Friday, April 03, 2020

Rural churches in Georgia, Kentucky and Washington state are reeling after gatherings spread the coronavirus

Rural churches in Georgia and Kentucky are dealing with guilt and regret after recent gatherings spread the coronavirus, sometimes fatally.

In Albany, Georgia, the Feb. 29 funeral of retired janitor Andrew Jerome Mitchell at M.L. King Memorial Chapel attracted more than 200 mourners. In the weeks afterward, about two dozen of Mitchell's friends and relatives fell ill, and the rural county now has one of the "most intense" clusters of covid-19 in the nation. "With a population of only 90,000, Dougherty County has registered 24 deaths, far more than any other county in the state, with six more possible coronavirus deaths under investigation," according to the local coroner, Ellen Barry reports for The New York Times.

Star of Bethlehem Church (Herald-Leader photo by Bill Estep)
In Dawson Springs, Kentucky, it was a revival March 14-15 at the Star of Bethlehem Church that did it, leading to more than two dozen cases and two deaths, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Gov. Andy Beshear used the incident as an example of how gatherings can spread the disease, but didn't name the church.

And weeks after a March 10 choir practice at a church in Skagit County, Washington, 45 of the 60 singers have been diagnosed with covid-19, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead, Richard Read reports for the Los Angeles Times. Increasing evidence suggests that covid-19 can be transmitted through aerosols, rather than just droplets.

Church gatherings, which usually include singing, are dangerous during a pandemic, said a retired physician in rural Kentucky who heads an infection-control group. "There is probably no better way to aerosolize the virus than singing," Kevin Kavanagh told The Rural Blog, noting the incident in Washington. "Close contact, indoor closed quarters plus singing is a set up for a disaster,"  Kavanagh is a retired physician in Somerset and chair of Health Watch USA.

Some local church leaders in Albany and Dawson Springs told reporters that churches were being unfairly singled out, and said no one intended to spread the virus. Estep notes, "In recent weeks, after Beshear asked churches not to gather, services in other Kentucky counties have led to potential exposure to the novel coronavirus for dozens of people, including services in Pulaski and Calloway counties."

FCC paves way for some rural broadband fee waivers during pandemic

The Federal Communications Commission announced Wednesday that it has approved two tariff waivers that will allow hundreds of rural broadband and phone providers "to forego late fees for customers with 'economic challenges' due to the pandemic," John Eggerton reports for Multichannel News.

The waivers for the National Exchange Carrier Association and John Staurulakis Inc. allow the rate-of-return carriers to waive late fees from any residential or small-business customers, as well as installation and early cancellation fees, in keeping with the FCC's Keep Americans Connected Pledge.

Quick hits: Simple Gifts from their living rooms; virus hitting fracking, coal hard; state takes bankrupt rural hospital

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

The pandemic is hitting the American coal industry hard. Read more here.

Singer/songwriter John Prine is still hospitalized battling covid-19, and his wife reports that he has pneumonia in both lungs. Read more here.

Washington state commandeers a bankrupt rural hospital. Read more here.

Trump administration details guidelines for small-business loans. Read more here.

Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra play Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring from their living rooms. Watch it here.

Could the coronavirus pandemic, and the related oil war, spell the end of horizontal hydraulic fracturing as we know it? Read more here.

White House promises to prioritize rural areas for new, rapid coronavirus tests, but few are available yet

White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx told reporters Thursday that Indian Health Services and rural areas without access to larger testing labs will be prioritized in receiving rapid-response coronavirus tests, David Lim reports for Politico.

The promise comes despite pleas from urban leaders to send the tests to larger areas already experiencing outbreaks, The Washington Post reports. But very few tests are available right now, so it may be a while before they can make much difference anyway.

The new tests, made by Abbott Laboratories, can detect the virus in as little as five minutes and can be analyzed in-house. If accurate, the tests would be a vast improvement over the current system that requires swabs to be sent off to larger labs, the Post reports.

Abbott said it will eventually be able to manufacture 50,000 tests per day, Lim reports. However, so far only about 5,500 test cartridges and 780 testing devices have been ordered sent to state and local public health labs, according to a leaked internal document circulated among officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency this week. "Labs in all 50 states were set to receive roughly the same number of Abbott’s test cartridges and the devices on which they run ― 100 tests and 10 or 15 devices — the document shows, regardless of how many confirmed covid-19 cases officials had reported in each state," Rachana Pradhan reports for Kaiser Health News.

The Food and Drug Administration is speeding up approval of rapid tests from other manufacturers, so more testing may be available soon even if Abbott can't keep up with demand, Matthew Herper reports for Stat.

Death in Mud Lick digs into the opioid crisis in rural West Virginia, underlines the value of local journalists

A new book from former Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre takes a deep dive into the opioid epidemic through the lens of Kermit, W.Va., a town of 382 people whose pharmacy distributed 12 million pain pills in three years. Death in Mud Lick details one woman's fight to seek accountability from major pharmaceutical companies after her brother's overdose death.

"The story is also a reporter’s firsthand account about what it’s like to mine for the truth while working for a newspaper fighting for survival on multiple fronts, as greedy corporate owners make serious budget cuts to maintain the paper’s profit margins and as combative politicians stonewall," Ralph Berrier Jr. reports for The Roanoke Times. "Death in Mud Lick is for readers who root for the underdog, who want justice served and who love newspapers."

Eric Eyre
Readers should appreciate the scale of Eyre's battle and what it accomplished, ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong, a former colleague of Eyre's, writes for The New Yorker. Eyre researched and wrote the book while he was still cranking out near-daily stories for the paper, facing off against the powerful drug industry with little funding, decrepit equipment, and an increasingly difficult battle with Parkinson's disease. He persevered, and "his reporting led to restrictions on prescriptions, greater tracking, more transparency. He shamed an industry and saved lives. Working at a small newspaper, Eyre made a big difference," Armstrong writes.

For Eyre, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his coverage of the opioid epidemic in rural West Virginia, the book perhaps serves as his final bow in journalism: With his Parkinson's getting worse, he submitted his resignation letter last week; Armstrong reports:. "The same day his book came out, Eyre left the paper."

Newspapers are in distress from covid-19, and the impact on rural newspapers may be worse; a great one suffers

From left: John, Mary, Tom, Dolores and Art Cullen (SLTimes photo)
Several recent stories chronicle the financial pressures hitting local newspapers as a result of the coronavirus and measures being taken to limit its spread, but few have said much about the problems of rural newspapers, which were already suffering from a move of local advertising to global digital platforms. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post writes about one of the best-known rural papers, The Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa, which won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials in 2017.

"Buena Vista County, Iowa, has yet to log a positive coronavirus case," Wemple reports. "The media economy associated with the pandemic, however, has arrived." Times Editor Art Cullen tells him, “Advertising has disappeared, so we will lose money in March and it was tough enough before this. . . . Small-town businesses discovered Facebook or Google and there goes that 20-buck ad you were living on. And we live on $20 ads. That’s how we make a living — the scraps that fall off the table.”

About half of the 2,800-circulation twice-weekly's revenue comes from advertising, and restrictions on gatherings and business activity "have a particular impact on a rural newspaper," Wemple writes. "Auctions of all sorts — for land, farm equipment, etc. — 'just aren’t happening,' says Cullen." The paper's subscription price is $70 a year, but it also depends on single-copy sales, and shopping is different now, Cullen says: “People are so loaded up with toilet paper, they can’t get a newspaper.”

Cullen told Wemple that he is planning to go on Social Security and give up his salary, following the example of his older brother Tom, the paper's publisher. But Art's reporter son Tom, 27, would like to take over the paper and has concerns: “Committing yourself to an industry that no one seems to want to support is not necessarily that prudent,” he told Wemple, while appreciating the paper’s readers and advertisers. “But still — you know, you win a Pulitzer Prize and you lose money? That’s crap. I want to see my parents retire. I want to see my uncle retire.”

The Kentucky Press Association reports on its survey of members about how they are coping.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Where America didn't stay home as the coronavirus spread
NYT map shows percentage change in average travel last week; dark red is normal; orange is half of normal; lightest gray is no travel; outlined areas had stay-at-home orders, or guidance that amounted to a stay-at-home order, before March 27.
The New York Times has used cellphone data to show how Americans moved about last week, indicating that "Stay-at-home orders have nearly halted travel for most Americans, but people in Florida, the Southeast and other places that waited to enact such orders have continued to travel widely, potentially exposing more people as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates." Read more.

The map is based on anonymous data from 15 million people March 23-26, the Times reports: "Disease experts who reviewed the results say those reductions in travel — to less than a mile a day, on average, from about five miles — may be enough to sharply curb the spread of the coronavirus in those regions, at least for now."

The meaning of the data is not entirely clear. "The coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented in scale in recent history, and it is hard to know the exact relationship between changes in travel patterns and how quickly the virus spreads," the Times notes. "Other factors play a big role, including how quickly sick people are tested and isolated, how closely people tend to congregate — and luck. Sheltering in place is protective and clearly reduces people’s contact with others, but the existing evidence that the policy can effectively contain an epidemic within a large population is uncertain, experts said."

Here's part of a Times map showing when the average distance traveled first fell below two miles, limited to the southern half of the country, where travel has been heaviest. Not surprisingly, rural counties were less likely to fall below that threshold. For a larger version of the map, click on it.

Lee, Gannett, and other newspaper chains tighten belts in response to pandemic-related ad revenue loss

Lee Enterprises locations; cluster in Va. and N.C. are former BH
Media papers (Lee map; click here to see full list of publications)
News-media companies across the U.S. are tightening their belts because of a drop in ad revenue from the coronavirus pandemic. That includes Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers, many of them small, in 25 states, Kristen Hare reports for The Poynter Institute.

In a memo sent to staff on Tuesday, Lee CEO Kevin Mowbray announced pay reductions and furloughs to make sure the company can stay afloat. In the third quarter of 2020, the executive team will take a 20 percent pay cut on top of the pay cut they got in the first quarter. "All other employees will be subject to either a pay reduction or furlough equivalent to two weeks of salary also in the third quarter," Mowbray wrote.

Other chains have taken similar measures. Alternative weeklies all over the country are laying off staff and closing, Hare reports. And, on Monday alone, Gannett announced company-wide furloughs and cost-cutting measures, Vice cut some pay and benefits, Maven Media Brands (which owns Sports Illustrated) announced layoffs and pay cuts, and The Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns, cut most of its print days and furloughed some non-newsroom staff.

Postal Service may have to shut by summer without more stimulus, warn two top House Democrats who oversee it

The financially burdened U.S. Postal Service may have to close this summer if it doesn't receive more stimulus funding, two Democratic representatives said in a statement last week. Carolyn Maloney of New York, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who chairs the Subcommittee on Government Operations (which oversees the USPS), wrote in the statement that losing the service "could be even more dire in rural areas, where millions of Americans are sheltering in place and rely on the Postal Service to deliver essential staples."

"The House version of the stimulus/relief bill included $25 billion in direct cash to the Postal Service, 'for revenue forgone due to the coronavirus pandemic,' as well as the elimination of the USPS’s outstanding debt and the authorization to borrow a further $15 billion," Elizaeth Bauer reports for Forbes. "The final version, in contrast, provided only for $10 billion in future borrowing ability."

It seems counterintuitive that mail volume is down, since so many people are ordering goods online—especially from Amazon—but that hasn't helped the Postal Service much. Amazon hires its own delivery workers for two-day Amazon Prime shipments in urban and suburban areas, where it's inexpensive to deliver many packages quickly. The USPS delivers about a third of Amazon packages, but most of that is in rural areas where Amazon has deemed it too expensive to hire its own delivery drivers. So the Postal Service is stuck delivering the more time-consuming Amazon packages while losing out on the easier money, Rachel Premack reports for Business Insider. USPS delivers most packages in rural areas because private companies like FedEx and UPS find it hard to make a profit there, but it "has a legal imperative to serve all U.S. addresses, even low-margin, low-density rural neighborhoods," Premack notes. Costs are also increasing because of health and safety measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Jason Del Ray reports for Vox.

"Merely increasing the ability of the Postal Service to borrow money will not solve this problem," Joe Davidson writes for The Washington Post.

The Postal Service has been searching for ways to stay afloat. Its Office of Inspector General recently published a white paper detailing its research into how other developed countries such as Canada, France, and Australia are able to offer rural mail delivery without going into the red. Researchers found that foreign postal services frequently outsource post office duties to private businesses, and that some also general revenue from non-postal services such as financial services or digital identity verification. Also, most of the other postal services require a minimum number or density of retail outlets to be present in an area before delivery service is guaranteed.

Coronavirus slams state budgets; it's unclear how much federal stimulus will help offset reduced revenue

"Governors nationwide have ordered businesses to close and people to stay home in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But the public-health measures have created an economic crisis that will, in turn, hit state and city budgets," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline. "Now policymakers are scrambling to figure out how much spending power they’re losing at a moment when they need money to fight the pandemic and help laid-off workers and struggling businesses."

It's impossible to know at this point how much the pandemic will impact state budgets, but early estimates look troubling, said Brian Sigritz, director of state fiscal studies for the National Association of State Budget Officers. The drop-off in tax collections "could be more severe than the Great Recession," Sigritz told Quinton.

Sigritz said the $150 billion in coronavirus relief for states and cities in the federal stimulus package could help stabilize state budgets, but it's unclear how much it will help. "The budget outlook has worsened for states as it’s become clear that social distancing restrictions will need to be in place for months, not weeks, to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with coronavirus patients," Quinton reports.

Today is International Fact-Checking Day; resources are available for journalists, students and the audience

Appropriately for the day after April Fool's Day, today is International Fact-Checking Day. The observance is spearheaded by the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network, which celebrates, promotes and funds fact-checking through grants, weekly newsletters, fellowships, training, conferences and more.

Fact-checking is a hallmark of good journalism and, now more than ever, it's both "indispensable and life-saving," Cristina Tardáguila and Susan Benkelman write. This year's observance centers on the coronavirus pandemic, since there is so much misinformation. In January IFCN launched the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, a group of more than 100 fact-checkers from all over the world that publishes a frequently updated searchable database of covid-19 fact-checks from all over the world that both journalists and regular consumers can use as a resource.

News publications can raise awareness with readers and students by sharing this Poynter article and the accompanying MediaWise PSA video, which note that taking 20 seconds to fact-check a coronavirus claim before sharing is just as important as taking 20 seconds to wash your hands.

You can follow the conversation online today by looking for @factchecknet and #FactcheckingDay on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

How has the pandemic has affected agriculture so far?

The coronavirus pandemic has stressed an already stressed agriculture industry, Ben Lilliston reports for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: "For more than six years, farmers have been managing low incomes, rising costs, increasing debt and bankruptcy, volatile export markets (exacerbated by President Trump’s tariff fights) and a series of extreme weather events tied to climate change. Now, the fast-moving, unprecedented covid-19 situation is creating new disruptive challenges for farmers and our food system."

Lilliston gives a run-down of how farm markets have been affected by the pandemic. The already-hurting dairy sector was hurt by "the closing of schools (which account for 7 percent of the fluid milk consumed in the U.S.) and restaurants (major cheese purchasers)," he reports. "Co-ops are considering milk dumps to deal with excess supply."

Restaurant closures also hit the beef market, contributing to a price drop of $250 to $300 per head. "Cattle ranchers were already calling for a federal investigation into the widening gap between prices paid to producers and the costs consumers pay in the supermarket for beef," Lilliston reports. "In a tacit acknowledgement that meat-industry profits at a time of covid-19 are bad optics, Tyson Foods and Cargill are temporarily lifting their prices to farmers and increasing wages to workers."

Some meatpacking employees have tested positive for the virus, but meat and poultry workers say their jobs require them to work in close quarters even when they're sick, which could facilitate the spread of disease, Michael Grabell reports for ProPublica.

So far, only two meatpackers, Tyson and Cargill, have announced temperature checks to screen employees for signs of covid-19. "Two more say they have begun rolling them out," Grabell reports. "But except for unionized plants, meat and poultry workers rarely get paid when they’re sick. At many companies, including Tyson, workers receive disciplinary points for calling in sick. Because points lead to termination, workers told ProPublica, they and some of their colleagues have continued to work even when sick, despite the coronavirus."

University of Illinois agriculture economist Gary Schnitkey advised that the agriculture sector needs to observe social distancing, restricted travel and increased hand-washing to limit the virus's spread, Mike McGinnis reports for Successful Farming.

Farmers who sell products directly to consumers in community supported agriculture programs are doing well, and many have been overwhelmed with orders from people seeking to stock up in uncertain times, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture newsletter.

Ag stakeholders have tried to reassure consumers that the food supply chain is fine, and have urged people not to hoard food, McGinnis reports. However, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that some food and farming supply chain disruptions could be on the horizon in nations with significant outbreaks, and that smaller farmers will be particularly vulnerable to any shortages. The group recommends boosting nutrition safety nets and reducing some import tariffs.

Stress-baking and hoarding, possibly in conjunction with Easter coming up, has led to a retail egg shortage, Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. Consumers wanting to ensure future supply of eggs and meat have even caused a temporary shortage in chicks, Emily Davies reports for the Post.

The recent federal stimulus package provided $9.5 billion for agricultural relief. Farm Policy News has a good roundup of news articles about relief in the package for agriculture.

Group that favors prison, jail and bail reform advises rural prisons and jails on how to respond to the pandemic

Rural jails and prisons require special consideration in preventing and responding to coronavirus infections, according to The Vera Institute of Justice, which favors reform of prisons, jails and bail: "Responding to the coronavirus poses particular challenges for many rural counties, where people are incarcerated at the highest rates in the United States, and residents have only a fragile or fragmented public-health safety net. Since 2013, the rural jail population has grown 27 percent," while rural hospital closures are accelerating.

"Public health and corrections officials have issued dire warnings that cramped and unsanitary conditions could turn prisons into a haven for the virus, endangering not just inmates but also corrections officers and prison health-care workers as well as their families and communities," The Washington Post reports. Counties and states have been releasing thousands of inmates in the past week, and the federal prison system is under increasing pressure to take action.

Some of Vera's recommendations include releasing as many people as possible to reduce infections, and ensuring that the justice system partners with community health care providers to make sure that people leaving custody can access medical care. Read the rest of the recommendations here.

Rural areas have driven the increase in jail and prison capacity over the past decade, with many rural areas building prisons to create jobs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been an increasingly good customer in recent years, paying jails and prisons to incarcerate undocumented detainees. Such detainees are often first held in crowded detention camps on the border, and experts warn that the cramped conditions there (not to mention in prisons and jails overall) makes the spread of disease more likely, Silvia Foster-Frau reports for the San Antonio Express-News.

At a county jail in Alabama last week, two inmates threatened to kill themselves if visibly sick new ICE detainees were allowed in. "According to video live-streamed on an inmate’s Facebook page, the two detainees stood on a ledge over a common area, nooses fashioned from sheets wrapped around their necks, and threatened to jump," the Post reports. Another inmate said in the video, "We’re not trying to put no more lives at risk."

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons announced Tuesday that federal inmates will be confined to their cells for the next two weeks to help combat the spread of covid-19, Josh Gerstein reports for Politico. But the isolation won't be complete; prisoners will be allowed to go to commissaries, laundries, showers, telephones and computers.

Census Day is today; let's remind Americans to respond

"Every 10 years, the census counts every American wherever they live on one particular day: 'Census Day.' Since 1930, that day has been April 1. This year, the millions charged with making door-to-door counts for the 2020 decennial census must wait in the wings. Because of covid-19, field operations have been suspended until April 15," Dan Bouk reports for The Hill.

The day should serve as a reminder to rural residents especially that it's important to respond—federal funding and congressional representation are riding on it, and rural states depend the most on the census for such funding.

Rural areas are likely having a harder time responding to the census this year, though. The Census Bureau shifted to relying primarily on online response this year, which puts areas with limited high-speed internet access at a higher risk of being undercounted.

The Census Bureau "is spending $500 million on outreach efforts, including advertising, and it’s relying on more than 300,000 nonprofits, businesses, local governments and civic groups to encourage participation in their communities. Those efforts have been hamstrung by the nationwide shutdown," The Associated Press reports.

"Researchers at the Urban Institute worry that changed accommodations made in response to the coronavirus may present a distorted picture of where people are living on Census Day," The AP reports. "Some people have left their usual residences to move back in with parents or elderly relatives, escaped to vacation homes or had to move because they couldn’t pay rent due to lost jobs during the pandemic, they said."

That migration could affect rural counts, since many people have been fleeing to rural areas in recent weeks to escape the pandemic. Some towns have asked summer residents to stay away.

Rural covid-19 deaths more than double since March 26; interactive map shows county-level details

Daily Yonder chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
"From March 26 through March 30, deaths from covid-19 increased 128 percent nationally," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "In rural counties during that period, deaths increased by 217 percent, from 30 deaths by March 26 to a cumulative total of 95 deaths by the end of March 30."

The number of rural covid-19 cases also increased at a higher rate than the national average since March 26. "From March 26 through March 30, the number of covid-19 cases nationally increased by 90%," Bishop reports. "In rural counties, however, the number of covid-19 cases in rural counties jumped by 103 percent during this same period."

See the Yonder item for an interactive map with county-level data.

Maine island will get solar-driven microgrid to ensure power

Ensio map; click to enlarge it.
The residents of Isle au Haut, off the Maine coast, are used to being creative in meeting daily needs when going to the mainland seven miles away can be a chore. The 2-by-6-mile island, population 73, gets electricity via an underwater cable, but the cable is old and could fail anytime, Stephanie Bouchard reports for Ensia, a nonprofit news outlet focusing on climate change and the environment.

"If the cable fails, the island can run its backup diesel generator, but that would triple the cost of electricity for residents, says Jim Wilson, the president of Isle au Haut Electric Power Co. ," Bouchard reports. "Five years ago, knowing the islanders were living on borrowed time, the electricity company board began researching options. Among them: creating a microgrid for the island . . . independent from the mainland power utility company."

They studied how to generate power, and installing a solar grid turned out to be much cheaper than any other option, including replacing the underwater cable. "With the support of islanders, the power company is getting ready to install a renewable microgrid energy system this summer, which includes a 300-kilowatt solar array of 900 panels," Bouchard reports.

The islanders have run into some challenges, including energy storage and paying for the initial costs; other communities seeking to convert to renewable energy could face some of the same issues. Click here to read more about those challenges and how the community aims to meet them.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Thursday webinar to discuss how journalists can best combat health and environment misinformation from officials

The Society of Environmental Journalists will host a free, one-hour webinar at noon ET Thursday, April 2 to discuss lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic and how that could inform journalists' coverage of environmental and health crises.

From the webinar site: "Global action to tackle climate change and covid-19 have both been thwarted by a lack of political will and impeded by misinformation. How can journalists inform their audiences in ways that support constructive decision-making rather than apathy or paralysis? How should journalists respond when misinformation comes directly from policymakers or major news networks? And how will changes in our approach to crises and misinformation factor into our coverage of these issues as we approach the 2020 election?"

Click here to register or for more information.

Coronavirus pandemic prompts postponements of deadlines for Real ID, ReConnect loans and grants and more

The pandemic has prompted the federal government to move back compliance or application deadlines for many programs. Here are a few with rural resonance:

President Trump announced Monday that he will push back the Oct. 1 deadline that would have required Americans to have a Real ID-compliant identification in order to board a plane or enter military bases and federal buildings, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. After the deadline, people without a Real ID would have to have a passport in order to fly or enter those buildings.

No new deadline has been set, but the National Governors' Association asked the Department of Homeland Security to extend the deadline by one year, Noble reports. An extension will help rural residents especially, who have been having a harder time acquiring Real IDs.

The Department of Agriculture has extended the application deadline for the ReConnect rural broadband program to April 15, according to a press release. The deadline has already been extended once for the program, which will provide up to $600 million in loans, grants, and loan/grant combos for rural broadband buildout.

The Federal Communications Commission announced last week that it will extend the application window for the Rural Health Care Program until June 30. The program provides funding to qualified health care providers for telecommunications and broadband services for telehealth services. Annual funding is called at $571 million.

Covid-19 cases have spread to nearly half of rural counties; interactive map has county-level data

Daily Yonder map using USA Facts data. Click the map to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive version.
Nearly half of U.S. rural counties had at least one confirmed coronavirus case as of March 29, according The Daily Yonder, which has done an outstanding job of reporting the rural spread of the disease and creating rural-centric interactive maps using data from non-profit news site USA Facts.

"Since the Yonder reported Friday on the spread of the virus, an additional 176 rural counties have recorded covid-19 cases. As of Sunday, 941 out of 1,977 rural counties have confirmed cases of the disease that is spreading across the nation," Bill Bishop and Tim Marema report. "Both rural and urban counties showed the same steady increase in reported cases over the weekend. From Friday to Sunday, cases of covid-19 increased in both rural and urban counties by between 41 and 50 percent."

Joe Diffie, who had 'a voice as pure and rich and note-perfect as any baritone in Nashville,' dies at 61 of covid-19

Photo by Suzi Pratt, FilmMagic/Getty, via Rolling Stone
Country-music singer Joe Diffie, 61, announced Friday that he had covd-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. On Sunday, he was dead of complications from it.

Diffie "helped set the standard for upbeat, rock-influenced country music in the 1990's," Randy Speck writes on his Notorious Meddler blog from Albany, Ky., at the northeast corner of the Nashville TV market and home of Howard Perdew, who wrote or co-wrote three of Diffie's biggest hits: "Pickup Man," "Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (if I Die)" and "So Help Me Girl."

Born in Tulsa, Diffie grew up in a musical family. He said "His parents claimed he could sing harmony when he was three years old," Speck reports. Perhaps the best appreciation of him was written by David Von Drehle of The Washington Post (which adds Spotify clips of Diffie's big hits):
Joe Diffie’s secret was a voice as pure and rich and note-perfect as any baritone in Nashville. A secret, because that wasn’t what country music fans wanted from him during his time at the top of the charts in the 1990s. They wanted a fellow with a friendly air, 30 extra beer pounds and a proud, bad mullet — Diffie rocked the worst/best mullet in the business. Diffie had, in other words, a “Honky Tonk Attitude,” to borrow a title and a vibe from one of his toe-tapping hits. He was a “Pickup Man” — that Middle American hero whose identity begins with his truck and goes from there. (Because you can’t have a tailgate without a truck.) Some Diffie hits, such as the sci-fi novelty “Third Rock From the Sun,” were so light they evaporated before their three minutes were up, leaving only the stickiness behind. But back in the last years before the iPod changed everything, when radio was still king, Diffie made hits that played well as background music, but had hooks that sent you grabbing for the volume knob.
Von Drehle concludes by noting Diffie's "breathtaking duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1992, 'Not Too Much to Ask.' Their meeting is the high point of Carpenter’s magnificent album, 'Come On Come On,' and it shows why Diffie had not just fans, but admirers, too."

Top West Virginia journalist Ken Ward Jr. will head up a nonprofit news venture in the state with his former editor

Ken Ward Jr.
Top West Virginia journalist Ken Ward Jr. followed his editor Greg Moore out the door at the Charleston Gazette-Mail a month ago. Now they will lead a nonprofit newsroom in the state. "The not-yet-named news outlet (candidates include 'Mountain State Muckraker') will begin with a staff of about 10, seven of them journalists, a news team on the same scale as the diminished local paper," Ben Smith reports for The New York Times. The new project will receive support from Report for America, which sends fledgling reporters to newsrooms in underserved areas.

The project is the brainchild of journalist Elizabeth Green and investor John Thornton, who co-founded the American Journalism Project, which "aims to create a huge network of nonprofit outlets, some organized around subjects like education or criminal justice, others focused on covering a town, a city or a state," Smith reports. Green, a former reporter, created the nonprofit education news organization Chalkbeat after she was laid off; she believes nonprofit news ventures are the future and that hedge fund-owned chains are bleeding local papers dry, Smith writes.

"There’s all this 'doom and gloom for local journalism stories' that have happened in the last week or so, and I hope that other people see what we’re doing and understand that the important thing is the journalism — it’s the stories, it’s the investigations — that’s what matters," Ward told Smith.

In addition to his role in the new initiative, Ward has signed on as a full-time ProPublica staffer, he told The Rural Blog in an email. Ward had been part of ProPublica's Local Reporting Network, a project that supports investigative journalism at smaller papers, since its inaugural class in 2018. That same year, he won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship based on his investigative reporting. And in 2019, Ward was one of three winners of the Tom and Pat Gish Award, presented by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog), for his tenacious reporting on coal and other rural topics.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Preliminary estimates of pandemic impact by state available from a model much like one used by federal scientists

How is the covid-19 pandemic likely to affect your state? The first preliminary public estimates are available from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Because the estimates are based on limited data, they should be used with caution, but they do offer a rough state-by-state comparison, and IHME plans to update it daily. “Every day that we get more data, we'll get better predictions,” Institute Director Christopher Murray told The Washington Post.

Murray wrote in his report that his initially published numbers used confirmed covid-19 deaths through March 24, and state-by-state data on hospital capacity and use, and used covid-19 data "from select locations to develop a statistical model forecasting deaths and hospital utilization against capacity by state for the U.S. over the next four months."

Deaths in a pandemic typically follow a bell-shaped curve. The report estimated the peak of the curve for each state and the likeliest number of deaths on that day. Health experts talk of the need to "flatten the curve" to keep the number of cases from overwhelming the health-care system, and Kentucky appears to be doing that than its neighbor Tennessee, which has imposed less strict measures for social distancing to limit the spread of the virus. However, the estimates for Kentucky have wider ranges because they are based on more limited data.
Projections above for Kentucky, below for Tennessee; shaded areas indicate possible ranges.
To view a larger version of either image, click on it. Images have been squeezed horizontally.
One major obstacle to dealing with the virus is the lack of testing, which could track its spread. widespread testing would identify people who have the virus but no symptoms, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN. People without symptoms can still spread the virus, and not develop symptoms until two weeks.

The University of Washington estimated that as many as 162,000 Americans will die from covid-19, but that the number could be as low as 38,000. It said the likeliest number is 81,114 deaths.

"In addition to a large number of deaths from covid-19, the epidemic in the U.S. will place a load well beyond the current capacity of hospitals to manage, especially for ICU care," Murray wrote.

Murray's results closely resemble those from a model developed by federal scientists, said Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House's coronavirus task force. “When we finished, the other group that was working in parallel, which we didn't know about, IHME and Chris Murray, ended up at the same numbers,” Birx said at President Trump's daily press conference Sunday.

Meth from Mexican drug cartels is on the rise in Appalachia, fueled partly by officials' efforts to cut off opioid access

Central Appalachia has been long known as a hotbed of opioid addiction, but, aided by Mexican drug cartels, methamphetamine abuse has been surging in the area for the past few years, presaging a nationwide increase in abuse of a more powerful form of the drug.

"The region where Kentucky meets Ohio and West Virginia has served as a harbinger of national drug trends," Timothy Williams reports for The New York Times. Pain pills like OxyContin, stimulants known as bath salts, prescription anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and, more recently, heroin and fentanyl were all adopted by drug users here before gaining wider use nationally."

Efforts to end opioid abuse, along with increasing awareness of the dangers of adulterated opioids, have led to the resurgence of crystal meth. "Doctors and hospitals have unwittingly accelerated the switch to methamphetamine by significantly reducing their patients’ access to pain medication; opioid users, increasingly fearful about overdosing on heroin and fentanyl, have been desperate for a substitute," Williams reports. Mexican drug cartels such as Sinaloa or the Jalisco Nueva Generación have "sought to fill the vacuum by targeting Appalachia, federal drug officials say. The traffickers follow the same business model that allowed them to inundate the nation with heroin: make meth potent and sell it cheap to ensure a steady customer base, and ultimately, mass addiction."

Until recently, meth was mostly a locally made product that varied widely in strength, but the newer Mexican version is often mixed with cocaine and/or fentanyl. Because fentanyl is cheap and a little goes a long way, it and cocaine enhance the user's high and hasten addiction, Williams reports. But it also makes overdoses more likely.

Coronavirus slams rural areas that depend on skiing and hiking; some towns ask summer residents to stay away

Though the coronavirus pandemic has hit urban areas the hardest, rural cases are rising, especially in rural tourist meccas. Counties that have yet to report any coronavirus cases are mostly rural and poor, The Associated Press reports.

"Rural counties in Colorado, Utah and Idaho, where hordes of visitors flock each year to ski or hike, are ... experiencing some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases per capita in the nation, threatening to overwhelm local hospitals and challenging perceptions of the virus’ reach," Rick Jervis, Deborah Berry and Matt Wynn report for USA Today. "Four counties – Blaine County, Idaho; Summit County, Utah; and Eagle County and Gunnison County, Colorado – lead the nation in per-capita rates of confirmed cases, outside New York state and Louisiana, according to a USA Today analysis of coronavirus cases across the country." The analysis used numbers through March 26.

Many ski resorts nationwide shut down in mid-March after tourists brought the virus to town. But it's not just tourists being asked to stay home. Some small communities whose economies depend on an influx of summer residents are asking them to stay away.

"As the coronavirus quickly spreads across the nation’s urban centers, local leaders in some rural areas — who prize their independent, conservative values that tend toward a live-and-let-live attitude — are taking actions that contradict their ethos in order to keep the virus away," Dionne Searcey reports for The New York Times. "Some officials have anguished over their actions, chiefly because they go against the beliefs of their communities. In New York’s Catskills region, residents still complain about government moves decades ago to seize land surrounding a key watershed. Yet fearful of the virus’s spread, a handful of rural counties have issued bluntly worded orders for second homeowners to stay away."

In Florida, the opposite is happening. Snowbirds ready to migrate back north during warmer weather are being warned to stay put, for fear that they might spread the virus. Such efforts have been largely unsuccessful, Politico reports.

What's in the virus-relief bill for agriculture and rural areas? For one thing, first disaster-aid money for local food

On Friday President Trump signed a $2 trillion spending bill aimed at providing relief to Americans struggling from the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of the provisions with rural resonance.

Most Americans will receive direct payments: individuals up to $1,200, couples twice that, plus $500 per child. Individuals with pre-tax incomes above $75,000 will get progressively less, and those who make more than $99,000 won't get anything. Those thresholds are doubled for married couples, CNN reports in a story that includes a calculator to see how much you qualify for.

"The bill provides $15.8 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to cover an expected jump in applications as more workers are laid off. But Democrats were unable to secure the 15 percent boost to households’ SNAP benefits they were seeking as a tradeoff for additional farm aid," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

"The Depression-era financial institution known as the Commodity Credit Corporation would see its spending authority replenished to the tune of $14 billion," McCrimmon reports. The CCC has been the source of funds for President Trump's compensation to farmers for his trade war. "The package also sets up a $9.5 billion emergency fund for producers, including fresh fruit and vegetable growers, dairy farmers and cattle ranchers, along with local food systems like farmers markets." The bill is the first disaster-relief package to explicitly include local and regional food markets, Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told McCrimmon.

The package includes $150 billion for hospitals and medical workers. "Hospitals and health systems will get $100 billion in emergency grants. Billions more will provide protective equipment for medical workers, ventilators for patients, testing supplies and new construction to house patients," Paige Winfield Cunningham reports for The Washington Post. Hospitals will get a 20 percent increase in Medicare payments for treating covid-19 patients, Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes report for Politico. Telehealth services, a great help in rural areas, will get $200 million.

State and local governments will receive $150 billion in relief funds, with $8 billion set aside for local governments, Emma and Scholtes report. The package also expands unemployment eligibility and offers recipients an extra $600 a week for four months, on top of whatever state programs pay. And employers and self-employed individuals will be able to defer the 6.2% Social Security tax they pay on wages, half until the end of the year and the rest until the end of 2022.

The Small Business Administration will get 367 billion for loans to small businesses, with a six-month forbearance clause. The Treasury Department will oversee a $500 billion loan and loan-guarantee program; $425 billion is meant to go to businesses, cities and states. The rest is reserved for passenger and cargo airlines and firms deemed important to national security, the Post reports.

Native American tribes will receive $10 billion, with more than $1 billion of that going to the Indian Health Service. The package also specifies that tribes will be eligible for federal loans to help pay tribal employees, The Associated Press reports.

The petroleum industry got no specific help in the stimulus package, but may get some in a future stimulus package, Dino Grandoni reports for the Post's Energy 202. Coal tried and failed to get aid.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Pastor and former religion reporter writes: 'Use the brain the good Lord gave you. God is real and so are pandemics.'

This column is republished with the permission of the author and the Lexington Herald-Leader, where it originally appeared. An ordained minister for more than 30 years, Paul Prather is a columnist, author and pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. From 1988 to 1997, he was a Herald-Leader staff writer covering primarily religion.
Paul Prather
By Paul Prather
    Dozens of people from two Kentucky congregations ended up self-quarantined this past week after they ignored Gov. Andy Beshear’s plea for churches to cancel services on March 15.
    These congregations held services anyway—and it turned out that worshiping among them were people already infected with covid-19.
    A Louisiana pastor was threatened with having his future church meetings broken up by the National Guard after he defied statewide orders to not meet with groups larger than 50 people. The pastor claimed the coronavirus scare was “politically motivated.”
    In my own community this past week, as I drove around town, mainly from the drive-through window at my bank to the drive-through window at my pharmacy, trying to practice social distancing, I realized it was business as usual for a lot of residents.
    They were piling in and out of dollar stores, the post office, groceries, gas stations, pressing in cheek to jowl, seemingly without a care.
    Pandemic? What pandemic?
    We humans—all kinds of us, not just religious ones—are great for convincing ourselves facts don’t apply to us, that we’re immune, that we’re different, that we’re special.
    Why, we’ve got our own personal Big Juju working for us that nobody else has.
    So, when the governor or the president or the world’s leading healthcare scientists warn there’s a contagious disease sweeping the globe, killing people like flies in Italy and Spain and already multiplying here among us, we decide, “That doesn’t apply to me. It’s not real. If it is real, God will protect me!”
    But maybe God was protecting you by giving you those warnings, do you think?
    I’m an ordained minister of the gospel. I’m the epitome of what skeptics call a magical thinker.
    I believe in an unseen God who created the world and ultimately controls it and is active in our lives. I believe God himself abides in my heart. I believe that on occasion he even speaks to me and perhaps acts through me.
    If that’s magical thinking, count me in.
    But to me there’s no conflict between being a person of faith and being a person who pays attention to actual documentable scientific facts.
    There’s a virulent, life-threatening pandemic exploding. If you don’t avoid crowds and step up your hygiene and do all the rest, it’s going to sicken or possibly kill you. Or you’ll become a carrier who sickens or kills someone else.
    True, even if you do what you should, it may get you anyway. But at least you can improve your odds of escaping it.
    Again, it isn’t just churchgoers who live by magical thinking.
    Americans of all philosophies eat triple-cheeseburgers, chain-smoke cigarettes or tailgate in the rain at 80 miles an hour while texting.
    “Statistics don’t apply to me!” we cry. “I’m superman! I’ve been driving like a maniac for 30 years and ain’t had a wreck yet! I laugh at statistics!”
    We conclude we’re protected by the Lord, or that rabbit’s foot in our pocket, or Mommy’s hovering ghost or genetics (“Papaw smoked 80 years and it didn’t hurt him!”).
    And yes, a few people do get away with self-delusion. Papaw might have smoked like a fiend and lived to be 94.
    But you probably won’t make it to 94. Papaw was what’s called a statistical outlier. By and large, though, the averages win. They come rushing back to bludgeon you into goop.
    I have no inside knowledge and no crystal ball about this coronavirus. I’m not a prophet.
    Plain common sense tells me covid-19 will get far worse before it gets better. I’d bet money we’ll be sheltering in place very soon. If we don’t successfully slow down the virus, our hospitals—and funeral homes—will be overrun like Italy’s.
    I want to say to my friends and fellow citizens of all stripes, but especially to my fellow churchgoers: for your own sake, for all our sakes, use the brain the good Lord gave you.
    Faith and common sense don’t contradict each other; they complement each other. You can trust     God and acknowledge facts at the same time. God blesses us with facts.
    Yes, God is real. But so are pandemics.
    The Lord indeed performs miracles. I wrote a whole book about modern-day miracles. I’ve witnessed what I consider to be miracles.
    God could miraculously protect you from the coronavirus. But miracles are miracles because they’re exceedingly rare. And they’re unpredictable.
    Mostly, God works within the laws of nature. Christians and all other varieties of believers are subject to the same rules of biology and epidemiology as atheists.
    So, it’s right and good to ask the Lord to spare you from covid-19. If you’re not religious, trust your rabbit’s foot or your good genes or your Big Juju.
    But also obey public health organizations’ guidelines for protecting yourself. If the governor orders us to shelter in place, stay where you’re supposed to. Avoid groups. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
    Please, in this critical time, balance magical thinking with a stern dose of reality and with loving concern for the rest of us. Just do the right thing.

Local news media also need an economic rescue package to keep serving public, officers of authors' group write

By Suzanne Nossel and Viktorya Vilk

Local news outlets across the country are providing essential, up-to-the minute information aimed at keeping communities safe. Even in cities under virtual lockdown, the news media has been recognized as an “essential service” for public health and safety, alongside hospitals and grocery stores. Local media outlets have been rising to the occasion, breaking stories, guiding the public on do’s and don’ts, and holding leaders accountable for life and death decisions. Many have dropped paywalls on their covid-19 coverage, recognizing that it represents an essential public service.

But while they may seem to be thriving, local media outlets still suffer from the disintegration of longstanding, advertising-based business models. That, coupled with the mass migration of consumers to social media platforms, has stripped local news outlets of their prime source of revenue, leading to the closure of one out of every five local newspapers and the slashing of newsroom staffs in half over the past 15 years. The spread of covid-19 has made this chronic illness acute: The closure of local businesses and slowdown in economic activity are depriving local news outlets of essential revenue to keep operations going. In recent weeks, several publications have dropped print editions, or made plaintive appeals to readers for the financial support necessary to sustain operations.

As Congress and state legislatures contemplate massive stimulus bills aimed to keep our economy and society afloat, local media outlets should be part of the package. Funds to replace lost revenue and ensure that local news outlets continue to provide essential coverage of the pandemic and other topics will enable communities to stay informed, healthy and connected through this crisis. The monies need to be carefully safeguarded to ensure that the infusion of public funds does not compromise editorial integrity or deter hard-hitting coverage. Local media are among the vital organs of our democracy and must not be allowed to fail.

Suzanne Nossel is chief executive, and Viktorya Vilk is director of digital safety and free expression, at PEN America, which works to defend and celebrate free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights.