or less than average on health care? Leaders in per-resident outlays tend to be rural

Graphics by Self from Census Bureau survey of governments
State and local governments are spending an increasing share of the money on health care, and the numbers were rising even before the pandemic. In 2019, the overall share was 9.6 percent. Since then, the federal government has poured billions extra into health care due to the pandemic, so that will skew the data for 2020 and 2021 when they are compiled by the Bureau of the Census.

Rural states dominate the top five states in state and local health-care spending. The leader is Wyoming, at 19.7% of total spending, and it's by far the leader in spending per resident, $2,978. South Carolina is second, at 19.3% and $1,730. North Carolina is third in health care's share of total spending, 17.9%, and fifth in per-resident spending, at $1,536.

Kansas is third in per-resident spending, at $1,558, and sixth in share of total spending, at 16.1%. Mississippi is fourth in per-resident spending, at $1,547, and also fourth in share of total spending, at 17.3%. Alabama is ninth in per-resident spending, at $1,474, but fifth in share of total spending, 16.8%. For a report with a full table of the states, go here.

New rural coronavirus infections break single-week record last week as cases more than doubled from the week before

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Jan. 1-8
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Nonmetropolitan counties reported 393,000 new coronavirus cases Jan. 1-8, setting a new record for infections in a single seven-day period and increasing more than 205,000 from the week before. "That’s the largest single-week increase in new cases since the pandemic hit rural America in March 2020," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "The previous record was 232,000 new cases, recorded one year ago this week at the height of the winter 2021 surge."

Though Omicron-variant infections were slow to infiltrate rural areas, "Rural counties are now seeing higher rates of infection increase than metropolitan areas," Marema reports. "New infections grew by 110% in rural counties last week. In metropolitan counties, new cases grew by 60%."

Deaths related to Covid-19 are rising in both rural and metropolitan counties. Rural counties reported 2,264 new deaths last week, an increase of about 20% over the week before. Metropolitan counties reported 8,407 new deaths in the same time period, a 25% jump from the previous week.

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

If you see a snowy owl, that doesn't mean it's starving

Martin Stoffel of Saskatchewan is one of two owl banders 
who provided data for the research. (Photo by Daniel Dupont)
You may see a snowy owl this month. Given the weather, you may think it's starving. It's probably not, according to research by according to University of Sas­katchewan scientist Karen Wiebe.

Many snowy owls spend winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. "They pop up in odd places—hunkering down on haystacks in farm fields, just off the runways at airports, atop light poles in grocery store parking lots—to the de­light of birders and Harry Potter fans," writes Erica Cirino of All About Birds. "It’s also common for some people to feel anxiety over the snowies, believing them to be hungry vagrants." For example, a TV station in Michi­gan’s Upper Peninsula "re­ported that the owls’ southern travels were 'linked to food supply' and that 'Snowy owls often arrive in Michigan weakened and starving.' That first statement is often true, but the second is generally not true."

Wiebe and graduate student Alexander Chang published research in August that showed "most snowy owls wintering in southern Canada ap­peared to be doing just fine," Cirino reports. "Indeed, many of the owls actually put on weight over the winter by increasing their subcutaneous fat stores (fat that accumulates under the skin on birds’ chests and beneath their wings and is used for both insula­tion and energy)." Other studies have found likewise. At Logan International Airport in Boston, Norman Smith of Massachusetts Audubon says he’s banded more than 700 snowies since 1981. He has not experienced a single year where hatch-year owls have showed signs of starvation due to lack of food."

All About Birds is a publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Supreme Court blocks bid to revive year-round E15 sales

"The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away an industry group's bid to revive a decision made by the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Donald Trump to allow expanded sales of gasoline that has a higher ethanol blend, called E15," Stephanie Kelly reports for Reuters. "The action by the justices dealt a blow to the ethanol industry, which wants to increase sales and access to E15. Growth Energy, a biofuels industry group that had filed a petition asking the justices to review a lower court's ruling vacating the Trump administration E15 policy, expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision."

Until EPA reversed its policy in 2019, E15 sales were banned in summer because of concern that it contributes to smog on hot days. A federal appeals court panel ruled unanimously in 2021 that EPA overstepped its authority when it followed President Trump's order to allow year-round E15 sales.

"E15 is a small part of the U.S. fuel market, perhaps 520 million gallons a year, but proponents see it as a lever to expand ethanol’s share of the gasoline market, which totaled around 135 billion gallons in 2021," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "The traditional blend of ethanol is 10%."