Saturday, March 14, 2020

Coronavirus overwhelms local health departments, most of which have been weakened by a decade of budget cuts

"A widespread failure in the United States to invest in public health has left local and state health departments struggling to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and ill-prepared to face the swelling crisis ahead," report Julie Bosman and Richard Fausset of The New York Times. "Many health departments are suffering from budget and staffing cuts that date to the Great Recession and have never been fully restored."

The National Association of County and City Health Officials told the Times that their agencies have nearly one-quarter fewer people on their payrolls than they did in 2008. "Many of them have made their situation plain: They are heading into a crisis without the resources they need," the story says, quoting Scott Lockard, director of a department that serves seven counties in Eastern Kentucky: “People are wearing several different hats and sharing job responsibilities for things that they were not doing before, so we’re already operating at peak efficiency and we have no capacity when something like this happens.”

Emergency legislation moving through Congress will give local and state health agencies $950 million, but John Auerbach, president and chief executive of Trust for America’s Health, "said that the money, which must be spent on coronavirus-related actions, will not solve long-term problems many agencies face," the Times reports. Its story ends with this vignette:
Debra Nagel, a nurse who specializes in communicable disease and preparedness, answered the phone at the Jasper County Health Department in Rensselaer, Ind., and said she would be happy to briefly chat about her department’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I think the main challenge is —” she said, stopped short by another phone trilling in the background.
“I guess I don’t really have the time to talk,” she said. “I’m the only one here.”
She apologized and hung up.

When health officials talk about strong measures to 'flatten the curve' to fight the coronavirus, this is what they mean

Measures that are being called "drastic" and "extreme" are necessary to keep the coronavirus and its covid-19 disease from overwhelming the U.S. health-care system, according to health experts and public officials. This chart by roughly illustrates what happens when there is no action against a pandemic, and what happens when interventions flatten the transmission of the virus to a point where the health-care system can cope with it. It shows a hopeful scenario; The New York Times has an interactive version of this chart, with various scenarios.

President is not following health experts' crisis playbook; governors and local officials are taking a different tack

President Trump has broken every rule in the top federal experts' playbook as he deals with the coronavirus, report Carolyn Johnson and William Wan of The Washington Post.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 450-page manual has some simple rules, they write: "Be consistent. Be accurate. Don’t withhold vital information, the CDC manual says. And above all, don’t let anyone onto the podium without the preparation, knowledge and discipline to deliver vital health messages."

One chapter in the manual is devoted to “choosing the right spokesperson,” they write, “but the government’s leading health experts have had to repeatedly cede the microphone to politicians — with the nation’s top health officials repeatedly canceling news conferences to make room for Vice President Pence or Trump or to avoid upstaging other White House announcements.”

All that is having an effect, and not a good one, on the public, they write: "Crucial messaging also appears to be failing to reach or convince many in America. Nearly 50 million in the country are 65 or older — the most vulnerable age group for severe symptoms and death. But many are shrugging off pleas for them to practice social distancing."

Asked today about the mixed messages he had been sending, specifically why he shook the hands of many people at a ceremony the day before, Trump said, "Because it almost becomes a habit . . . It's sort of a natural reflex, and we're all getting out of it . . . Shaking hands is not a great thing to be doing right now, I agree."

Trump spoke as he started a White House press conference with other officials and experts. He twice said he would leave the lectern to the others and go to the Oval Office, but reporters kept asking him questions, and he kept answering them.

Later in the press conference, Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general, said the time for political finger-pointing is over, and it's time for more news stories about how Americans can protect themselves and access the federal resources being provided.

Governors and local officials may not have read the CDC manual, but they are following it more closely. In an opinion piece, Travis Waldron of Yahoo News contrasted Trump's approach with that of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who "has struck a calm but urgent tone and empowered Kentucky’s public health officials to speak frankly and clearly about the depth of the outbreak in the Bluegrass State, the potential for it to get worse, and the steps his government is taking to mitigate it."

At his press conference this afternoon, Beshear and other officials began practicing social distancing, no longer clustering on a dais, as Trump and his aides did, but taking turns at the lectern and standing at least six feet apart. "We want to model the type of behavior we should be doing," Beshear said.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Series about the sexual assault crisis in rural Alaska up for annual Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting

A newspaper series about the sexual assault crisis in rural Alaska is one of six finalists for the annual Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The Anchorage Daily News partnered with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network to produce "Lawless," a series that uncovered a sexual-assault crisis in rural Alaska and how the lack of public-safety services makes it worse. After the series ran, Attorney General William Barr declared the lack of law enforcement in rural Alaska a federal emergency, and his Department of Justice promised more than $52 million to improve the situation. The U.S. attorney in Anchorage announced the hiring of more rural prosecutors, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state will hire 15 more state troopers.

Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins pursued the story after he discovered that more than 70 rural towns didn't have local law enforcement, and that the state hadn't enforced village police hiring standards. In some towns, convicted criminals, including sex offenders, had been hired as police officers, Clark Merrefield reports for Journalist's Resource.

The series also recently won a Scripps Howard Award in the Community Journalism category. The Goldsmith Prize winner receives $25,000, and the other five finalists receive $10,000. The prize is funded by the Greenfield Foundation. The winner was meant to be announced Thursday, but the awards ceremony was canceled because of coronavirus precautions. The winner will be announced soon online, according to the Goldsmith Awards website.

Covid-19: ISPs pressed to suspend data throttling, fees for overages; some big firms do, but big wireless carriers silent

Many workers are working remotely and students learning from home because of the coronavirus, but that means increased internet and wireless usage. That could cause some people to exceed their monthly data caps, resulting in extra fees and often throttled data speeds.

"Eighteen U.S. senators, all members of the Democratic caucus, sent a letter to internet service providers urging them to 'temporarily suspend broadband caps and associated fees or throttling for all communities affected by covid-19' and to coordinate with schools to provide free or low-cost broadband for students," Jon Brodkin reports for ArsTechnica.  The two Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission support the notion; the three Republicans have not commented.

Comcast, which has a wider rural reach than most internet providers, announced Thursday that it will increase speeds for its budget internet program and will make the program free for new low-income customers for two months, WXYZ-TV in Detroit reports.

AT&T is suspending broadband data caps for home internet customers until further notice, Karl Bode reports for Vice. He also reports that Mediacom is giving all internet customers 50GB of extra data through March 31. Charter and Verizon do not impose data caps or overage fees on home internet customers. 

However, many rural customers rely on wireless for their home internet, and none of the major carriers have said they will suspend data caps or throttling, Brodkin reports.

Older Americans, more prevalent in rural areas and more susceptible to covid-19, weigh warnings; many are skeptical

To view a larger version of this map, click on it.
"As the coronavirus continues its spread across the world and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that older Americans are among those who face the highest risk of hospitalization and death, retirees from Florida to Alaska are weighing whether to continue living their normal lives or do whatever it takes to preserve them," report Darryl Fears and Brady Dennis of The Washington Post. That's of special concern in rural America, where the population is older than average.

The writers report from The Villages, a Florida complex that is one of the largest retirement communities in the United States. Most residents responding to a survey on the development's Facebook page said the crisis is being overblown. "Against mounting advice from federal and private health experts, many expressed a determination to move forward with travel excursions, such as cruises," they report. "A significant number of other residents said they were heeding experts’ advice and canceling cruise reservations, or at least waiting to see whether cruise lines would do so."

Health experts and public officials have warned that people over 60 and those with underlying medical conditions are the most susceptible to the virus. Some think rural areas may be more vulnerable due to a shortage of health-care services, while others think the lower population density in rural areas means the virus will spread more slowly there. But rural people are more regular worshipers, and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear asked churches to cancel services after the state's first cluster of covid-19 patients, from rural Harrison County, were found to have a church connection. 

Quick hits: How Biden and Sanders did in rural areas on Super Tuesday; busted oil town turns to arts and culture

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

Kraft Foods Group Inc. and Mondelez Global LLC may pay $16 million to settle regulatory allegations that they manipulated the market for wheat futures. Read more here.

Sen. Bernie Sanders got much less of the rural vote on Tuesday than he did in 2016, while Joe Biden received outsized support from rural areas, The Daily Yonder reports. Read more here.

A webinar discussed challenges rural school districts face in helping students access high-speed internet. Read more or listen to the recording here.

A busted oil-boom town in Arkansas is making a comeback by leaning on art and culture. Read more here.

The 2020 Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference has been canceled because of the coronavirus. Read more here.

New book examines RFK's 1968 tour of Eastern Kentucky through the lens of the locals involved in the trip

When Robert F. Kennedy toured rural Eastern Kentucky in 1968, he said that the area had "marvelous potential" in spite of the obstacles locals faced. The liberal Democrat was welcomed to rural Kentucky back then, but these days the same region has become a Republican stronghold. That contrast intrigued journalist Matthew Algeo and informed how he approached his new book about the visit, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Though the trip has been examined in books, documentaries and other media, All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy's 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago View Press) brings new details and a fresh angle to the story by telling readers more about the lives of the people who organized, participated in, and witness the visit, Marema reports.

"I tried to build the stories out around a few central characters, and then use them to touch on some central issues, I guess you would say, over the past 50 years," Algeo told Marema. "You can’t write a book about Eastern Kentucky without talking about mining, specifically strip mining, and without looking at the War on Poverty. I think people who read the book will find a lot of interesting information there that they might not have known or hadn’t really contextualized."

Algeo told Marema he didn't want the book to be a biography of RFK, nor a "Where Are They Now" update on the locals involved in the 1968 visit. "I don’t think that gives you a lot of information or context," Algeo said.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Seniors live longer these days, but not as long in rural areas, and their lifespans lag many other developed nations

Life expectancy for seniors at age 65 increased across the board from 2000 to 2016, but not nearly as much in rural areas, according to a newly published data analysis.

Urban and coastal seniors survive much longer than seniors in rural areas and the nation's interior—especially areas like Appalachia and the East South Central states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi). The geographic gap emerged around 1999 or 2000 and has been widening since 2000, Judith Graham reports for Kaiser Health News.

University of Pennsylvania demographer Samuel Preston spotted the trend using data from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics. The longest-living seniors tend to be found in metro areas on the Pacific coast, and the ones with the shortest lifespans live in the rural East South Central states; the life expectancy gap between those two regions was nearly four years.

Men and women had differing life expectancies, according to co-author Yana Vierboom, a researcher at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research; by 2016, "life expectancy at age 65 for women in large metropolitan areas was 1.63 years longer than for those in rural areas. For men, the gap was 1.42 years," Graham reports. "Disparities were also highlighted when researchers examined life expectancy at 65 in the U.S. and 16 other developed nations, using 2016 data. Overall, the U.S. was near the bottom of the pack: American men ranked 11th while American women were in 13th place, behind leaders such as Japan, Switzerland, Australia, France, Spain and Canada."

Preston's study identified a reduction in deaths from cardiovascular illnesses like strokes or heart attacks as the biggest reason Americans are living longer. Such illnesses are the number one cause of death in the United States. Preston speculated that rural seniors might be more apt to die from heart attack or stroke because of lack of medical access, and said smoking rates likely had an impact, too. The study did not consider race, income, or education, which probably play a role, Graham reports.

Supreme Court won't hear challenge to ban on bump stocks

"Bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic firearms to fire rapidly like machine guns, will remain banned by the federal government in most instances after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a case challenging recently imposed regulations," reports Guns & America.

Some states banned bump stocks after one was used in a deadly October 2017 Las Vegas shooting, and in December 2018, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives declared that bump stocks essentially turned a semi-automatic firearm into a fully automatic "machinegun." Since machineguns are tightly regulated at the federal level, that made bump stocks and similar devices effectively illegal, Jeremy Bernfeld reports for Guns America, a two-year partnership among 10 publicly owned media outlets to report on firearms and related issues.

Many gun owners chose not to fight the ban, pointing out that DIY bump stocks can be made easily, and that the law was difficult to enforce. However, some gun-rights activists sued to challenge the ban,. Lower courts upheld it and the Supreme Court opted not to hear the case. Though the case might appear to be about the Second Amendment, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that the case narrowly focused on a legal doctrine that prevents courts from overruling some federal regulations.

Rural schools that close because of the coronavirus must consider digital divide, lack of child care, and kids' hunger

Screenshot of Education Week's map of schools closed due to
the coronavirus; click here to view the interactive version.
Schools all over the nation are considering whether to close in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some school districts have closed for one day to allow for deep cleaning, and some have closed for weeks or longer. Rural superintendents must weigh additional factors when making the decision, including the digital divide, the lack of childcare, and hunger.

Rural students, especially in low-income families, are less likely to have any internet access at home, let alone broadband. That makes distance learning difficult, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

Also, younger children will need childcare if school is canceled, and it can be difficult for rural parents to find affordable, decent childcare, especially at the last minute. To add to that difficulty, some childcare centers are temporarily closing because of the coronavirus, Anna North reports for Vox.

Another consideration: Rural students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals may miss meals if schools are closed. Concern about keeping children fed has been a key factor in some high-poverty school districts' decision to stay open, Liz Crampton reports for Politico.

The Department of Agriculture said last weekend that schools forced to close can employ programs used during the summer to feed low-income children. "USDA, on a state-by-state basis, said it will waive the requirement that students must eat in group settings. The department will also allow meals to be served at off-campus sites like libraries and churches. Washington and California have already received such approvals," Crampton reports. "But that allowance only covers areas where more than 50 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals." School administrators and nutrition groups are pressing the federal government to make more children eligible for free or reduced-price meals during extended school closures.

Over 850,000 children have been affected by such closures so far, some in rural areas, according to Education Week, which is updating its nationwide interactive map of closures twice a day.

An old metal hook could determine whether PG&E is to blame for the deadliest wildfire in California history

This broken C-hook is believed to have triggered the
2018 Camp Fire. (Associated Press photos)
A century-old metal hook on an electric transmission tower may have triggered the deadliest wildfire in California history. "Known as a 'C-hook,' the badly worn piece of metal broke on Nov. 8, 2018, dropping a high-voltage electric line that sparked the Camp Fire, destroying the town of Paradise and killing 85 people," Russell Gold and Katherine Blunt report for The Wall Street Journal.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. agreed in 2019 to pay $1 billion to 14 local governments in the state for the wildfire damage caused by its out-of-date equipment and shoddy maintenance practices—which the company knew were problematic for years before the fire. But PG&E has hundreds of thousands more C-hooks in its 70,000-square-mile territory, and while it is scrambling to replace them, it has no good data on how old they are, Gold and Blunt report.

PG&E could face criminal charges in the wildfire. "Whether PG&E was negligent in inspecting and replacing these hooks has emerged as a key factor in a continuing California investigation that could determine whether the company and some of its former executives face criminal charges for their role in wildfires," Gold and Blunt report. PG&E equipment caused 18 deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that killed more than 100 people, according to state investigators.

Another PG&E C-hook shows how the
equipment can become worn over time.
Experts recommend replacing them
when they're 30 percent worn through.
The FBI's forensic lab is examining the hook now. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who is leading the investigation along with the state attorney general's office, said he expects to decide soon whether to charge the whole company, individuals at the company, or both.

The hook has a long reach. The case "has caught the attention of a federal judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation from a safety-related violation stemming from a 2010 natural-gas explosion," the Journal reports. "The judge is now demanding that the company produce more information on what it knows about the hooks and when it learned it."

March 17 teleconference to cover coronavirus prevention and treatment options

The Commonwealth Fund will host a March 17 teleconference briefing for journalists and policymakers to discuss prevention and treatment of the coronavirus. The call will last about an hour and will begin at 12:30 p.m. ET. Register here.

Experts will cover the following topics:
  • What policy tools do the federal government and states have at their disposal to address the pandemic, and what actions have they taken so far? 
  • How can we expand coverage and access to care through Medicaid, and how can we work with insurers so that no one is deterred from seeking needed treatment?
  • What role could emergency federal powers play, and where could they fall short?
The call will be conducted by:
  • Kevin Lucia, J.D., M.H.P., Research Professor, Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms
  • Sara Rosenbaum, J.D., Harold and Jane Hirsh Professor of Health Law and Policy, George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health
  • Moderator: Rachel Nuzum, M.P.H., Vice President, Federal and State Health Policy, The Commonwealth Fund
The Commonwealth Fund is a nonprofit dedicated to improving health care and making it more affordable and accessible to all Americans.

ReConnect broadband program application deadline extended to March 31

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended the application deadline for the ReConnect pilot program until March 31. The previous deadline was March 16.

The program will provide up to $200 million in grants, $200 million in low-interest loans, and up to $200 million for 50/50 loan/grant combinations. The USDA announced a second round of ReConnect funding on Dec. 12 and began accepting applications on Jan. 31.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipal governments are eligible to receive the funding. The agency will award funds to projects with financially sustainable business models that will bring high-speed internet to rural homes, businesses, farms and community facilities such as health care sites and schools.

For more information about applying for the program, you can access recordings of previous webinars here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Poor, rural moms with chronic depression may face greater health problems, according to new study

For rural moms with low incomes, chronic depression may be correlated with an increased incidence of other health problems, according to a newly published study.

Researchers from Washington State University analyzed three years' worth of data about 23 mothers with clinical depression, gathered from the ongoing, multi-state Rural Families Speak project. "The findings, published in the Journal of Family Social Work, show that moms who were chronically depressed experienced more health problems, distrusted doctors and had a worse outlook on their lives, compared with moms whose symptoms improved. The mothers’ depression also affected those closest to them," Traci Pedersen reports for Psych Central.

Moms who were chronically depressed and moms who were depressed but improving faced similar struggles in parenting. "However, chronically depressed moms faced greater challenges in dealing with their children’s emotional and behavioral issues, which were often compounded by a lack of childcare options, employment, concerns for delinquent behaviors and day-to-day behavioral management issues," Pedersen reports.

Maternal depression affects the whole family, said Dr. Yoshi Sano, an associate professor at Washington State who leads the Rural Families Speak project and was also the lead author of the paper. "Mothers are one of the main supports of the family, Sano told Pedersen. "They’re raising children, paying bills, and organizing events. When they’re depressed, the entire family is impacted."

Though policymakers often focus on physical health as an obstacle to self-sufficiency for low-income people, mental health is the biggest obstacle for moms and affects everything from family life to employability. But stigma and distrust of health care professionals is a roadblock to treatment, Sano said.

However, mental health access can be limited in rural areas, Tyler Harris reports for Nebraska Farmer. And women who live on farms often face added mental health burdens, said Tina Chasek, associate psychology professor at the University of Nebraska.

"Women in agriculture are sometimes called third-shift workers," Chasek told Harris. "They work outside the home to provide a steady income and insurance benefits. Then they take care of the family and work on the farm, in addition to being social support. So, they have three jobs. If a male farmer is going to talk, it's usually to his wife. Women on the farm often take care of everybody's emotional needs. So, there's a huge burden on them as well."

The Rural Health Information Hub has a Rural Suicide Prevention Toolkit with links to resources that can help rural policymakers implement suicide prevention programs. Click here to access it.

Creating viable dairy policy isn't easy, farm economists say

Coming up with a solid dairy policy is one of the biggest challenges in agricultural policy, for several reasons, Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray of the University of Tennessee write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column.

For one thing, milk is a perishable product with a short shelf life, which makes for a shorter marketing window than many other agricultural products. And as more dairy processors declare bankruptcy or consolidate, many dairy farmers have only a single buyer. "For the most part farmers who are selling milk are not in a competitive market where they can seek out the highest price. They are in a take-it-or-leave-it situation," Schaffer and Ray write.

Also, because it's easier to increase capacity and production in dairy than it is for row crop growers (just keep the cows alive a little longer and milk them more), it's easy to flood local markets with milk products. That leaves smaller dairy farmers especially vulnerable to being unable to find buyers because of supply chain economies of scale, they write. 

Senators urge FCC to make more rural areas eligible for broadband subsidy program, use better data for decisions

On March 9, two dozen senators published an open letter urging Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai to ensure that federal funding for rural broadband expansion will reach the communities that need it most, Makena Kelly reports for The Verge. Most of the senators were Democrats or independents who caucus with Democrats, but one Republican, Cory Gardner of Colorado, also signed the letter.

The agency announced the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in late January as a replacement for the Connect America Fund. The RDOF will give out $20.4 billion in subsidies for broadband network construction over the next decade, but, according to the senators' letter, communities that have already received funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect program or state broadband programs won't be eligible, Kelly reports.

Pai did not respond directly to the letter, but said at a Senate Appropriations Committeee hearing Tuesday that he did not want FCC funding to go to companies that had already received funding elsewhere. "The Democratic commissioners suggested that the maps should be fixed before the RDOF auctions move forward," Kelly reports. "Republican commissioners like Pai and Brendan Carr agreed that the maps need updating, but claim that they have enough data identifying wholly unserved communities to proceed with RDOF in those areas before the maps are fixed." The FCC has been criticized for relying on maps that overstate broadband coverage. Some state agencies are trying to create their own coverage maps to gain better access to rural funding.

The letter echoes an open letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue published in late February. A bipartisan group of senators called on the USDA to make more communities eligible for its ReConnect program, since areas could not qualify that had already received money from the FCC.

Low-income housing authorities scored based on self-assessment; renters may disagree

It can be difficult for low-income people to find decent subsidized housing through the Section 8 voucher program, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn't know much about it. That's because HUD allows local housing authorities to grade themselves on their success. Over the past five years, at least 90 percent of local housing authorities gave themselves perfect scores in helping people find homes, despite evidence that many are not doing such a great job, The Connecticut Mirror's Jacqueline Rabe Thomas reports for ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

Through the Section 8 voucher program, which operates in urban and rural areas, HUD pays a portion of the rent for qualified low-income people. But many landlords refuse to rent to those with Section 8 vouchers (though it's illegal), and in many places there isn't much affordable or rentable housing around in the first place, especially in rural areas. On top of that, some local housing authorities don't have enough case workers to shepherd voucher recipients through an often lengthy process, Thomas reports.

In the late 1990s, when HUD was dealing with a reduced staff, the department largely began relying on self-assessments to score local housing authorities. In late 2019, HUD's Office of Inspector General noted that relying on self-assessments was one of the agency's top challenges, Thomas reports.

Rising rents in rural areas make it more and more difficult for people to find affordable housing. Nearly a quarter of the nation's most rural counties have seen a big increase in the past decade in the number of households that spend at least half their income on housing, according to 2019 data.

Farm safety experts share tips for recovering from flooding

AgriSafe Network illustration highlights several health and safety risk factors that cold-weather floods can cause around the farm. Click the image to enlarge it.
Last year's record flooding devastated crops across the Midwest, and this spring is looking pretty soggy too. But damaged or prevented crops aren't the only problems cold-weather floods can cause, according to AgriSafe Network farm safety experts Linda Emanuel and Ellen Duysen, who spoke recently at the 2020 Nebraska Women in Agriculture Conference, Lori Potter reports for the Kearney Hub in Nebraska.

Emanuel is a farmer and registered nurse, and Duysen is the coordinator and outreach specialist for the Central States Center of Agricultural Safety and Health in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health.

After a flood recedes, farmers and rural residents often must contend with infections from poor sanitation, toxic mold, respiratory issues, contaminated water wells, E. Coli-related intestinal problems, and stress, they told conference attendees. It's also important to pay attention to mental health in the wake of a disaster, Emanuel said, since poor health and nutrition, lack of sleep, weather worries, finances, and isolation can all contribute to stress, Potter reports.

Duysen advised attendees not to wait for a flood to test their private wells, and said that more than 80 percent tested at any time are contaminated, She also advised attendees to make sure they had family and community response plans in place for future floods, Potter reports.

DTN seeking farmers willing to share a local view for its 'View from the Cab' program

If you're a farmer with the itch to speak up, this might be for you. DTN/The Progressive Farmer is seeking two farmers for its 15th annual "View From the Cab" program.

During the growing season, participants agree to talk to a DTN editor on the phone each week about how things are going for you and other local farmers. An editor may visit your farm occasionally during the season, and, if you're comfortable with it, you may be able to share pictures and videos of your farm.

To apply, just email crops technology editor Pamela Smith at and tell her why you want to be a contributor. Share a little bit about your farm, too.

"Contributors generally comment that it helps them feel more engaged in the industry. They are often surprised to find they've accomplished so much each week," Smith writes. Read more here.

Trump considers giving federal aid to fracking companies threatened by coronavirus-fueled oil war

UPDATE: The Trump administration is strongly considering extending federal aid to shale oil producers (some of whom also drill for natural gas) that have been hurt by falling oil prices, The Washington Post reports. Cornell University professor Robert Hockett, who advised Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on economic policy, said bailing out frackers would be "absurd," when "We are in the midst of a crisis where people are literally having to skip work and may miss paychecks or face medical debt" because of the coronavirus. 

However, Jared Bernstein, an Obama-era economic advisor to Joe Biden, noted that the Obama administration helped many firms with low-interest loans during the 2008 financial crisis, and said he would prefer that aid to oil companies come in the form of loan guarantees rather than cash bailouts, the Post reports.

The already unstable American shale-oil industry, which relies on horizontal hydraulic fracturing deep underground, is under threat because of a coronavirus-fueled game of chicken between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Demand for energy is falling worldwide as people cut back on travel and production in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. Too much supply and not enough demand for oil have lowered prices. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia urged other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut production in order to boost prices, but Russia refused. Because of the coronavirus and Russia's refusal, oil prices have dropped as much as 30 percent in the last week, The Associated Press reports.

"Now the fracking industry, which President Donald Trump sought to expand with hard-line support for increased fossil fuel production, faces potential ruin," Alexander Kaufman reports for HuffPost. "Fracking, a ballyhooed but financially fragile sector, struggled to stay afloat with crude selling at $50 per barrel. If prices stay around $30, or even fall as low as $20, U.S. frackers simply might be unable to keep up."

"The energy meltdown threatens to cause a repeat of the 2014-16 oil crash that bankrupted dozens of American oil and gas companies and caused hundreds of thousands of layoffs. Although the industry survived, the experience proved to be very painful," Matt Egan reports for CNN Business.

Fracking makes up 63% of U.S. oil production, according to estimates from the Energy Information Administration. Oil and gas drilling is growing faster in the U.S. than in any other country, and fracking accounts for 90% of that growth, Kaufman reports.

The fracking boom made the U.S. the world's largest oil producer and turned a decades-long petroleum deficit into a surplus last September, Jed Graham reports for Investor's Business Daily. But frackers have had to borrow heavily to drive that expansion, and they're not seeing the hoped-for profits. Meanwhile, productivity of wells has peaked, and prime drilling areas may be exhausted within the next five years.

Dozens of U.S. oil companies were already in financial trouble before the oil war, "but unlike the 2014 price plunge, Wall Street—down on the industry due to poor returns—isn’t primed to offer a helping hand," Collin Eaton and Rebecca Elliott report for The Wall Street Journal.

Pioneer Natural Resources Co. Chief Executive Scott Sheffield said that probably half of the nation's public oil exploration and production companies will go bankrupt over the next two years, Eaton and Elliott report. Pioneer is one of the leading producers in the Permian Basin.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Story and idea banks released for Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency and the news media's role in furthering it, starts Sunday, March 15. To help news media promote it, the Sunshine Week website has a toolkit featuring free stories, photos, opinion columns, editorial cartoons and more. 

In addition, the website has an idea bank and samples of coverage from other publications to spark your imagination.

Sunshine Week is led by the News Leaders Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Gridiron Club and Foundation.

Farmers can nominate a rural school district for a $15,000 STEM grant; deadline is April 1

Are you a farmer? Want to help support your local school district? If so, you can nominate them for a $15,000 grant to help fund classroom STEM projects by April 1. 

The annually awarded grant is available through the America's Farmers Grow Rural Education program, funded by Bayer. Nominated school districts can submit a grant proposal and compete with other schools within each state. 

Private and independent schools are not eligible for the grant. Public schools are eligible, including charter schools that are categorized as public schools by the National Center for Education Statistics. The winners will be notified in early August. Click here for more information.

Politico hosts discussion on farming practices and climate change; see full recording online

It's becoming increasingly clear that farming practices and food preferences impact climate change. On March 3 in Chicago, Politico agriculture reporter Liz Crampton hosted a deep-dive discussion of the topic called "On the Menu – The Food System of the Future."

The event, sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation, featured guests such as Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, chef Rick Bayless, and executive director of Chicago Food Policy Action Council Rodger Cooley.

Fitzgerald "said the agriculture industry can embrace both plant- and animal-based options to practice sustainability while preserving consumer choice. She said farmers can use marginal dairy farm land to grow other foods. Fitzgerald also said dairy cows play a role in upcycling, among other environmental benefits," Maia Spoto reports for The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper for Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She "added that farmlands need business protections so they can continue providing ecosystem services through carbon sequestration and animal habitat preservation."

The event was livecast, and you can view a full recording here.

In reporting on covid-19, say 'newly discovered cases,' say experts, since testing still hasn't caught up to coronavirus

In writing about covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, health experts say journalists need to keep in mind that the shortage of testing means that the number of reported cases is below the actual number. Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic report
The testing situation is so bad that Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard, says that health officials and journalists should stop reporting the number of positive cases in the United States as “new cases.” Instead, he wrote by email, “they should refer to them as ‘newly discovered cases,’ in order to remove the impression that the number of cases reported has any bearing on the actual number.”
Madrigal writes in another story, "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing procedures missed the bulk of the cases. They focused exclusively on travelers, rather than testing more broadly, because that seemed like the best way to catch cases entering the country. Just days ago, it was not clear that the virus had spread solely from domestic contact at all. But then cases began popping up with no known international connection. What public-health experts call “community spread” had arrived," meaning that cases couldn't be traced to other cases.

Reports as of 4 p.m. Monday showed 570 cases in 36 states. "Experts say that number is almost certainly too small to reflect the full extent of the disease’s spread in the U.S.," Meyer and Madrigal report. "Not enough Americans have been tested for officials to know how many people are ill, they say. When researchers have used statistical and genetic techniques to estimate the true size of the outbreak, they have concluded that thousands of Americans may have already been infected by the beginning of the month."

Now that testing is becoming more available, "the number of cases will grow quickly," Madrigal writes. "Public-health officials are currently cautioning people not to worry as that happens, but it will be hard to disambiguate what proportion of the ballooning number of cases is the result of more testing and what proportion is from the actual spread of the virus."

Monday, March 09, 2020

2 days after state's first covid-19 case is confirmed there, Ky. weekly sends a special edition to everyone in its county

The four-page edition was printed on thicker "bright
white" newsprint for easier handling and retention.
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

A weekly newspaper in Kentucky is setting a great example for the rest of the nation of how to deliver reliable information about the new coronavirus.

After working through the weekend, The Cynthiana Democrat sent a special edition today to every postal patron in Harrison County, where the first case of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was confirmed Saturday. Another was announced Sunday.

The idea arose as Editor Becky Barnes traveled with Cynthiana Mayor James Smith and County Judge-Executive Alex Barnett on Saturday from a state Capitol press conference that Gov. Andy Beshear held to announce the first case.

"I said, there's just so much information that needs to get out there," Barnes recalled, "because there's so much misinformation."

Barnett said he told Barnes and Smith, "Let's get it in every mailbox in the county and we’ll come up with a way to pay for it."

Smith said, "We talked about what should be in there, and decided how it should go to every household in the county," which has 18,000 people and "probably 6,000 households."

Becky Barnes, in 44th year at the paper
Smith said he thought it was a good idea because "Not everyone, especially in a rural county like Harrison County, has internet connection; not everybody is on Facebook; not everybody listens to the local radio," and some watch TV stations based in Cincinnati, not Lexington. "Some people in the county didn't even know we had a case in the county."

Newspapers can reach everyone in their home counties quickly because postal regulations allow them mail up to 10 percent of their annual circulation in their home county to non-subscribers at subscriber rates. It's a way to build and maintain print circulation, but many papers don't take advantage of it.

Harrison County (Wikipedia map)
Barnes was familiar with the idea, because The Cynthiana Democrat published a sample-copy edition after a 1997 flood in Harrison County. Her paper is owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, which regularly uses sample copying, and has a press in Cynthiana. That made it easier to print on Sunday and mail as soon as possible.

This is an example for the whole country. Printed community newspapers have a high level of trust with their readers, and are ideal vehicles to circulate reliable information on a topic that has become the subject of false or misleading online information and political talking points.

To make sure it reached everyone in the county, Barnes said, the paper went beyond the usual sample copying, sending (at extra cost) papers to patrons of post offices that are in other counties but serve Harrison County residents. It also provided copies to Harrison Memorial Hospital, which first treated the first patient found to have the disease and draws patients from adjoining counties.

So, who's paying for the printing and mailing of the special edition? Local officials are looking into funding sources, but say they will come up with the money if they have to. "We asked the postmaster if he could bill us later," Smith said. "We told Becky that, as a city, if the money doesn't come from other sources, the county and the city would figure out how to pay."

Smith concluded, "Hopefully, we're setting some examples for other communities."

Appalachian Reckoning, an anthology that rebuts Hillbilly Elegy, wins non-fiction award for books about Appalachia

An anthology meant to rebut J.D. Vance's controversial 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy has been recognized as one of this year's best non-fiction books about Appalachia.

Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, was named the winner of the 2020 Weatherford Award in the non-fiction category on March 6. The awards have been granted by Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association for the past 50 years in memory of W.D. Weatherford Sr., a pioneer and leading figure in Appalachian development, youth work and race relations, and his son, Willis D. Weatherford Jr., Berea College’s sixth president.

Appalachian Reckoning "is grounded in accessible essays that critique the continued national manipulation of escape stories like Vance’s that are associated with the region," according to the Weatherford Awards website. Its "wide variety of writing styles and authors (nonacademic, activists, artists, creative writers) show a region that fosters diverse lived experiences, which cannot be represented by a single voice or narrative. Going beyond binary choices and judgments, the collection displays the region’s rich spectrum of ethnicity and race, economic activity and creativity."

The anthology "presents the most sustained pushback to Vance’s book (soon to be a Ron Howard movie) thus far. It’s a volley of intellectual buckshot from high up alongside the hollow," according to The New York Times review.

The Weatherford Award for fiction went to Any Other Place, Michael Croley's collection of short stories about characters who live in rural Eastern Kentucky, Ohio, and South Korea. The poetry award went to Rose McLarney's Forage, which explores the "intimate and threatened interconnection of the land and its waters, people, animals and terrain," according to the Weatherford website.

USDA to host webinar Tuesday about ReConnect broadband program; applications are due by March 16

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar from 1 to 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, March 10 to discuss application tips for its ReConnect program, which aims to help rural areas build out broadband internet.

The program will provide up to $200 million in grants, $200 million in low-interest loans, and up to $200 million for 50/50 loan/grant combinations. The USDA announced a second round of ReConnect funding on Dec. 12 and began accepting applications on Jan. 31. Applications must be submitted by March 16. Click here to register for the webinar.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipal governments are eligible to receive the funding. The agency will award funds to projects with financially sustainable business models that will bring high-speed internet to rural homes, businesses, farms and community facilities such as health care sites and schools.

Bureau of Land Management office relocation based on faulty assumptions, says government watchdog report

The Trump administration's decision to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters and staff from Washington, D.C., to the West was based on faulty assumptions with little supporting evidence or metrics to measure success, according to report issued Friday by the Government Accountability Office, Dennis Webb reports for Colorado's Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. The bureau oversees 245 million acres of federal land and energy reserves in 12 Western states.

The Interior Department announced the office would move west in April 2018, saying it would save money and put the agency closer to regional stakeholders. In July the department announced the headquarters would move to Grand Junction by the end of 2020. Sixty workers would remain in Washington, about 40 would go to Grand Junction, and more than 250 would move to the National Operations Center in Denver or the National Training Center in Phoenix, Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., asked the GAO to review the process BLM officials used to make decisions on reorganization, Fears reports.

Though the administration said that relocation "would improve management, oversight, communications and customer services," officials didn't create or execute performance measures to show how they would meet those broad goals, the report says. The GAO notes that it requested information on performance measures, but BLM hadn't provided them as of Feb. 20.

The report "particularly faulted the agency for not properly involving employees and key stakeholders in developing its plan. It also took issue with the BLM’s cost-benefit analysis for the relocation and other aspects of it," Webb reports.

Also, the report says that BLM hasn't completed a plan to show how it will recruit for and fill vacant positions resulting from the relocation. "Of the 311 positions moved west, more than a third already were vacant before the relocation was announced, the report said. Ninety people accepted their reassignments and 81 declined," Fears reports. The announcement caused upheaval among the office's employees, as they grappled with decisions about custody agreements, caretaking of nearby family members and more.

Getting rid of employees may have been a key reason for the move, critics say. In September 2017 "then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke claimed nearly a third of his staff was disloyal to President Trump and reluctant to relax federal regulations to permit increased mining for coal and drilling for natural gas and oil on public land," Fears reports. "During his remarks to the National Petroleum Council, Zinke promised a 'huge' change by restructuring staff positions and possibly shifting decision-making positions at BLM to the Bureau of Reclamation in the West."

Both sides claimed victory after the report. Grijalva said in a statement that the report proves that "this administration cannot be trusted with the levers of power," and said its actions with the BLM will keep happening as long as Trump is in office. However, BLM officials said in a statement that the report proved that the agency set goals for the move and used evidence and data to inform its decision-making process, Fears reports.

The loss of BLM employees echoes what's happened at the Economic Research Service; two-thirds of the agency's staff is missing after the Department of Agriculture moved the office from D.C. to Kansas City last year. There, too, the administration has been accused of chasing away employees so it could hire new ones more loyal to the administration.

USDA announces African swine fever plan

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday a plan to deal with African swine fever if the fatal disease shows up in the United States. If a hogs in the U.S. tests positive for the disease, the USDA will halt all hogs shipments for at least three days, according to a press release. That would prevent farmers from delivering hogs to slaughterhouses.

The U.S. government is trying to "avoid the type of devastation seen in China, where the disease has reduced the herd by more than 40 percent and pushed pork prices to record highs. Since the China outbreak, African swine fever has broken out in 10 countries in Asia," Tom Polansek reports for Reuters. An outbreak could devastate the nation's $7 billion pork export market, especially when it's poised to become the largest export to China.

If an infected hog is detected, the USDA will lead a coordinated effort with state governments and the pork industry to contain the spread of the disease. If a farmer has an infected hog, the USDA recommends slaughtering it, then burying or composting it. "To reduce paperwork, USDA plans to pay for virus elimination at a uniform, flat rate, based on the size of affected premises," according to the press release.