Friday, May 29, 2020

Government advertising related to census, pandemic and other public-health concerns could save local newspapers

Amid the debate over various means of government support for local news media comes a simple suggestion from Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America and a leader of Rebuild Local Media, a campaign that advocates for locally owned and nonprofit community news.

Waldman suggests that "a big chunk" of the $1 billion the federal government spends each year on advertising, for such things as military recruitment and public health campaigns, should go to local news media, with less going to national TV, cable networks or social media. And he says the advertising budget should be increased to help blunt covid-19 and boost the census.

"Stopping the pandemic requires the dissemination of accurate, trustworthy information," Waldman writes for The Poynter Institute. "That includes a well-functioning local media, but also can include information directly from public health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — in the form of a massive campaign of public health advertising."

The ads could provide general information about social distancing, but also local information about business and recreation openings and where to get tested for the coronavirus. Health experts say widespread testing, with tracing of the contacts of people who test positive, is essential to containing the virus until the advent of a widely available vaccine or an effective treatment.

The federal government is doing general advertising, but it hasn't helped local news media much "because many have gone through the nonprofit Ad Council and have been aired by media organizations for free," Waldman notes. "At a time when local news systems are collapsing, the government shouldn’t expect local news organizations to run these ads without compensation."

There's another reason this is a good time for federal advertising. "The pandemic has hobbled the U.S. Census Bureau’s ambitious plans for door-to-door canvassing," Waldman writes. "They should spend $500 million to plaster local media with ads urging Americans to sign up. Military recruitment efforts have stalled and will need a jump-start soon. . . . Other government ad campaigns tell students how to get loan forgiveness or the working poor how to qualify for the earned income tax credit. These government functions will need greater publicity, too."

Would Congress approve such spending at a time of political polarization and attacks on the news media? Waldman notes that polls show that local media are "more popular (and trusted) than national media. Since the government is already spending money on advertising, this won’t be (just) about spending new money. Since these campaigns have other public purposes, it’s not (mostly) about helping local media." He notes that the Canadian government is running $30 million in advertising about covid-19 to help local media.

Sample-copy extra paid for by local governments
What about the argument that local media, especially newspapers, no longer reach most people? Waldman doesn't address this, but most local newspapers still reach a large percentage of the households in their home market; and postal regulations allow them to send every household in their home county a newspaper at the same postal rate for subscribers, up to 10 percent of the paper's annual mailings.

Smart newspapers use this "sample copy" power not only to attract new subscribers, but to reach readers with public-service information, such as special sections on health and wellness, supported by health-care advertising that pays for the extra printing and postage of sample copying. In Kentucky, local governments have sponsored special editions of newspapers with covid-19 information.

Waldman says safeguards would be needed "to prevent political interference, which sometimes happens on the local level." The best solution for that might be to require the advertising to be pro-rated among local competitors based on their Nielsen ratings and "bona fide circulation," a term many states use to determine which paper gets local public notices.

And what about the understandable wariness about government subsidy of newspapers? Governments have been indirectly subsidizing newspapers for centuries, through public-notice advertising -- which many journalists don't realize is the third leg of a stool also supported by open-records and open-meetings laws -- and by favorable postal rates for in-county circulation. The latter is a service to local democracy and literacy; the former is a transaction in which the government and its taxpayers pay for, and get, something of value. It's an arm's-length trade, with no quid pro quo.

Waldman sees another possible complication: "If the spending goes to local media strictly on the basis of audience size, most would go to local TV stations and newspaper chains owned by hedge funds." That's an exaggeration, but he has a point. His solution: "Half of the local share should go to locally-owned and nonprofit news media. This would help minority-owned newspapers, nonprofit websites, public radio stations, weekly papers, rural news organizations and other locally-owned or nonprofit newsrooms." (Rural newspapers are more likely to be locally owned.)

Waldman concludes, "Like the postal subsidy that helped create the newspaper industry in the 19th century, these kinds of broad formulaic policy approaches have been the most effective ways of helping news media without corrupting the free press." He's right, and a different time calls for some different approaches while following historical precedent. Challenges create opportunities.
--Al Cross, director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Owners of failed dam in rural Michigan bought it as a tax shelter, ignored needed fixes to save money

An explosive new report underlines the difficulty of regulating private dams, which make up about 64 percent of the nation's 91,000 dams.

Last week, the 95-year-old Edenville Dam in rural Michigan failed after heavy rains, forcing thousands of residents downstream to evacuate. The disaster put a spotlight on the nation's crumbling dam system, especially the fact that it's more difficult for regulators to force private dam owners to make needed repairs.

The Edenville Dam's owners, it turns out, had bought the dam and three others nearby in 2006 as a tax shelter, then fought with regulators for years to avoid having to pay for repairs, taxes, or upgrades to make the dam safer, Mike Wilkinson, Kelly House and Riley Beggin report for Bridge, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan newsroom.

Heirs to William Boyce, a Chicago newspaper publisher and founder of the Boy Scouts of America, managed the fortune as trustees of the William D. Boyce Trusts. In 2006 they decided to reinvest money from the sale of an Illinois property so they wouldn't have to pay $600,000 in capital gains taxes to the Internal Revenue Service, Bridge reports. The two lead trustees, Las Vegas architect Lee Mueller and his cousin Michel d'Avenas came up with the notion to buy four hydroelectric dams near Midland under the name Boyce Hydro Power LLC, which Mueller manages. They took out loans to pay the $4.8 million for the dams.

"In the 14 years that have followed, Mueller and the trust have clashed repeatedly with state officials, federal regulators, local homeowners and even fishermen," Bridge reports.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told Mueller and previous owners since at least 1993 that the Edenville Dam needed to have its flood capacity increased or it could fail. Last week's "flood came 1½ years after federal regulators terminated Boyce Hydro’s license to generate power at the Edenville Dam, citing decades of failures to fix spillways that can prevent flooding," Bridge reports.

Mueller's attorney told Bridge that Mueller would have liked to make the repairs, but didn't have the money. According to Boyce Trust records filed in court, the dams have lost money every year since at least 2016, Bridge reports.

"Residents who live on lakes surrounding the dams are dubious about the pleas of poverty and accuse Mueller and the Boyce Trust of being absentee owners who for years didn’t invest in repairs," Bridge reports.

Quick hits: Scientists ID carcinogenic chemicals in fracking wastewater; rural schools struggle with lack of broadband

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

University of Toledo scientists created a new way to identify chemicals in fracking wastewater; many are carcinogenic. Read more here.

With less broadband access, rural students and teachers struggle to keep up during pandemic. Read more here.

A program takes donated old computers and refurbishes them for rural students; your community can copy it. Read more here.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Some rural areas push back against pandemic distancing

Conservatives in several states, mostly from rural areas, have filed lawsuits challenging state government-ordered public health measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The suits highlight the differences in how rural and urban areas are experiencing and perceiving the pandemic, Kirk Siegler reports for NPR affiliate KUOW in Seattle.

In Oregon, where the rural-urban divide has been particularly hostile in recent years, rural churches filed suit to vacate Democratic Gov. Kate Brown's stay-at-home orders. A rural judge ruled last week that Brown had acted beyond her authority, though her orders will remain in effect pending appeals.

Baker County Commission Chair Bill Harvey, a plaintiff in the most recent lawsuit, supports the judge's ruling. "You don't have the threats you would have in a major city," he told Krebs. "You can't judge or control our atmosphere based on what you think the Portland area should be." The local economy depends on tourism and cattle ranching, both of which have been hurt by the pandemic.

Katherine Cramer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, told Siegler that the pandemic has exacerbated rural residents' worries that the government is disregarding them. "The idea that the government is not attentive enough to the actual challenges of rural communities is not new," she said. "The pandemic seems to have deepened some of the resentment that's been there for a long time." Cramer is on a webinar Friday that will discuss rural-urban differences in the pandemic.

Iowa program to help farmers struggling with mental health in the pandemic; national resources listed

"Studies have found the rates of mental illness and suicide are higher for farmers. They work long hours, have limited social contact and are at the mercy of factors such as weather. Now the covid-19 pandemic is creating even greater challenges to their livelihood—and mental health," Natalie Krebs reports for Side Effects, a news collaborative that covers public health.

Iowa Concern, an Iowa State University extension program that helps farmers with financial, legal and mental-health concerns, is creating a state-funded initiative effort to help with pandemic stresses.

Many Midwestern farmers were already facing financial problems before the pandemic because of the trade war with China and more than a year of very wet weather. The pandemic has caused more problems, such as inability to sell crops or get livestock to slaughterhouses, and the stress of having to euthanize healthy animals. "In the Midwest, more than 300 family farms filed for bankruptcy in the 12-month period that ended in March. That was a 42 percent jump," Krebs notes.

One expert told Krebs that increased depression and stress could lead many farmers to experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and that more may abuse alcohol and/or try to harm themselves, but many find it hard to seek help because so many feel their identity is tied to endurance and hard work.

The new Iowa Concern initiative will direct farmers to mental-health resources. For those in other states, here are some farmer suicide prevention and mental-health resources:

Pandemic could trigger financial meltdown for schools

"With the nation's attention still fixed on the covid-19 health crisis, school leaders are warning of a financial meltdown that could devastate many districts and set back an entire generation of students," Cory Turner reports for NPR. "Schools receive nearly half of their funding from state coffers. But with businesses shuttered in response to the pandemic and the unemployment rate already nearing 15 percent — well above its 10% peak during the Great Recession — state income and sales tax revenues are crashing."

Some states reported April revenue 25% below last April, and 49 states are required to balance their budgets, so many are cutting school funding. "Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine unveiled $300 million in K-12 budget cuts — and that's just through June 30, when the current fiscal year ends," Turner reports. The $2 trillion CARES Act "provided K-12 schools with more than $13 billion in emergency funding, an average boost of about $270 per student. But spending the money has been complicated by controversial guidance from the U.S. Department of Education."

Many rural schools are already strapped for tax revenue, and a recent survey by the School Nutrition Association revealed that rural schools were the less likely than those in cities and suburbs to have a reserve fund to operate a summer meal program.

Rural grocers snag, try to keep, new customers in pandemic

A grocery in West Point, Neb., pop. 3,400, between Omaha and Norfolk (Rural Health Information Hub photo)
"Before the days of quarantine and self-isolation, many people left their small communities to purchase their groceries. Consumers may not have known what their rural grocery offers, and may not have been getting as much bang for their buck. Instead, they were considering convenience, product availability, competitive pricing, or additional services," Liz Daehnke reports for the Center for Rural Affairs.

That often meant independent rural grocery stores lost business to larger chains, but "during the onslaught of new restrictions and regulations, people started panic buying, resulting in many stores often being unable to keep products on their shelves," Daehnke reports. That led many rural residents to rediscover local, independent groceries, giving them an unexpected economic lift.

Many of them are trying to keep their new customers by offering flexibility and more personal service. "While we have all done our best to stay healthy and safe during the coronavirus pandemic, rural communities have risen above the challenges forced upon them during this unprecedented time and shown what true fortitude and grit look like—coming together to make sure neighbors, friends and family are safe, well-fed, and cared for," Daehnke writes.

Print decline not just happening in the U.S.; Australian news conglomerate moves 100+ local papers online-only

The decline in print media isn't just an American phenomenon, as demonstrated by this week's news.

News Corp Australia, one of the nation's largest media conglomerates, "has confirmed that more than 100 local and regional newspapers will become digital only or disappear entirely, and there will be a significant number of job losses," Amanda Meade reports for The Guardian. "A total of 112 of Rupert Murdoch’s print newspapers will stop the presses, including 36 which will close altogether and 76 which will remain as online mastheads. News Corp will not specify how many staff each title will have, if any, or how much local reporting will continue."

That brings "to 92 the number of online titles published by the company after News Corp launched 16 new online titles in recent years," Meade reports. The company suspended 60 papers in April because of the coronavirus, with no promise that they would return.

Paul Murphy, the chief executive of Australian trade union the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, told Meade: "The closure of so many mastheads represents an immense blow to local communities and, coming off the back of hundreds of previous regional closures during this period, it underlines the seriousness of the crisis facing regional and local journalism." Australia is one of the few countries where rural journalism is a recognized specialty.

Though a review showed that consumers were reading and subscribing to news online, and that advertisers were transitioning to online-only ads, the move will hurt the sustainability of the news media, Murphy said. That's because print advertising makes up the majority of News Corp's revenue. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Rural Health Information Hub has new help for covering home health services, which are growing fast but pay poorly

The Rural Health Information Hub, which provides excellent resources for those writing about rural health, has updated its Rural Home Health Services guide to include a more current FAQ and new information on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected home-health agencies.

Home health care is one of the 10 fastest-growing job segments in the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, but it doesn't pay a living wageRead more here.

West Virginia governor's businesses often force creditors to sue to get what they are owed, ProPublica reports

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (Governor's Office photo)
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a billionaire whose family owns dozens of companies, many in the coal industry, often cites his business experience as a reason he should be re-elected in November. When asked about being sued for unpaid bills, Justice generally says his companies always pay what they owe. But that minimizes a long history of leaving bills unpaid in the first place, and how long plaintiffs often have to fight to get paid, even after ordered to do so by courts, Ken Ward Jr. and Alex Mierjeski report for ProPublica.

"ProPublica examined legal records dating back to the start of Justice’s tenure as CEO of his family’s companies, representing the most complete accounting yet of how the corporate empire overseen by the governor often forces those it does business with to sue to get what they are owed," Ward and Mierjeski write. They "found that, over the last three decades, Justice’s constellation of companies has been involved in more than 600 lawsuits spanning more than two dozen states — including many filed by workers, vendors, business partners and government agencies, all alleging they weren’t paid. Often, similar cases were filed in multiple jurisdictions, as lawyers for plaintiffs tried to chase down a Justice company’s assets to settle debts."

The list of plaintiffs includes retired coal miners who were denied promised health insurance, vendors, governments, government agencies, and even attorneys hired to represent the companies in court, Ward and Mierjeski report. The U.S. Department of Justice, for example, filed a civil lawsuit against 23 of Justice's companies in May 2019, seeking more than $4.7 million in unpaid fines and fees for mine health and safety violations.

Justice's family businesses were forced to pay off some of their longstanding coal debts to companies and counties in West Virginia and Kentucky last summer. They owed millions in coal production taxes and property taxes to poor Appalachian counties.

Justice blames coal-related lawsuits on the industry's recent downturn, but ProPublica's review found coal debt lawsuits dating back to the 1990s. Justice also blames "the Russian conglomerate Mechel, which purchased a large chunk of Justice’s coal holdings in 2009 and then, according to court filings, ran up big bills in disputes with miners, contractors and vendors. The Justice family reacquired those holdings in 2015," Ward and Mierjeski report. "But few of the major, high-dollar cases in ProPublica’s review were, in fact, related to Mechel. More importantly, legal records show that Justice companies agreed to accept many liabilities in the buyback."

Justice has tried to distance himself from his companies, saying that he handed them over to his adult children. However, Ward reported last October that Justice was still running them.

In related news, the investigative news nonprofit Ward co-founded in March now has a name and a website. Mountain State Spotlight "is an independent, civic news organization that tells stories of importance to West Virginians about the issues and challenges facing their communities," it says. When it launches later this year, it will be "one of the largest newsrooms in West Virginia, with a team of seasoned editors and aggressive reporters focused on major issues including public health threats, economic development challenges, environmental issues, and government accountability." It's affiliated with ProPublica, the American Journalism Project, and Report for America.

Radically Rural Summit to go online-only this year, Sept. 24

The organizers of the Radically Rural Summit in Keene, N.H., now in its third year, recently announced that the conference will be condensed to an online, one-day event this year. The registration fee will be $59 per person, and group rates will be announced soon.

"Radically Rural: Remote will feature six programming tracks on Sept. 24, focusing on key sectors of importance to rural America: Main streets, entrepreneurship, community journalism, arts and culture, land and communities, and clean energy," reports summit co-creator The Keene Sentinel.

While the summit is being pared down, it will have "20 sessions and more than 60 speakers," the Sentinel reports. "The event will be held using webinar software with the opportunity for attendees from across the country to watch and join through a chat function. Each session will have support staff assisting speakers and serving attendees, with the goal of creating lively, interactive programming. The sessions will be taped for distribution to attendees following the event."

Webinar will explore rural-urban political divide in pandemic

The next webcast in a series about politics and policy during the pandemic will focus on differences in how rural and urban residents are experiencing and understanding the crisis.

Johns Hopkins University's SNF Agora Institute will hold "Listening to Rural and Urban Voices" at noon ET Friday, May 29. The webcast is free, and will last about 45 minutes.

Johns Hopkins political science professor and SNF Agora Institute Director Hahrie Han will moderate the discussion. The two featured guests will be:
  • Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a visiting professor with the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab. "Her work focuses on the way people in the United States make sense of politics and their place in it," according to the website. She is the author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.
  • Deb Roy, director of the Laboratory for Social Machines and executive director of the MIT Media Lab, and former chief media scientist for Twitter. His wheelhouse is mapping and analyzing large-scale media ecosystems, according to the website.
Click here for more information and the link to the webcast.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hemp industry, once booming, now on a downward trend as federal government drags feet on regulations

The hemp boom could go bust, despite the early efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to champion it, Mona Zhang and Paul Demko report for Politico.

After the 2018 Farm Bill legalized widespread hemp cultivation, largely thanks to the Kentucky senator, farmers and manufacturers rushed to get in on the ground floor of the industry, leading to oversupply and low wholesale prices. But patchwork local, state and federal laws have left producers, processors and consumers confused about the legality of hemp and left the door open to snake-oil peddlers who tout hemp-derived CBD as a cure-all without evidence. "All of those factors are hurting the very farmers hemp legalization was supposed to help," Zhang and Demko report.

Meanwhile, a slew of cannabis companies have declared bankruptcy over the past year, including two in McConnell's home state. "Many CBD producers, especially in Kentucky, seemed to be counting on McConnell's influence and FDA regulation," Zhang and Demko report. But McConnell "seems to be missing from the debate in recent months as they clamor for regulatory clarity that could help stave off the economic downturn for the industry."

House Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., introduced a bill in January that would make the FDA regulate CBD products as if they were dietary supplements, "but the chances for such legislation are close to zero in the middle of the public-health crisis," Zhang and Demko report. "Hemp advocates are focused on inserting similar language in a coronavirus package, arguing that it could help boost an industry without additional costs to the federal government." Hemp is not eligible for the $16 billion direct-payment fund for farmers hurt by the pandemic.

Farmers and processors told Politico that it would be unfortunate if quibbles over CBD regulation tanked the hemp industry, since not all hemp is grown for CBD, and the plant has many other uses.

Pandemic could weaken disaster response, since most volunteers are seniors; rural residents tend to be older

Government agencies at all levels rely on volunteers to help survivors of natural disasters. "However, the covid-19 pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in this system: Most volunteers are older people at higher risk from the virus, so this year they can’t participate in person," Christopher Flavelle reports for The New York Times.

Rural areas often have a harder time recovering from natural disasters, and have a disproportionate population of seniors, making such areas likely to be hurt by a lack of volunteers.

Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, told Flavelle that more than five million volunteers usually pitch in with disaster relief each year, but said he expects this year's turnout to be half that, which won't be enough.

Complicating the possible lack of volunteers, the highly trained staff of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is already spread thin from responding to the pandemic, Flavelle reports.

"It is the latest in a cascading series of problems facing an already fraying system ahead of what is expected to be an unusually severe hurricane season combined with disasters like this week’s dam collapse and flooding in Michigan, a state particularly hard hit by covid-19," Flavelle reports. "FEMA says it has taken steps to prepare for hurricane season, including expanding its coordination center in Washington, hiring staff and working with state and local officials and nonprofits to adapt to the pandemic."

Because of the pandemic, FEMA said last week it intends to rely on "virtual" disaster aid as much as possible, Flavelle reports. The frequent lack of broadband in rural areas could complicate such efforts.

Democrats criticize USDA for giving food-box delivery program contracts to inexperienced distributors

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is facing increasing criticism from Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee for awarding contracts for its food-box delivery program to poorly vetted distributors, the Food & Environment Reporting Network reports. The recent coronavirus relief bill allocated $3 billion for the government to buy products from farmers and distribute them to food banks and similar non-profits. USDA recently announced it will accomplish that through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, and has awarded $1.2 billion in contracts thus far.

Some distributors who got large contracts appeared to have little experience with large-scale food distribution, including a Texas wedding and event planner who was awarded a $39 million contract after making dubious claims about credentials, FERN reports. USDA also awarded a $40 million contract, now canceled, to a small California produce company that sells avocados online.

Three leaders of House Agriculture subcommittees (Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Jim Costa of California, and Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands) asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to explain his decisions, and why contracts were awarded to distributors without the proper experience: "At a time when the farm economy continues to suffer and families across the country face increasing food insecurity, it is our shared goal that this program fulfill its stated mission to support the domestic agriculture industry and provide critical assistance to families in need."

Wednesday webinar to discuss state and local government efforts to make records more accessible after crises

Route Fifty will host a free webinar from 2 to 3 p.m. ET Wednesday, May 27, to discuss state and local government efforts to make records more accessible to reporters after crises.

Many government offices are trying to digitize government records and incorporate tools to make them easier to edit and share with reporters, auditors and more. But that takes time, know-how and money, and government offices must prioritize and budget to make it happen.

Route Fifty Senior Editor Alisha Powell Gillis will lead a panel of experts to discuss the issue. Click here for more information, including a list of speakers, or to register.

Inmates sue to be released from jail amid pandemic

As prisons and jails become covid-19 hotbeds, incarcerated people "with medical vulnerabilities and short times left on their sentence are suing for release—and if that fails, they want masks, gloves, and the space to socially distance," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. "In courtrooms across the country, lawyers are pushing to release more people from jail in order to allow them to quarantine at home and free up space for those inside to socially distance. The issue is particularly urgent for people with chronic medical conditions—about 40 percent of those held in state prisons and local jails."

Thousands of people were released from jails in the early days of the pandemic, especially those awaiting trial for minor offenses or serving time for non-violent crimes. "But so far, judges have been largely resistant to allowing categorical releases of those not eligible for those earlier reprieves who are medically vulnerable, have short times left on their sentences, or are in jail awaiting trial," Coleman reports. "Instead, some judges are ordering that jails follow CDC recommendations, such as providing soap and sanitizer and making space for people to socially distance.

Most jails have said they're doing they best they can, but family members of the incarcerated, jail reform advocates, and some jail employees say it's not enough to prevent the spread of covid-19. "People in jail say there is little air ventilation and cramped sleeping quarters. They’ve repurposed garbage bags as gloves and socks as masks. In written testimony filed with lawsuits, several described watching people die in the bunks next to them," Coleman reports.

But some communities and victims rights organizations have argued that offenders shouldn't receive clemency because of the pandemic, and some governors, like Greg Abbott in Texas, have barred the release of some detainees, saying it would threaten public safety, Coleman reports.

"Health experts counter that not releasing people is the bigger risk to public safety. Jails and prisons with high infection rates become vectors for the surrounding communities—in one prison 80% of the population inside tested positive," Coleman reports.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Rural census response is running behind, especially online; interactive maps show how your county is doing

Housing Assistance Council maps, labeled, with legend below; for interactive versions, click here.
Rural residents are filling out their census forms more slowly than other Americans, reports the Housing Assistance Council, which helps build homes in the rural U.S.

As of May 17, almost 60 percent of U.S. households had responded to the census. HAC used Census Bureau data and a tract-level analysis to estimate response rates for rural, suburban, and urban census tracts. Suburban areas had the response rate, 66%, rural and small-town tracts were at 53%.

Almost half of census responses have been made online, and in that category, rural residents lag even more. Among internet responses, the rural rate was only 35 percent, far below the suburban rate of 56% and the urban rate of 48%. County rates for overall and online replies are on an interactive map.

"This year’s census response was always a concern for rural communities given long-established internet deficiencies, household dynamics and poor connectivity in many rural markets," HAC notes. "Lower response rates in rural America are likely due to a combination of factors, but many rural households have not received their census invitations and have had no opportunity to participate."

About 5% percent of households, most of them rural, were scheduled to have their census forms hand-delivered between March 15 and April 17, HAC reports: "However, the Census Bureau suspended all field operations due to the covid-19 pandemic. According to the Census Bureau’s latest guidance, field operations will now take place June 13-July 9, and the census has resumed field operations in some limited markets."

NYT page with covid-19 obits relied on local newspapers

Screenshot of page, near halfway through, with largest text box; for a larger version, click on it.
The New York Times all-text front page with names and short descriptions of covid-19 victims was a remarkable piece of journalism, but the online version is even more so. It's one long page of nearly 100,000 silhouettes, with text boxes appearing at different scrolling points.

The names and descriptions came from more than 250 local newspapers, which are each given credit at the bottom of the page. A Times editor cited the obituaries as an example of why "local journalism matters, now more than ever."

Why wear a mask when you go out in public? Because you may have the virus and not know it, and it's very contagious

President Trump wore a mask on a private tour of a Ford plant Thursday but refuses to do so in public.
Wearing a mask when out in public is even more important as state economies reopen, medical professionals advise. Many Americans are skeptical.

"Some people have objected to masks, and the challenging part about that is you can object to a mask on your own personal health, but it is not your own personal health that it is going to impact," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said May 19. "It is other people's health, so it is more about your willingness to protect other people if you are wearing or not wearing one."

"The governor regularly points out that masks are recommended by the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Melissa Patrick reports for Kentucky Health News. "At one point he said they shouldn't be a partisan issue."

Kaiser Family Foundation Poll released May 22 found that Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to say they wear a mask every time they leave their house: 70% and 37%, respectively. Majorities of each party said they wear a mask "most of the time."

Kaiser Family Foundation chart; click on it to enlarge. More data and poll questions are here
The poll also found that while 72% of Americans think President Trump should wear a mask when meeting with others, only about half of Republicans, 48%, agree. The partisan difference in largely driven by Republican men.

Trump says he doesn't need to wear a mask because he is tested daily for the virus, but critics say he is missing an opportunity to set an example that would save lives. Thursday, he refused to wear a mask in front of news cameras while touring a Ford plant in Michigan, saying "I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it." He wore a mask when news cameras weren't around, but someone on the tour took a picture of him and it was widely circulated.

So, why should you wear a mask? "The simple answer is because the virus is primarily spread by tiny droplets from infected people, not just coughing and sneezing, but from talking and breathing," Patrick writes. "A mask can stop the spread of those droplets, especially from people who have the virus but don't know that they do." Kentucky Health Commissioner Stevn Stack says about one in four people with the virus have no symptoms.

Patrick writes that the value of wearing a mask is illustrated by a new study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows how normal speaking can launch thousands of droplets that can remain suspended in the air for eight to 14 minutes, allowing them to be inhaled by others. "There is a substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments," the study report says.

The researchers said in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine that the same experiment, using scattered laser light, found that use of a cloth face mask blocked nearly all droplets emitted when talking. They posted a video, the last part if it in slow motion, to show their finding.

Science supporting mask wearing is so strong that more than 100 prominent health experts have asked governors to require them. They write that the research "strongly suggests that requiring fabric mask use in public places could be amongst the most powerful tools to stop the community spread of covid-19."

So why did the CDC recommend not wearing a mask two months ago? "The Mayo Clinic says face masks were not recommended at the start of the pandemic because experts didn't know the extent to which people with covid-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appear, nor was it known that some people have covid-19 but don't have symptoms," Patrick reports. "The CDC now recommends the use of reusable cloth masks so that surgical masks and N95 respirator masks, which continue to be in short supply, can be saved for health-care workers."

The CDC guidance says cloth masks should: fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face; be secured with ties or ear loops; include multiple layers of fabric; allow breathing without restriction; and be able to be laundered and machine-dried without damage or change to shape. It also cautions that they should not be placed on children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or anyone who would have trouble removing the mask without help. The Mayo Clinic recommends that cloth face coverings be washed after every day of use.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Covid-19 outbreaks in rural areas with meat plants, prisons and political doubt create a checkerboard that will be filled in

There has been "a fundamental shift" in the spread of the coronavirus, The Washington Post reports after "an analysis of case data and interviews with public health professionals in several states. The pandemic that first struck in major metropolises is now increasingly finding its front line in the country’s rural areas; counties with acres of farmland, cramped meatpacking plants, out-of-the-way prisons and few hospital beds."

Post reporters Reis Thiebault and Abigail Hauslohner note that rural areas "are poorer, older and more prone to health problems such as diabetes and obesity than those of urban areas. They include immigrants and the undocumented — the 'essential' workers who have kept the country’s sprawling food industry running, but who rarely have the luxury of taking time off for illness."

Tara Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University, told the Post that the rural spread will be sort of a checkerboard. “It’s not going to be a wave that spreads out uniformly over all of rural America; it’s going to be hot spots that come and go,” she said. “And I don’t know how well they’re going to be managed.” That's because "In many of those places, where the health-care system is already stretched thin, even a minor surge in patients is enough to overwhelm," the reporters note.

The first hot spots have been in meat-processing plants. "Of the 25 rural counties with the highest per capita case rates, 20 have a meatpacking plant or prison where the virus took hold and spread with abandon, then leaped into the community when workers took it home," the Post reports. "Infection has raced through immigrant worker communities, where poverty or immigration status prevent some of the sick from seeking care and language barriers hinder access to information."

Politics and the media -- news and social -- play a role, too: "It has taken hold in counties where residents flout social distancing guidelines or believe the pandemic to be exaggerated, the virus’s lethality a myth spread by President Trump’s political foes and a liberal media," the reporters write.

They quote Rebecca Burns, a health officer Hillsdale County, Michigan, which last month had the highest death toll in the state's rural counties, after a nursing-home outbreak, and armed protesters "protecting" a barber shop opening in defiance of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency orders: “We’ve got a little bit of everything: folks who feel their rights have been taken away because they’ve been asked to stay home and they lost jobs and they’re really hurting, and we have folks who are very concerned and frightened and won’t leave their house.”

Jeffrey Lim, an internist in Texas County, Oklahoma, told the Post that he fears an outbreak there is being worsened by people not taking precautions: “If you go to the local Walmart, I would say 10 percent of people are wearing masks, and the restaurants … that are open are packed. I’m a registered Republican, by the way,” he added. “But [people] don’t seem to know the science behind it. Even though they see the news, they just think it’s all overblown.”