Friday, April 10, 2020

USDA still deciding how to divide up stimulus funds

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is still trying to decide how to divide up the more than $23 billion in agriculture aid received in the $2 trillion stimulus package. Lobbyists from several ag sectors have already sent in suggestions, including a plan for the dairy industry. And senators from corn states are asking for aid for ethanol producers, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment called on Congress to make sure that family farmers receive their fair share of economic relief funding, instead of just large agribusinesses, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue promised on Monday that the new aid will be distributed equitably, in response to Democrats' complaints that trade bailout funds disproportionately funded the South and wealthy farmers, McCrimmon reports.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the $23 billion isn't enough to sustain the agriculture sector, Chuck Abbot reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimated in mid-March that the pandemic could cause local and regional food systems to lose up to $1.3 billion between March and May this year.

The influx of requests for low-interest Small Business Administration loans, which farmers are eligible for, is quickly draining the $349 billion set aside for for the program. "The quick run on the program prompted U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday to ask Congress to provide another $250 billion for the program," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Meanwhile, USDA's Rural Development agency is offering other relief measures for rural residents, including guaranteed loans with deferred payments, rent vouchers for multi-family housing, and utilities assistance. Read more here.

Map estimates which hospital referral areas could see shortages of ICU beds, ventilators; searchable by ZIP code

Areas in gold are estimated as likely places where the need for ventilators could overwhelm the supply. Another map makes  like estimates for beds in intensive-care units. (Washington Post map; click on the image to enlarge it.)
"Amid the covid-19 pandemic, pinpointing the number and location of ICU beds, ventilators and doctors with specialized training is critical for local, state and federal officials trying to forge an effective response," The Washington Post reports. "But the pandemic has revealed a dearth of reliable data about the key parts of the nation’s health-care system now under assault. That leaves decision-makers operating in the dark as the virus — which has now killed more than 16,000 people in the United States — surges, spreading from urban areas like New York City and New Orleans into the rest of America."

The Post mined data about key metrics such as total hospital beds, intensive-care-unit beds and ventilator stocks, and analyzed it to estimate the availability of such resources to treat covid-19 patients who required prolonged hospitalization.

"The Post conducted a stress test of sorts on available resources, which revealed a patchwork of possible preparedness shortcomings in cities and towns where the full force of the virus has yet to hit and where people may not be following isolation and social distancing orders," the newspaper reports. "125 million adults, or 48 percent of the U.S. adult population, live where virus patients could overwhelm the supply of mechanical ventilators. Those breathing machines are among the key hospital resources that can help patients facing death when the disease attacks their lungs."

An interactive feature allows you to enter a ZIP code to get a report for your hospital referral region.

Quick hits: Some parts of rural America less vulnerable to pandemic; should Civilian Conservation Corps be restarted?

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

Should America consider restarting the Civilian Conservation Corps in response to the economic crash brought about by the pandemic? Read more here.

A New York Times project illustrates the spread of covid-19 in rural areas since Feb. 20. Read more here.

Some pockets of rural America are less vulnerable to pandemic, for now. Read more here.

Google has been running a series of doodles on its home page for the past week thanking those critical in keeping the country going during the pandemic, such as health-care workers and teachers. Today, the doodle features a thank-you to farmers. Read more about the series here.

Recently released video games that allow players to simulate an idyllic rural existence are becoming popular. Read more here.

The Rural Health Information Hub spotlights how some rural communities are creating innovative solutions to deal with the pandemic. Read more here.

A rural Indiana county is facing an unusually high covid-19 infection rate, and no one is sure why. Read more here.

A rural Georgia county ordered local residents to shelter in place more than a week before state leadership did. Their early response may have saved lives, but also highlights the problems that come with patchwork local response in states across the South. Read more here.

Citing costs of pandemic, coal companies asks Congress to reduce coal tax that pays black-lung benefits

Citing the economic cost of the coronavirus pandemic, coal companies are asking Congress to let them pay less of the excise tax that pays for miners' black-lung benefits. The move would force the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a Labor Department program already about $4 billion in debt to the Treasury, to borrow more money from the federal government to remain solvent, Will Englund reports for The Washington Post. The fund borrowed $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2019 alone.

"The National Mining Association asked Congress last month for a 55 percent cut in the excise tax for the trust fund, and a suspension of another fee that pays to clean up abandoned mines," Englund reports. "Altogether the operators say they could save about $220 million. While the level of taxation to back the fund has fluctuated sharply over the past two years, it currently stands at $1.10 for every ton of coal mined underground and 55 cents for surface coal."

The fund pays for benefits for 25,000 coal miners, and coal industry lobbyists have long sought to reduce their obligation to pay for such benefits, either by seeking cuts to the excise tax or by making it more difficult for miners to be diagnosed with black-lung disease. "Wes Addington, director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., . . .said that the push would allow the industry to shed liability for a lung disease it caused," Englund reports.

Coal-company bankruptcies have already shifted about $865 million in liability for black-lung disability claims to federal taxpayers in recent years, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

Interstate transmission of the coronavirus is a bigger concern than international transmission, says new study

Interstate transmission of the coronavirus is a much bigger public health threat in the U.S. than cases coming from international travelers, according to a new study at the Yale School of Public Health.

Researchers can track where a virus came from by analyzing its genetic makeup, or genome. They analyzed the genomes of nine virus samples from Connecticut covid-19 patients in mid-March, then compared them with 168 other covid-19 genomes from the U.S. and around the world, Colin Poitras reports for Yale School of Medicine.

"The study found that most of Connecticut’s virus samples were more closely linked to outbreaks in other states than international locations such as Europe and China," Poitras reports. "Most importantly, seven of the nine Connecticut samples were clustered with known virus genomes from Washington state. This provides evidence that transcontinental spread of the virus was already happening between the West Coast and East Coast as early as mid-March, despite federal international travel bans that were put in place starting in late January."

The findings underscore the need for more testing at the state level and more tracking of people who may have been exposed to the virus, say the researchers. Click below for a short video explaining the science behind the study.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Epidemiologists projecting virus's impact on state health-care systems begin to make estimates at the county level

CovidActNow map; gray areas have insufficient data to make projections. (For a slightly larger version, click on it)
A group of epidemiologists have formed a working group called CovidActNow to project how the coronavirus pandemic would affect health-care systems. Its first projections were state by state; now it is beginning to make projections for counties where sufficient data are available.

The state-by-state projections are updated frequently, if not daily. They show when a state's hospitals would be overloaded, depending on compliance with social-distancing orders. Here is the chart for Kentucky, which shows that its hospitals would be overloaded June 11 if compliance is poor but would be far from overloaded at the peak if compliance is strict:

The state-by-state projections also include estimates of the number of covid-19 deaths under both circumstances. In Kentucky, it estimates 13,000 with poor compliance, 2,000 with strict compliance. Gov. Andy Beshear has used a simplified version of the chart to justify his social-distance orders.

1/4 of rural hospitals are at risk of closing: state-level data

The number and percentage of high-financial-risk rural hospitals considered essential to their communities.
Guidehouse map; click on the image to view a larger version.
A quarter of the nation's rural hospitals are at a high risk of closure, according to a newly published data analysis by Guidehouse (formerly Navigant Consulting). The study notes that the data was collected earlier in the year, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and that rural hospitals could be even worse off now. Among its findings:
  • 354 rural hospitals nationwide are at risk, in 40 states.
  • Those hospitals discharge more than 222,350 patients per year, employ more than 51,800 workers, and generate $8.3 billion in total patient revenue.
  • Of the at-risk hospitals, 81 percent, or 287, are considered "highly essential" to the health and economic well-being of their communities.
  • In 16 states, all of the at-risk hospitals are considered highly essential.
  • Tennessee has the highest percentage of rural hospitals at risk of closing, with 68% of its 19 hospitals at risk.
  • Oklahoma has the highest number of rural hospitals at risk of closing, with 28 of its hospitals, or 60%, at risk.
  • Mississippi has the highest number of highly essential hospitals at risk of closing, since all 25 of its highly essential rural hospitals are at risk.
  • Eight rural hospitals have already closed in 2020.
  • One major factor hurting rural hospitals' bottom lines: many patients opt to go to an urban hospital, often for more complex or specialized care. 
  • More than 75% of rural patients have opted to bypass their local hospital, compared to 35% of suburban patients and 23% of urban patients.
  • 68% of rural patients choose to go elsewhere for treatment even though their case was minor and the local hospital could have handled the treatment.
  • Of the rural patients with the most serious medical ailments, only 5% went to their local hospital for treatment.

Kansas Republicans ax Democratic governor's ban on meetings of more than 10 people, including worship services

"Easter looming, Kansas Republican leaders on Wednesday revoked Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s order limiting religious gatherings to 10 people as the state’s coronavirus death toll jumped 40 percent," Jonathan Shorman, Amy Leiker and Michael Stavola report for The Wichita Eagle. "House and Senate leaders . . . voted along party lines . . . as the number of reported covid-19 cases in the state climbed to more than 1,000 and the death count ticked up to 38."

The order, signed Tuesday, prohibited a wide range of public and private gatherings, including religious services, Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. During the LCC's debate on the matter, Kelly's chief counsel, Clay Britton, argued that the order put churches on the same legal footing as secular groups, and noted that pastors and choir members were exempt from the 10-person limit.

Lee Norman, secretary of the Department of Health and Environment, said three covid-19 clusters in Kansas have been traced to church gatherings. It has happened in other states too, including Georgia, Kentucky, and Washington. Retired Kentucky physician Kevin Kavanagh told The Rural Blog that church gatherings are particularly dangerous because singing aerosolizes the virus.

Kansas Republican lawmakers mostly admit social distancing is a good idea, but object to the order because they believe it violates personal freedoms. Attorney General Derek Schmidt, for example, issued a memo saying the order was likely unconstitutional and urged police not to enforce it. But in the same memo he also asked Kansans to follow the order anyway, the Eagle reports.

Feds end support for state testing, but plan new program for smaller cities and towns that haven't been heavily hit yet

The coronavirus crisis has been worsened by the lack of testing, which has been especially scant in rural areas, but federal officials plan to end support for it tomorrow, and that means some sites will close, local officials told Jeff Brady of NPR.

However, the Trump administration "is developing plans to get the U.S. economy back in action that depend on testing far more Americans for the coronavirus than has been possible to date, according to people familiar with the matter, Mario Parker reports for Bloomberg. "The effort would likely begin in smaller cities and towns in states that haven’t yet been heavily hit by the virus. Cities such as New York, Detroit, New Orleans and other places the president has described as 'hot spots' would remain shuttered."

The Department for Health and Human Services told NPR, "The transition will ensure each state has the flexibility and autonomy to manage and operate testing sites within the needs of their specific community and to prioritize resources where they are needed the most." Federal support for testing was intended as a stopgap, but states have relied on it to "help prop up their own testing efforts in the absence of a national coordinated testing strategy," Matt Steib writes for New York magazine, and he argues that more testing would help Trump reopen the economy:

"Expanded coronavirus testing should be a priority, as it will help determine just how high mortality and hospitalization rates really are — two variables that, because they remain in the dark, have required countries to implement all-systems shutdowns. Most likely, increased testing and serology testing — which determines if coronavirus antibodies are in patients’ blood, showing they’ve been exposed to the virus — would prove that hospitalization and mortality rates are far lower than originally anticipated. That good news, if proven by comprehensive testing, could then help determine a date to safely open the economy."

However, the crisis will peak at different times state by state, and it will largely be up to governors to scale back social-distancing measures that have tanked the economy. "It isn’t clear that they will respond if Trump urges Americans to resume normal business practices and socializing before the outbreak abates," Parker writes.

Ag roundup: Farmers' hopes dip as pandemic roils markets

Here's a roundup of how the covid-19 pandemic is affecting the agriculture sector.

Farmers' hopes for a good year pushed Purdue University's Ag Economy Barometer to a record high in February, but pandemic fears caused the barometer to plunge in March. The barometer is based on monthly surveys of 400 U.S. farmers.

"Price forecasts for most agricultural products are bleak. In the past month, dairy prices have dropped 26-36%, corn futures have dropped by 14%, soybean futures are down 8% and cotton futures have plummeted 31%," Feed & Grain reports. "Hog futures are down by 31%. A surge in demand for beef emptied grocery store meat aisles, but there is no lack of supply. Despite a rise in retail prices in some areas, the prices paid to cattle ranchers have fallen 25%."

Spot and future prices are spiking for some staples like wheat and rice, the University of Illinois' Farm Policy News reports. That's likely to stabilize; the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects global wheat and rice reserves to be an an all-time high. 

Some groceries are getting more expensive. Egg prices at the supermarket have tripled in the past month, The Wall Street Journal reports.

On the bright side, lower energy prices mean fertilizer prices are down, David Widmar reports for Successful Farming.

Farmers are panic-buying animal feed, fearing that feed mills will close or trucks might be delayed, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

A Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in southeastern Iowa shut down Monday after more than two dozen workers got sick with covid-19, Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Others could shutter, affecting rural jobs.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Agricultural economists warn America could face a farm financial crisis like none since the 1980s or the 1920s

Covid-19 is hurting the agricultural economy, but its appearance is only the latest in a string of misfortunes. "The recent Emergency (Market Facilitation) payments have put a Band-Aid over the wound for some farmers, but the fever of the underlying economic illness is still raging," Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray of the University of Tennessee write in their "Policy Pennings" column.

"We are facing the development of a farm financial crisis, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1980s and before that the farm crisis that began in the years following WWI and exploded during the early years of the Great Depression," Schaffer and Ray write. "Over the last five years, crop and milk prices have plummeted to the point that they are significantly below the full cost of production. While there are differences with the 1980s — 1. lending is on the basis of cash flow and not the growth in assets, and 2. interest rates are not in the stratosphere — the increasing number of bankruptcies among crop and dairy farmers provide clear signs that rougher times are still ahead."

Climate change is having a major effect on farming, though not all believe it, Schaffer and Ray write. They note that the biofuels-waiver issue hurt the ethanol industry, and supply-chain issues could become a bigger problem as more farmworkers or meatpackers get sick. 

Federal government promises to reimburse hospitals at Medicare rates for uninsured covid-19 patients

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Friday "that the Trump administration will use a $100 billion hospital and provider relief fund to reimburse hospitals at Medicare rates for uncompensated covid-19 care for the uninsured," Rachel Cohrs reports for Modern Healthcare. "Azar said the funds will be distributed through the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, which supports the National Disaster Medical System."

Azar didn't say how much of the $100 billion fund would be used for such reimbursement, but gave some other specifications. "Azar said that hospitals receiving relief funds would be banned from balance billing, but did not specify what cost-sharing obligations could be imposed for uninsured covid-19 patients or whether ancillary providers would be included in the ban," Cohrs reports.

Kaiser Health News did some well-informed spitballing, and estimated that, at most, the federal government would need to pay out a little over $40 billion to cover uninsured covid-19 patients.

Hospitals will likely end up treating many such patients, because people often lose their insurance when laid off. Hospitals face other financial strains; most have been obliged to scale back or end elective procedures that would bring in revenue, Cohrs notes. That strain is particularly acute for rural hospitals, which were already hurting before the pandemic, Lois Beckett reports for The Guardian.

Meanwhile, hospitals struggle to get critical supplies to treat covid-19 patients or prevent the disease's spread, and many say the federal government has been the biggest roadblock. Many report that the Federal Emergency Mangement Agency repeatedly outbids them for supplies, and some say FEMA is seizing supply orders before they arrive, Noah Levey reports for the Los Angeles Times.

PeaceHealth, a system in the Pacific Northwest that operates several rural clinics, said the government seized a shipment of testing supplies recently, Levey reports.

Applications for environmental journalism grants welcome

The Society of Environmental Journalists is now taking grant applications for projects that cover climate, conservation, and environmental health in North America. The deadline is rolling.

Individuals can apply for a stipend of up to $2,000, and teams or news outlets can apply for up to $4,000. SEJ may also pay for document access fees or FOIA filing costs, professional fees for things like editing and graphic design, and some local travel.

Click here for more information or to apply.

HIV patients in rural South get less experienced local care

A newly published study found that HIV patients in the rural South are far less likely to have local access to experienced HIV clinicians.

They examined 14 states (including Oklahoma, Arkansas and Maryland in the broader South) and found 5,012 clinicians who routinely treat HIV. Of those, 28 percent were considered "HIV-experienced," and most of them practiced in metropolitan areas. Over all, 81% of counties—the vast majority of them rural—had no HIV-experienced clinicians, the researchers found.

"Significant urban-rural disparities exist in HIV-experienced workforce capacity for Southern U.S. communities," the researchers conclude. "Policies to improve equity in access to HIV-experienced clinical care for both urban and rural communities are urgently needed."

Rural HIV infection rates are rising in much of rural America, even as rates fall in many large cities. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

John Prine, a songwriter for the ages and our times, dies

John Prine died in Nashville of covid-91, the coronavirus disease. He was 73. (Photo by The Associated Press)
There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes. ("Sam Stone")
Mostly they made love from ten miles away. ("Donald and Lydia")
Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see. ("Souvenirs")
She reminds me of a chess game with someone I admire. ("Christmas in Prison").
The wind was blowing, especially through her hair. ("Lake Marie")
Stop wishin' for bad luck and knockin' on wood. ("Dear Abby")
Well done, hot dog bun, my sister's a nun. ("Illegal Smile")
Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, "Hello in there, hello."
. . . make me a poster of an old rodeo. Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this living is just a hard way to go. ("Angel from Montgomery")
"Nobody but Prine could write like that." (Bob Dylan)

John Prine, who died Tuesday night of covid-19, was a songwriter for the ages and for our times. He knew rural America. The only full stanza in The New York Times' obituary was from "Paradise:"
The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel,
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land;
Well, they dug for their coal 'til the land was forsaken;
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Post office and grocery at Paradise, Ky.
For many people in America's coalfields, that said it all. Prine, a Chicago native, wrote it about a town in "Western Kentucky, where my parents were born," one of his hundreds of plain but unusual lines. But that was the genesis of the story he wanted to tell, and Prine was a superb storyteller: evocative, somber, silly, thoughtful and surprising. His "ingenious lyrics to songs by turns poignant, angry and comic made him a favorite of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and others," William Grimes writes for the Times. Kristofferson and Steve Goodman were the magic slippers of what Prine called his "Cinderella story" of becoming a performer, retold by Annie Reuter in Billboard.

Prine "wrote rich, plain-spoken songs that chronicled the struggles and stories of everyday working people and changed the face of modern American roots music," Stephen L. Betts and Patrick Doyle write for Rolling Stone. "Prine helped shape the Americana genre that has gained popularity in recent years," and "explored a wide variety of musical styles, from hard country to rockabilly to bluegrass; he liked to say that he tried to live in a space somewhere between his heroes Johnny Cash and Dylan." He said his "songwriting hero" was Gordon Lightfoot. James Hohmann of The Washington Post notes that Prine is the latest of several musicians to die from covid-19.

Prine was "known for his ability to mine seemingly ordinary experiences — he wrote many of his classics as a mailman in Maywood, Illinois — for revelatory songs that covered the full spectrum of the human experience," Betts and Doyle write, in a story worth reading. They quote Bonnie Raitt, who sang "Angel from Montgomery" into the American canon: "The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute, mixed with his homespun sense of humor — it probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person."

"He sang his conversational lyrics in a voice roughened by a hard-luck life, particularly after throat cancer left him with a disfigured jaw," writes Michael Warren of The Associated Press, in a story well-sprinkled with Prine stanzas. But his last album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was his biggest hit, and early this year he won another Grammy award, for lifetime achievement. Warren's piece ends with a stanza from Prine's "When I Get to Heaven," which you can see and hear him perform on the "House of Strombo" show in 2018, with Gordon Lightfoot in the audience:

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?

That one, in spoken word and song, can be heard here. Prine's "Summer's End," with its chorus of "Come on home," is also a fitting farewell, and many in Kentucky would surely prefer this one:
When I die, let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven, with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.

Urban residents still fleeing to rural areas to escape virus, data suggests; map has fresh, county-level infection data

Coronavirus infection and deaths by population density as of April 5. (Map by The Daily Yonder)
Click on the image to enlarge it; click here to view the interactive version with county-level data.
With the coronavirus continuing to spread across the United States, data from short-term rental companies offers some evidence that people are continuing to flee to rural areas, even as rural infection rates continue to rise.

"According to a recent study by AirDNA — a company that analyzes real-time rental data from hospitality businesses like Airbnb and Vrbo — there has been a 'mass exodus away from urban centers' in recent weeks," Bethany Biron reports for Business Insider. "Though stay-at-home mandates currently active in most states have discouraged travel unless absolutely necessary, that hasn't stopped many from seeking out safe havens in less populated locales."

Rural areas were among the top spots seeing increased reservations over the past few weeks. Pacific Beach, Washington, topped the list with a 378.7 percent growth rate in reservations from March 9-15 (404 reservations) to March 16-22 (1,934 reservations). Pacific Beach is in Grays Harbor County, which has a population of just over 75,000; it had three confirmed cases as of April 4 and six confirmed cases as of April 6, according to data from USA Facts.

Other rural areas, such as Spicewood, Texas; Ashland, Oregon; and Moab, Utah, were also in the top 11 list, according to the report.

Many communities have shunned visitors to limit the spread of the virus, but the rural infection rate now outstrips the metropolitan infection rate. In the first few days of April, 171 rural counties found their first covid-19 cases. "By Sunday night, April 5, two-thirds of rural counties had at least one case. Just over 200 rural counties have reported a death attributable to covid-19," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. Covid-19 caused 80 deaths in rural counties over the weekend.

The official figures are likely lower than the virus's true presence, says a University of Texas study, which estimates a 9% chance of the virus being present even in counties with no reported cases and a 51% change the virus is spreading through the community if it has just one reported case.

Stimulus package offers small-business bailouts to churches

The $2 trillion economic relief package includes a controversial item: unlike past federal relief packages, churches and other faith-based organizations can get some of the $350 billion allotted for Small Business Administration loans, according to an SBA statement defending the decision.

"Under the new Paycheck Protection Program, businesses with fewer than 500 employees, including faith-based organizations, are eligible to receive loans of up to $10 million, with at least 75 percent of the money going to cover payroll costs," Tom Gjelten reports for NPR. "The loans are in large part forgivable, so churches and other houses of worship won't have to worry about paying all the money back."

The federal government has generally avoided direct funding of religious organizations, but has tried to help them by exempting them from taxes and making donations to them tax-deductible, Gjelten reports. Under current SBA rules, for-profit religious organizations are ineligible for loans, but that rule may soon be eliminated; the SBA statement defending the decision said it was unfair to discriminate against organizations based solely on their religion.

The measure has drawn strong opinions from both corners.

Churches are facing "extreme economic hardship" because of the pandemic and it's a good idea to help them since they provide jobs and other benefits to their communities, writes Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an op-ed for Kentucky Baptist Convention publication Kentucky Today.

However, Hemant Mehta, who blogs for Friendly Atheist, writes that religious organizations should not be allowed to use the funds to promote any religion, and that allowing it violates the First Amendment: "The government’s taxing power should not be wielded to oblige Muslims to bankroll temples, or to coerce Jews to subsidize Christian and Catholic churches, or to force Christians to fund mosques, or to compel the nonreligious to support any of the above."

The stimulus package isn't the first time the Trump administration has directly funded religious groups, Gjelten reports: "In 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency changed its rules to make houses of worship eligible for disaster aid."

Dean Foods buyout approved as dairy industry struggles

"After several months of back and forth following the Dean Foods bankruptcy, the Dairy Farmers of America co-op is acquiring a majority of its assets for $433 million. Prairie Farms Dairy will also get a portion for $75 million," Beth Newhart reports for

The decision comes over anti-trust concerns. "Grocers Stop & Shop and Food Lion have filed an objection, noting that the sale would combine the nation’s largest processor and direct-to-store distributor of fluid milk — Dean Foods — with the country’s largest raw milk supplier — DFA," Catherine Boudreau reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Milk cooperatives in Maryland, Virginia and California have also raised concerns."

Some worried that the lack of competition would result in higher milk prices, Leah Douglas reports for Successful Farming. DFA has told many farmers to dump their milk in recent weeks to keep prices from bottoming out during the pandemic, P.J. Huffstutter reports for Reuters.

The acquisition highlights the dairy industry's struggles. Major dairy distributors Dean Foods and Borden both filed for bankruptcy last year, after years of declining consumer demand for liquid milk. "Since 1975, the amount of liquid milk consumed per capita in the U.S. has tumbled more than 40 percent," The Associated Press reports.

Trump disputes federal study that found hospitals don't have enough covid-19 tests, calls it 'a typical fake news deal'

On Monday, President Trump said he disagrees with a report from his own administration that found that hospitals have severe shortages of coronavirus testing supplies, and questioned whether the report was politically biased.

According to the report released Monday morning by the nonpartisan Health and Human Services inspector general's office, the lack of tests and long waits for results are a huge problem. "Three out of 4 U.S. hospitals told the inspector general's office they are already treating patients with confirmed or suspected covid-19, and they expect to be overwhelmed. The report did not criticize Trump administration actions," Richard Alonso-Zaldivar reports for The Associated Press.

When a reporter asked Trump about the survey, the president said without evidence, "It is wrong." He asked who the HHS inspector general was and when she was appointed. He then said that the report was "a typical fake news deal" because HHS inspector general Christi Grimm served in the Obama administration. Grimm, who has worked in HHS for over two decades, was appointed earlier this year as the principal deputy inspector general, on an interim basis.

The HHS report was based on a telephone survey of 323 hospitals nationwide from March 23-27. "A key insight from the report was that different problems are building on each other to entangle the whole system," Alonso-Zaldivar reports. Essentially, slow or no tests means hospitals have to keep unconfirmed covid-19 patients longer, which takes up more beds and resources, and increases the workload and stress of staff already worried about keeping themselves uninfected.

Moreover, "overtime hours and increased use of supplies are raising costs at the same time that many hospitals experience a revenue crunch because elective surgeries have been canceled," Alonso-Zaldivar reports.

ProPublica and Chicago Tribune data analysis illustrates the 'homework gap' in rural Illinois

With schools nationwide shut down during the pandemic, many students struggle with distance learning because of lack of broadband at home or sufficient wireless data. Some of them are in low-income urban areas, but many are rural. A Chicago Tribune-ProPublica Illinois data analysis shows what that digital homework gap looks like in Illinois. Read more here.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Agriculture supply chains weaker, shifting due to pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a massive shift in how agricultural producers get their products to consumers and has highlighted the weak links in the ag supply chain.

Many farmers are set up to sell their products to restaurants and other intermediaries, but the closure of restaurants nationwide "has left chefs and farmers with tons of produce and meat to dispose of in a hurry," Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal. Some restaurants are staying open and offering curb-side pickup, others are selling their supplies in open-air "farmer's markets" to consumers, and others are donating food that would otherwise spoil.

In March, the Food and Drug Administration "gave restaurants and manufacturers a greenlight to sell packaged foods to retailers without the usual nutrition labeling requirements," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Meanwhile, top grocers and foodservice distributors, like Kroger and Sysco, are teaming up to keep store shelves stocked and provide new job opportunities for furloughed workers."

Many producers, facing a sudden loss in demand for their products, are dumping out food to keep prices from going too low. For example, "a major vegetable producer that supplies restaurants such as Wendy’s Co. said plunging restaurant demand has spurred the company to plow under a few hundred acres of leafy greens in recent weeks," Newman reports. "The company, which also grows crops in Yuma, Ariz., and Salinas, Calif., has cut staff and reduced salaries for other employees. It is trying to collect money it is owed from distributors and determine whether it is eligible for federal assistance under the recent $2 trillion stimulus package."
Meanwhile, farmworkers have been declared "essential" workers by the federal government, even as many of them hide from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials still arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants, Miriam Jordan reports for The New York Times.

Farmworkers and meatpackers are at an increased risk of contracting the virus, which could endanger the nation's food supply, Greg Asbed writes in an op-ed for the Times. Asbed, who founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is a vocal proponent of farmer workers' rights. 

Rural covid-19 infection rate much higher than metro rate; how are widely varied rural areas responding to pandemic?

Though the number of rural covid-19 infections is far less than the number of metropolitan infections, the rural rate is much higher than in metro areas at a comparable stage, according to a Penn State study released April 3. In other words, when the coronavirus hits rural areas, a larger share of people get sick, perhaps because rural people are older and have more underlying health conditions.

The South is particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, on those grounds and others. "Four of the five states with the highest diabetes rates are in the South. And eight didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving thousands of families without access to routine care, even as financially troubled rural hospitals wither away," Margaret Newkirk and Michelle Fay Cortez Bloomberg note. "Those factors give the South a special vulnerability, as did the haphazard response from some governors as the disease began to course through the country. Without clear direction from the Trump administration, they were loath to mandate stay-at-home orders. Beaches were open in Florida, churches held services in rural Tennessee, and Mardi Gras went on in Louisiana."

In Albany, Georgia, at the same church that unwittingly spread the virus to dozens at a Feb. 29 funeral, a March 7 funeral that attracted around 400 attendees spread the virus even further, Charles Bethea reports for The New Yorker. The two funerals led rural Dougherty County to have one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the nation.

Central Appalachia, with its higher rates of black-lung disease and other health issues, is also highly vulnerable. "Already in the past week, reports have emerged that two coal miners in Pennsylvania have tested positive for the coronavirus," Matt Krupnick reports for HuffPost. "And as the pandemic continues to spread rapidly, many fear it’s only a matter of time until the virus contributes to a triple-whammy in Appalachian mining communities: a population with elevated health risks, an economy in free-fall and limited health-care resources."

Out in the rural West, where the population is much more spread out, a photo essay and story from The New York Times explores how the pandemic is affecting eastern Oregon. Greg Hennes, who runs a small hotel in Joseph, says he's had many cancellations and has had to defer many of his bills. He intends to apply for relief money, and in the mean time spends a lot of time hiking. "Unlike in a lot of places near urban areas, I’m not worried about the trailhead being overrun," Hennes told the Times. "It’s very easy to keep six feet, if not three miles, between me and the next person."

The pandemic is inspiring more aggressive action from some rural residents. Some restless ones in Illinois are again pushing the idea of splitting from the Chicago area to be a separate state. Secession talk has periodically flared up in rural Illinois and in other states because of political issues; this time the pandemic is the impetus, Logan Jaffe and Duaa Eldeib report for ProPublica Illinois.

"Political experts say there is virtually no chance that the state will ever split, especially since it will require an act of Congress and lead to the likely election of two Republican senators to represent that new state," Jaffe and Eldeib report. "Still, the secession conversation is a dramatic expression of the much more widespread — and potentially dangerous — frustration with a sweeping governmental response to the pandemic that many question in areas where some homes sit acres apart and people predominantly travel by car, not public transportation."

And in Idaho, anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy vowed in a Facebook live video to physically protect Idahoans who wished to defy the state government's stay-at-home order, The Associated Press reports. In a phone call with reporters, Bundy said that self-isolation wasn't a bad idea, but he objected to it being made an order.

Rural county has nation's highest covid-19 rate; some special factors, but still a warning to the nation, ER doc says

Blaine County (Wikipedia)
Blaine County, Idaho, population 22,000, has 410 covid-19 cases, the highest rate in the nation, probably because it is a ski-resort area with many visitors from the Seattle area, a hotbed of the pandemic. But it is still a warning sign to other rural counties.

So said Dr. Brent Russell, an emergency physician at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum, in an interview with CNN this morning. Russell said small towns have a strong sense of community, with close personal relations, but "in this situation we're all soldiers in this war, and it needs to be fought on all fronts. Right now, extreme social distancing is what we have to do, at least until we get a grip on what's going on here." Lack of testing has made that difficult nationwide.

"It's going to go through all of rural America, and people need to be prepared," said Russell, a covid-19 victim himself. "I was sicker that I've ever been, and I would not wish this on anybody," he said.

"Russell wrote a letter to the local Idaho Mountain Express pleading with a community that, in his view, was either unable or unwilling to adapt to the new rules of the pandemic," Michael Ames, a former Express reporter, reports for The New Yorker. “People were not taking this seriously,” Russell told Ames. “I would look out the windows of my house and see groups of people talking and congregating in the street.”

Russell told CNN that the Wood River hospital was able to cope with the large number of cases because "We were able to transfer all our patients out . . . to towns that have not been hit hard. That's not gonna be the case in other small towns."

Honoring lost miners 10 years after Upper Big Branch blast

Judy Jones Peterson looks at a photo of her brother, who
died in the mine explosion. (NPR photo by Howard Berkes)
Ten years ago yesterday, 29 coal miners lost their lives during an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia. An episode of West Virginia Public Broadcasting's "Inside Appalachia" remembers those who died and explores how the families, artists and communities have memorialized those lost. Click here to the episode.

The episode features an interview with husband and wife playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who wrote a play about the disaster called "Coal Country."

Blank and Jensen drew on hours of interviews and court testimony for inspiration, Jeff Young reports for Ohio Valley ReSource. The play opened to critical acclaim at The Public Theater in New York City on March 3, but was postponed after two weeks because of the pandemic.

Blank and Jensen, who live in Brooklyn, New York, said they had a hard time getting family members to return their calls when they first became interested in writing a play, but had a much easier time after they began traveling to Charleston and having long visits with the families, Young reports. Jensen, who grew up in the rural Midwest, said he could relate to the mining families, and both say they hope the play will help urban audiences better understand life in coal country.

Though "Coal Country" isn't a musical, country rock singer Steve Earle wrote songs for it that he performs as accompaniment. "Earle sits on stage with a guitar or banjo and listens intently to the actors, then adds a song that might echo a characters’ loss or hint at deeper themes. Jensen described his role as akin to a Greek chorus of one," Young reports.

On April 5, Earle gave a livestreamed performance of the songs online, which you can listen to here.

Bill Withers, a son of W.Va. who understood everyday lives and stuck to his songwriting muse, dies; his songs live on

Bill Withers (2006 photo)
For a guy who hadn't made a record in 35 years, Bill Withers got a great (and deserved) sendoff from writers after he died March 30 at the age of 81. The Rural Blog shares some of them here, because for the first 17 years of his life, Withers was a rural American -- born July 4, 1938, in Slab Fork, W.Va., where his father was a coal miner and his mother was a maid. When they divorced, he "was raised by his mother's family in nearby Beckley," Mark Kennedy reports for The Associated Press.

Withers joined the Navy, became an aircraft mechanic and factory worker and was inspired to become a musician when he saw Lou Rawls sing and attract women. He taught himself to play guitar, wrote dozens of songs and got a recording contract. Hits came quickly; he won a Grammy award in 1971 for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and another in 1981 for “Just the Two of Us.” But he couldn't get along with Columbia Records, so when his contract ended he quit the business and lived off royalties from his often-covered songs; he won his third Grammy in 1987 for “Lean on Me,” re-done by Club Nouveau. The song was performed at inaugurations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and is the theme of a Walmart TV commercial responding to the covid-19 pandemic.

Withers "wrote some of the most memorable and often-covered songs of the 1970s," and "had an evocative, gritty R&B voice that could embody loss or hope," Neil Genzlinger writes for The New York Times. But the deeper story in the Times is from the paper's longtime chief pop-music critic, Jon Pareles, who notes Withers' background and writes, "He hadn’t been sheltered from the everyday lives that he would write about," such as a Vietnam amputee in “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” He wrote about his West Virginia childhood in "Railroad Man" and "Grandma's Hands."

Pareles puts Withers on a par with early 1970s "community-minded" soul artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind & Fire: "His voice was at the center of every song, reedy and gritty, strong enough for preacherly declamations and smooth enough to carry a lover’s endearments. Yet he chose to treat that utterly distinctive voice modestly — as a vehicle, not a centerpiece. He sang his stories with down-home fervor, but he was also more than willing to let the sense of the words dissolve into rhythm and incantation, into impulses and feelings. Withers made it seem — with deep-rooted knowledge and virtuoso skill — that each song was creating its own borderless style and groove on the spot, steeped in but never beholden to blues, gospel, country, jazz, folk, rock or any other defined idiom."

Slab Fork is about 11 miles from Beckley. (Google map)
"Withers went with his heart and his desire to write and record great songs, whether they would be pop hits or not," Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke Universitywrites for NPR.

Ashley B. Craig reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail: "Michael Lipton, the director of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, said Withers was, in many ways, the inspiration for the state’s music hall. Withers was among the first class of inductees and came to the inaugural induction ceremony in 2007. He also attended three other induction ceremonies, Lipton said, and . . .when Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the morning after the induction ceremony, Withers hosted a brunch that was only attended by West Virginians."