Friday, April 24, 2020

Probe reveals more coronavirus outbreaks in meat plants than previously thought, offers database and seeks tips

Coronavirus outbreaks among meatpacking workers are far more extensive than previously thought, and it could get worse, according to an investigation by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. See the database for updated information. The reporters seek tips from meatpacking workers, saying "Visit our page on how to contact us securely."

"More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest, based on the media outlets' analysis of slaughterhouse locations and county-level covid-19 infection rates," Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde and Matt Wynn report. "These facilities represent more than 1 in 3 of the nation’s biggest beef, pork and poultry processing plants. Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75 percent of other U.S. counties, the analysis found."

There aren't any shortages yet, because the nation still has plenty of meat in storage, but meatpackers are operating at 60 percent of capacity, the reporters found. Shortages could come if workers continue to sicken and plants continue to close, they write, "but experts say there's little risk of a dwindling protein supply because, given the choice between worker safety and keeping meat on grocery shelves, the nation’s slaughterhouses will choose to produce food."

The meatpacking plant outbreaks shed an uncomfortable light on working conditions that can encourage the spread of infectious diseases, especially among undocumented immigrant workers who are loathe to report safety violations for fear of losing their jobs, Bagenstose, Chadde and Wynn report: "The meatpacking industry already has been notorious for poor working conditions even before the coronavirus pandemic. Meat and poultry employees have among the highest illness rates of all manufacturing employees and are less likely to report injuries and illness than any other type of worker, federal watchdog reports have found. And the plants have been called out numerous times for refusing to let their employees use the bathroom, even to wash their hands – one of the biggest ways to reduce the spread of the coronavirus."

Lax state and federal oversight hasn't helped. "Amplifying the danger is that, in many places, meat processing companies are largely on their own to ensure an outbreak doesn’t spread across their factory floors," the reporters write. "Factory workers, unions, and even managers say the federal government – including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – has done little more than issue non-enforceable guidance. On its website, for example, the CDC has released safety guidelines for critical workers and businesses, which primarily promote common-sense measures of sanitization and personal distancing. State health departments have also taken a backseat role in all but a few places."

Appalachian community leaders' response to pandemic to be explored in webinar at 6 p.m. ET Tuesday, April 28

On April 28 at 6 p.m. ET, Appalachian Leadership Institute fellows from the Appalachian Regional Commission will host a live roundtable to discuss the challenges Appalachian communities are facing during the pandemic, and the strategies some are using to address them.

The webinar will be livestreamed on ARC's Facebook page. A recording will be available afterward.

ARC says the institute is a comprehensive leadership and economic development training opportunity for people who live and/or work in Appalachia and are passionate about helping their communities thrive. It is implemented with its regional partners: The University of Tennessee, Knoxville; The Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy; Tuskegee University; and Collective Impact.

Quick hits: Op-ed says USDA subsidizes jails at expense of rural health care; USPS collapse could hurt rural areas

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

Rising rural frustration over pandemic shutdowns a symptom of a larger problem, says op-ed. Read more here.

Postal Service collapse could devastate seniors, small businesses and rural areas. Read more here.

Op-ed says the USDA subsidizes jails at the expense of rural health care. Read more here.

News media-bashing from Trump rallies is creeping into coronavirus briefings. Read more here.

Sewage sludge spreading leads to farm groundwater PFAS contamination in Vermont. Read more here.

Pandemic stress boosts popularity of "good news" outlets. Read more here.

Of possible interest to your own readers: the publisher of The Aspen Times has an excellent layman's description of a publisher's role in the newsroom. Read more here.

Op-ed: Rural Americans need more support to battle pandemic

Jennifer Olsen is the executive
director of the Rosalynn Carter
Institute for Caregiving in
Americus, Georgia.
Rural folks take pride in being able to take care of themselves and their neighbors, but the reality of the pandemic is that outside help is needed, Jennifer Olsen writes for Time. Olsen is an epidemiologist living in rural Georgia.

"This trademark self-sufficiency, coupled with an anemic public health infrastructure and limited access to essentials like fresh food and medicine, pose unique threats to rural America as covid-19 marches relentlessly across the U.S.," Olsen writes. "Without novel approaches to reaching rural residents with information on how to stay healthy and a rapid scaling of public health systems, the disease may hit even harder in rural areas than it has in cities."

Another problem is that rural areas have fewer local news and information sources, and many people distrust the news media and hospitals, Olsen writes. That makes it harder for rural residents to get reliable facts on how to protect themselves and their families and find out what's going on.

Olsen recommends actions rural leaders can take, including boosting reliable rural information sources.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Tired of virus news? Readers must be, too; here's an idea

John McGary, editor of The Woodford Sun in Versailles, Ky., starts his weekly column this way:

A Dear Reader recently challenged us essential employees at The Woodford Sun to make sure to include stories and photos that don’t concern you know what.

It’s a worthy challenge and one we accept, starting on the front page this week, which has a front page story about alleged problems with Metronet contractors. Oh, there’s a bit about you know what in the story, but plenty of non-related stuff as well. Overall, as we gather important information about you know what, we’re looking for positive bits, too, such as the photo of the toilet paper person you’ll find on the back page.

I’ll do my part on this slice of Page 2 by sharing a few recent insights mostly unrelated to you know what. . . .

Pandemic complicates disaster-response tactics

After a rash of tornadoes killed dozens in the South this week, "officials from Texas to South Carolina were left to grapple with an urgent question: How do we respond to natural disasters during a pandemic without exposing even more people to a deadly virus?" Tara Law reports for Time.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves acknowledged the conundrum: "The fact that the coronavirus exists is complicating the recovery from the tornado, while the tornadoes are complicating our efforts to make sure that we do everything in our power to stop the spread of the virus."

Many emergency management services were already under-supplied before the pandemic; finding enough supplies now to respond to natural disasters could be difficult, said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Another problem, she told Law, is that disaster-response efforts often require people to violate social-distancing protocols, actions that can further spread the virus.

The virus is affecting other disaster responses. Federal and state officials are trying to figure out how to fight wildfires. "With the 2020 fire season poised to be severe, numerous questions remain unanswered about how large crews of firefighters will move around the country when some states require quarantines, and how firefighters will be housed when fighting large blazes," Bobby Magill reports for Bloomberg Law.

Firefighters are often housed in camps of more than 1,000 when fighting big fires, but officials aren't sure how to test or quarantine those units if a firefighter falls ill with covid-19. However, it's clear that traditional firefighting strategies will need adjustment. "Plans for how federal and state agencies will fight fires amid the pandemic are scheduled to be finalized by the end of April, according to an April 9 National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group memo," Magill reports. "The group coordinates wildfire fighting strategy among Interior Department agencies, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and members of the National Association of State Foresters."

Rural Tenn. hospital reopens; new owner blames hospital closures on Southern states' refusal to expand Medicaid

Cumberland River Hospital in Celina, Tenn. (Cookeville Herald-Citizen photo by Ben Wheeler)
Rural hospitals have been closing at alarming rates over the past decade, so it's always good news when one reopens. That's what happened this week in Celina, Tenn., where Cumberland River Hospital reopened, a year after it was forced to close for lack of a buyer. But it's been a rocky road.

Cookeville Regional Medical Center, two counties away, owned the hospital, which served as a major employer for the county of 8,000. Johnny Presley, a physician assistant who owns three health clinics, recently purchased the hospital and has already opened the emergency room and a daytime clinic, Ben Wheeler reports for the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville.

Celina in Clay County, Tennessee
(Wikipedia map)
Presley said he is trying to find more staff so the hospital can start treating more serious cases, but it's difficult to find employees for a rural hospital. He said it has also been hard to bring in money during the pandemic when hospitals aren't doing many elective procedures and the cost of supplies has increased greatly. "It's a double-edged sword," he told Wheeler. "Unless the government steps in and bails out hospitals in general, I don't see how any facility overcomes this."

Presley, who is running an uphill campaign for U.S. senator in the Aug. 6 Republican primary, "blamed hospital closures across the South on the refusal by members of his party in states like Tennessee to expand Medicaid insurance coverage, an option under the Affordable Care Act," Richard Fausset and Rick Rojas reported April 9 for The New York Times. Rural hospitals in such states are far more likely to close, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report.

"The governors of the Southern states did not take this seriously enough," Presley told the Times. "I think we’re really going to suffer through this pandemic." Last year The Daily Yonder and Kentucky Health News contrasted the fate of the hospital with its neighbor in Kentucky, which expanded Medicaid.

Trump temporary immigration order exempts farmworkers

President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday temporarily banning some immigration to the U.S., saying that it would ensure that Americans would have more access to jobs and health care. The order doesn't apply to those seeking temporary visas, such as farm workers or college students.

"Other exceptions include health care professionals and their families as well as people in the EB-5 program, who invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in programs that create jobs," Zolan Kanno-Youngs reports for The New York Times. "The policy could, however, be expanded; Mr. Trump’s top cabinet officials will convene in at least 30 days to review any restrictions on “nonimmigrant visas,” including visas for seasonal workers."

Feds to give $165 million to boost telehealth and help rural hospitals buy PPE and more testing equipment

The federal government "is awarding rural hospitals and telehealth resource centers nearly $165 million to combat the covid-19 pandemic," Susan Morse reports for Healthcare Finance. The money is meant to help hospitals purchase more personal protective equipment and boost testing capacity.

The funds are on top of the $100 billion allotted for hospitals and telehealth in the $2.1 trillion CARES Act. The new funding will go to 1,779 small, rural hospitals and 14 telehealth centers already funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, Morse reports.

On a recent call with reporters, Department for Health and Human Services "officials said that there could be variability from state to state, but on average each rural hospital will get about $84,000," Robert King reports for Fierce Healthcare. During the call, HHS also announced a new website aimed at helping health-care providers use telehealth and educate patients on how to use it.

HHS has already distributed $30 billion of the $100 billion promised in the CARES Act, prioritizing providers that had higher historical shares of revenue from Medicare reimbursements, not according to their covid-19 patient load, Kaiser Health News reports.  That tended to disproportionately help areas with more seniors, including rural areas. But Bruce Siegel, CEO of America’s Essential Hospitals, a group of systems serving the poor and vulnerable, told KHN that distributing the funds by Medicare income "could tilt the playing field" against hospitals serving mostly Medicaid patients.

Meanwhile, many rural hospitals are cash-strapped because they've been obliged to cancel elective procedures but don't have many covid-19 patients. "More money for hospitals is likely on the way. Congressional leaders have reached a deal for a $484 billion aid package that includes $75 billion for hospitals and another $25 billion for testing capacity," King reports.

April 30 webinar aims to help state and local leaders increase cybersecurity, resist and recover from hacks

Route Fifty will host a free webinar April 30 to help state and local leaders better protect themselves and their governments from cybersecurity threats and respond to them. Rural governments, utilities and hospitals are increasingly getting hit with cyberattacks because many have older systems and less tech-savvy workers, so hackers see them as easy targets.

The webinar starts at 2 p.m. ET and will take about an hour. Click here to register and to see a list of the speakers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Covid-19 rumor in rural Ky. a cautionary tale for small towns, especially when orders for isolation increase

Grayson County, Kentucky (Wikipedia map)
A recent incident in rural Kentucky highlights the hazards of relying on social media for news without fact-checking, as well as the power of an unchecked rumor in a small town.

It happened in Grayson County, pop. 27,000, when social media posts on April 11 and 12 identified a local man who had tested positive for covid-19, and falsely claimed that he was refusing to quarantine himself at home, Al Cross reports for Kentucky Health News. The posts claimed that the patient had been seen in several public locations after his diagnosis.

Local law enforcement and the health department fielded between 200 and 300 complaints, and on April 13, County Judge-Executive Kevin Henderson held a press conference to refute the posts, Cross reports. Over the weekend, "the Leitchfield Police Department, the sheriff’s office and health department — just about every law enforcement agency in the county was busy squashing rumors that were brought to our attention," Henderson said. Callers said they had personally seen the patient at Walmart and other places, but surveillance videos proved that false, he said. Henderson stressed that the patient was self-isolating, and had willingly surrendered his car keys to county officials.

County Attorney Jeremy Logsdon noted in an interview with a local weekly newspaper, The Record, that making false reports or starting false rumors is a crime, especially if done with the intent to bully or harass, Cross reports. He writes, "The episode may have been repeated in small towns across the country, and may be even likelier to be repeated as social-distancing rules are relaxed and health departments track down people who may have been exposed, and if they have, order them to self-isolate for 14 days."

UPDATE, April 27: The National Conference of State Legislatures says "Untruths undermine critical public information."

New covid-19 risk assessment identifies vulnerable rural areas by degree; see county-level data

Covid-19 relative risk factor scores by quintile of population at risk. (Iowa State University map; click on it to enlarge.)
Without widespread testing for the novel coronavirus, rural counties could appear to be at far less risk of a local outbreak than they actually are, especially in towns of 5,000 to 10,000, according to a new report from Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach. "The missing data could put rural counties at risk of lowering their guard while the epidemic spreads across the country," Jan Pytalski writes for The Daily Yonder.

The ISU report says, "An outbreak of five severe cases requiring ICU hospitalization in a rural county will far outstrip local resources, but not make national headlines. There is a danger that needed resources will not flow to rural places if decisions are based on absolute counts instead of relative risk." The report's risk scores are in quintiles, or five divisions of 20 percentage points each.

The report posits that rural areas face higher and different risks of serious pandemic outcomes than urban areas, Pytalski reports. The researchers propose assessing rural risk based on 10 indicators grouped in seven components: population, density, percentage of the population living in institutional settings, percentage of seniors (age 65-84) and elders (age 85 and up), employment in elderly care facilities per 10,000 people, mortality rate for immunocompromised people per 100,000, mortality rate from diabetes, and the mortality rate from influenza and pneumonia.

The study is an interesting contrast to another recent project that estimated county-level pandemic preparedness. See it here.

Western U.S. gripped by 'megadrought' as cities and farmers vie for shuttered coal plants' water rights

A March Drought Monitor map shows drought impacts; S means
short-term impacts; L means long-term. Yellow areas are abnormally
dry; tan areas have moderate drought; orange have severe drought.
"A vast region of the western United States . . . is in the grips of the first climate change-induced megadrought observed in the past 1,200 years, a study says. The finding means the phenomenon is no longer a threat for millions to worry about in the future, but is already here," Andrew Freedman and Darryl Fears report for The Washington Post. "The megadrought has emerged while thirsty, expanding cities are on a collision course with the water demands of farmers and with environmental interests, posing nightmare scenarios for water managers in fast-growing states."

The findings raise the stakes for the battle over who gets the rights to water once used by shuttering coal-fired power plants in Western states. "In Western states supported by the over-allocated and drought-plagued Colorado River, these plants use a significant amount of the region’s scarce water supplies," Luke Runyon reports for The Daily Yonder.

Rural population loss may have weakened counties' ability to respond to pandemic; see interactive state-level data

Kentucky population change in urban (orange) vs. rural (blue)
counties. The black line is the statewide change. (Pew chart)
Nearly two in three rural counties have lost residents since 2010, compared with one in three urban counties, according to recently released Census Bureau data; that has likely hampered their ability to respond to the covid-19 pandemic, Jeff Chapman reports for The Pew Charitable Trusts: "Population losses weaken a region’s fiscal and economic health, eroding its workforce and productivity as well as the tax revenue available to fund health care programs." Since counties are critical providers of hospital and health services, Chapman reports.

Pew shows state-level population trends with a set of interactive charts where users can see urban vs. rural population trends and toggle rural or urban counties off for better clarity (see above for example). Though there are outliers in both rural and urban counties, the difference is noticeable.

"As state and federal policymakers craft responses to the pandemic, they should keep in mind the hurdles faced by local governments in rural areas," Chapman writes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Dave Seaton, exemplary owner-editor in Kansas, dies at 80

Dave Seaton
Dave Seaton of Winfield, Kansas, a community newspaper editor and owner who exemplified "what every town in America needs," as the well-known editor of the nearest metro daily editor said, died Saturday. He was 80.

"His health had been failing and he underwent major heart surgery a year ago, but his death was unexpected," Judith Zaccaria writes for the Cowley CourierTraveler, Seaton's paper. "He had written Saturday’s editorial ... about the coronavirus."

From 1978 to 2009, Seaton was editor and publisher of the Winfield Courier, which his family bought in the 1940s. He bought the Arkansas City Traveler, in Cowley County's largest town, and the Newkirk Herald Journal in Oklahoma, then helped oversee the 2016 merger of the Courier and Traveler.

"Over Dave’s career he earned a reputation as an editor devoted to the communities the newspaper served," Zaccaria writes. 'Buzz Merritt, former long-time editor of the Wichita Eagle, said Dave Seaton was what every town in America needs:"

“An editor of a local newspaper who has the necessary journalistic tools and instincts — including the hammers-and-nails parts — to produce an honest picture of the town’s strengths and weaknesses, but who combines those with the carriage, character, kindness, education and intelligence of a renaissance gentleman,” Merritt told Zaccaria. “Such people are rare.”

His son, David Allen Seaton, told The Associated Press, “He saw his role . . . as one of advocacy and community leadership, in the tradition of William Allen White,” the famous editor from Emporia, 100 miles to the northeast. Perhaps his last big project was a documentary about White. Doug Instate, former executive director of the Kansas Press Association, praised Seaton's work on that and said he “always stood out as one of the top editorial writers in Kansas.”

Seaton earned degrees at Harvard University and the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. He and his wife Callie served in Brazil with the Peace Corps. A moderate Republican, he worked for U.S. Sen. Jim Pearson before becoming publisher. The family is planning a small graveside service with a larger memorial service that will be announced later.

Pandemic's disruptions of food chain come at vulnerable time, especially for farmers who raise both livestock, crops

Chart from The Counter (formerly New Food Economy), adapted to add one plant
The spread of the coronavirus in rural America threatens not only rural populations, but the nation's agricultural and manufacturing sectors, Michael Warren reports for CNNSmithfield Foods and other major meatpacking companies (TysonCargill, and JBS USAhave all shut down plants because workers tested positive for the virus that causes covid-19.

Farmers and ranchers have been scrambling to shift supply chains after restaurants shut down, and meatpacking plant closures have left many with animals they can't sell at a profit. "Kenny Burdine, a University of Kentucky agricultural economist who specializes in cattle markets, said that because of the uncertainty and the slowdown in production, prices have dropped 15 to 20 percent from January, depending on the age of the cattle," Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Hog farmers are in a similar bind.

The supply-chain disruption is all the worse because the pandemic is hitting at the time livestock-and-crop farmers usually sell cattle and use the money to buy seeds and fertilizer for spring planting. That could have long-term repercussions for farm income and the food supply, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles told Patton. But while the processing-plant closures are a "legitimate concern," he said he believes it would take more to seriously disrupt the nation's food supply chain.

Some food manufacturers have temporarily shuttered because of sick workers, such as Flowers Foods, which recently closed a baked-goods plant in rural Tucker, Ga., after some of its 225 workers got the virus, Jesse Newman and Annie Gasparro report for The Wall Street Journal.

Covid-19 cases in rural counties increased by a nearly one-third in the past week; see fresh county-level data

Increase in covid-19 cases in rural and small metropolitan counties from April 13-19. Major metro areas are in gray.
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it, or click here to view the interactive version.
Though less than 5 percent of the nation's confirmed covid-19 cases are in rural counties, the pandemic continues to spread in rural counties at a slightly faster rate than in urban counties, according to the latest numbers from USA Facts. "On Monday, April 13, rural cases constituted 4.1 percent of all covid-19 cases in the U.S. On Sunday, April 19, they were 4.7% The growth is small but steady," especially in the South, Bill Bishop and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

During that period, 79 rural counties confirmed their first case of covid-19. Among the approximately 2,000 rural counties, 410 have not reported a case, the Yonder reports. Overall cases increased nearly a third, slightly higher than the metropolitan growth rate of about 23%, the Yonder reports.

Hospital in heart of Central Appalachian coalfield closes, citing restrictions imposed due to covid-19 pandemic

The hospital has served Mingo County, population 25,000.
The covid-19 pandemic has killed a rural hospital. Williamson Memorial Hospital in West Virginia, on the Kentucky border, is closing today, citing restrictions on its operations while a debtor-in-possession owner tried to get out of bankruptcy.

Interim CEO Gene Preston said on the hospital's Facebook page, "Over the past seven months, together we were able to right size the organization, streamline operations and fix a large portion of the revenue-cycles issues. Unfortunately, the decline in volumes experienced from the current pandemic were to sudden and severe for us to sustain operations."

"The hospital initially announced the impending closure back in March and said they were currently operating as a debtor-in-possession," Jarrid McCormick reports for the Williamson Daily News. "About a week later, Williamson Health & Wellness Center Inc. announced that a $3.68 million bid to purchase most of the assets of Williamson Memorial Hospital had been approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court." The deal was to have been closed April 30, with a local group that bought the 76-bed hospital from a Tennessee-based chain in 2018. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Monday that elective surgeries in the state's hospitals couldn't resume before April 28.

Preston said the prospective new owner "has expressed his desire to seek out the needed partners for emergency services, lab and X-ray to return to the hospital in the future. It is for this reason I am confident that services will return to that facility to serve the Williamson community once our country’s health-care system stabilizes post-pandemic."

Google map
The hospital is the only one in Mingo County, but it is only three miles by road from the Tug Valley ARH Regional Medical Center in South Williamson, Ky., across the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River.

The hospital was one of five cited in a CNN story about rural hospitals at risk because states have banned elective or non-urgent procedures to preserve protective gear and beds in case of a surge of covid-19 cases. Even if Congress helps them financially, they will probably be more vulnerable than before, said Randy Tobler, CEO and physician at Scotland County Hospital in northeast Missouri, one of many that have furloughed staff. "There's no foundational change," he told CNN.

Mail-in voting doesn't benefit either party, new study shows

"Mail-in voting doesn't favor one political party over another, nor does it invite more frequent incidents of fraud, according to new research," Danielle Haynes reports for United Press International. "Stanford University's Democracy and Polarization Lab studied the issue by reviewing data from three states that used vote-by-mail between 1996 and 2018. Researchers found the method didn't appear to "affect either party's share of turnout" or "increase either party's vote share." The study did find that mail-in voting increased overall turnout by about 2 percent.

Calls for expanded mail-in voting have increased in recent months because of fears about the safety of in-person voting. But the issue has also become a political football, as Wisconsin's recent primary demonstrated: conservative politicians sought to curtail mail-in voting, believing that it would benefit urban, and therefore more liberal voters.

President Trump and other Republican lawmakers have voiced opposition to expanded mail-in voting, saying that it could increase voting fraud; conservative voters, perhaps keying in on that messaging, are far less likely to approve of expanding it. "According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 58% of Americans favor permanently changing election laws to allow everyone to vote by mail. But just 31% of Republicans agree, compared to 82% of Democrats. And 61% of those who say they get their news from Fox News oppose vote-by-mail," Abby Phillip reports for CNN.

CDC rural stakeholder pandemic webinar at 4 p.m. ET Wed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will host a webinar on Wednesday, April 22, at 4 p.m. ET to update rural stakeholders on the agency's response to the covid-19 pandemic. Click here to register. The webinar is not meant specifically for the news media, but will likely address questions of interest to those covering the pandemic.

The presenters will be Eric Hargan, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Jay Butler, deputy director for the CDC's Infectious Diseases division. The webinar aims to update participants on new developments since its April 8 webinar. They will also answer questions, which you can submit in advance by emailing with "Rural Health Update 4/22" in the subject line.

A recording will be available on the CDC's website within the week on this page.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Rural areas in states without stay-at-home orders see increases in covid-19 cases

Rural areas, especially those in states without "shelter in place" policies, stay-at-home orders or equivalent dictates, saw a "small but significant spike" of covid-19 cases last week," Michael Warren reports for CNN.

"Oklahoma saw a 53 percent increase in cases over the past week, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Over the same time, cases jumped 60% in Arkansas, 74% in Nebraska, and 82% in Iowa. South Dakota saw a whopping 205% spike, Warren reports, noting later the outbreak at the big Smithfield pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls.

"This trend undermines the notion perpetuated by President Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies that the restrictive social-distancing measures aren't necessary in rural America — and that these states even offer a model for reopening the country," Warren says.

Independent rural groceries seeing a boost during pandemic

File under "silver linings": Though rural independent grocery stores have been increasingly struggling in recent years, the covid-19 pandemic has provided them an unexpected economic lift.

It comes at a good time. Chains like Walmart and Dollar General have siphoned many customers from independent rural grocers in recent years, and "wholesale distributors have consolidated, making it challenging to find vendors that are even interested in supplying small stores," Nathaniel Meyersohn reports for CNN. "And sales have dried up as the population has declined in many rural areas and some jobs have shifted outside small towns to larger suburbs and cities."

The pandemic has brought increased traffic to independent local groceries as customers seek to stay close to home and avoid crowds, or hunt down necessities that may be out of stock at bigger stores, Meyersohn reports. But, though smaller grocers have tried to expand online ordering and delivery, such efforts eat into independent grocers' already thin profit margins.

The pandemic could accelerate consumer preference for online ordering, which could hurt independent rural grocers after the pandemic, said Jordan White, who owns five groceries in Kansas.

USDA to give $16 billion in direct farmer payments, with up to $250,000 and maybe more for individual farmers

"President Donald Trump on Friday announced a $19 billion economic rescue package for farmers and ranchers that will include sending out cash payments as well as buying farm products and redistributing them to food banks," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "The stimulus plan is the latest in a long string of recent ad hoc relief efforts for the agricultural economy. Trump has pulled out the stops to bail out farmers and ranchers stung by his own trade war and biofuel policies, in addition to long-term economic headwinds."

Farmers could get up to $250,000 each, and maybe more, reports Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming: "The only ineligible people would be those with more than $900,000 in adjusted gross income and those who get more than 25 percent of their income outside of agriculture. The payment limits are double the cap set by Congress for traditional farm subsidies and may be as porous, said critics. Spouses are automatically eligible for crop subsidies, so married couples can collect twice as much as the individual payment limit. The USDA has not decided if spouses will be eligible automatically for coronavirus aid. If they are, the limit per farm couple would be $500,000. If producers are partners in other farming entities, they could receive money from federal payments to those entities."

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee chair John Hoeven, R-N.D., issued a statement with more details on how the $16 billion will be divided up. The livestock industry will receive $9.6 billion, subdivided into $5.1 billion for cattle, $2.9 billion for dairy, and $1.6 billion for hogs. Row crop producers will receive $3.9 billion, specialty crop producers will receive $2.1 billion, and other crops will receive $500 million.
The package has $16 billion in direct aid and $3 billion for the Department of Agriculture to buy surplus food to give to food banks and other groups. That money comes from "a combination of the new spending authority from Congress included in the stimulus package and existing funds," McCrimmon reports. Trump said an additional $14 billion in aid would be available in July."

Wed. is Earth Day; here are coverage ideas and resources, and a list of possible activities from an Extension specialist

Wednesday, April 22, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Here's a few resources to help you cover it:
  • The official Earth Day website includes news stories
  • Environmental news website EcoWatch has ideas for coverage content and more.
  • Most in-person Earth Day celebrations have been canceled because of the pandemic. Columbia University's Earth Institute offers some ways readers can celebrate while sheltering in place.
  • Track social media conversations by searching for the hashtags #EarthDay2020 and #EARTHRISE. The Earth Day Network, which organizes the observance, will continue to post plenty of new content all week at @earthdaynetwork on Twitter
  • USA Today has an excellent piece that includes Earth Day history, discussion about how the pandemic intersects with the observance, and related news.
“This year, most of us will celebrate Earth Day at home, but there are some simple things we all can do to be more eco-friendly every day, and raise our spirits in a time of uncertainty,” writes Amanda Gumbert, extension water specialist with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. “Take some time to get out into nature, even if it’s just in your backyard . . . Breathe in the fresh air, listen for birds, enjoy the many spring colors, and if you’re lucky enough to have a creek nearby, take a moment to appreciate the many benefits of clean water for both humans and wildlife.”

Gumbert suggested some other activities that people can do alone or with their families:
  • Plant a garden. Try containers for small patios or yards. Include both vegetables and some flowers for cutting. Another option is to join in a local farm’s community supported agriculture program.
  • Compost food scraps and yard waste, rather than sending them to the landfill. Before long a compost bin will provide rich, nutritious soil amendment for your garden.
  • Follow the 3 Rs to keep as much as possible out of the landfill. They are:
  • Reduce: Avoid using single-use, disposable items like paper plates, cups, napkins and utensils. “This is easier when eating most meals at home,” Gumbert said, “but try to create a new habit to avoid disposable items in the future. Also, avoid purchasing items with lots of packaging, which is usually wasted.”
  • Reuse: Find new uses for household items or share them with a friend.
  • Recycle: Look for opportunities to recycle items that can’t be reused or composted.
  • Take care of water resources. Planting along a backyard stream or neighborhood pond or lake will help reduce erosion, protect water quality and improve the beauty of the landscape.
  • Conserve water at home by taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet while brushing teeth.
  • Conduct a family litter cleanup. Grab some trash bags, sturdy gloves and boots and pick up litter along nearby streets and roads. Litter can create hazards for livestock, wildlife and waterways.
  • Save energy by turning out lights when leaving a room, unplug electronics when not in use, and switch to energy-efficient appliances when it’s time to replace old ones.
  • Check out nonprofit organizations with eco-friendly missions and support them if possible.
“This Earth Day may be different than previous ones, but if we all take little steps, we can still make a big impact in improving our environment,” Gumbert said.