Friday, July 03, 2020

Interactive map from Harvard uses new coronavirus cases in last seven days to estimate risk level by county

Screenshot of interactive map shows counties' risk indicated by color; for the interactive version, click here.
How much is your county at risk from the coronavirus? A new mapping tool from Harvard University estimates that, based on the number of new cases per 100,000 people in the previous seven days.

“The public needs clear and consistent information about covid risk levels in different jurisdictions for personal decision-making, and policymakers need clear and consistent visibility that permits differentiating policy across jurisdictions,” Danielle Allen, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, said in a news release.

The map is color-coded but interactive, allowing users to see the data behind the colors, which are:
  • Green: Less than one case a day per 100,000 people, and containment is on track. Use contact tracing and testing to monitor.
  • Yellow: One to nine cases a day per 100,000 people, indicating community spread and the need for rigorous testing and tracing.
  • Orange: 10 to 24 cases a day per 100,000 people, showing “accelerated spread,” and stay-at-home orders are advised
  • Red: 25 or more a day cases per 100,000, meaning the county is at a “tipping point” and stay-at-home orders are necessary to contain the virus.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Federal report looks at Appalachia's petrochemical potential

Major gas areas and North Central Appalachia's share of U.S. production;
New York has limits on horizontal hydraulic fracturing (from DOE report)
A new Department of Energy report looks at Appalachia's energy resources, the opportunities and challenges they present and "steps that can be taken to increase the positive economic impact from these opportunities in parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky," says the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“Appalachian energy resources are among the most plentiful in the world, and the region stands poised to continue its growth as an energy producer and an important contributor to the world petrochemical market,” ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas said.

For the full report, "The Appalachian Energy and Petrochemical Renaissance: An Examination of Economic Progress and Opportunities," click here.

Abandoned gas and oil wells leak methane into air, stinking up rural properties and contributing to climate change

"More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water. And drilling companies are likely to abandon many more wells due to bankruptcies, as oil prices struggle to recover from historic lows after the coronavirus pandemic crushed global fuel demand, according to bankruptcy lawyers, industry analysts and state regulators," Nichola Groom reports for Reuters

Many of those wells are located on rural land, especially ones that rely on hydraulic fracturing. 

"Leaks from abandoned wells have long been recognized as an environmental problem, a health hazard and a public nuisance," Grooms reports. "They have been linked to dozens of instances of groundwater contamination by research commissioned by the Groundwater Protection Council, whose members include state ground water agencies. Orphaned wells have been blamed for a slew of public safety incidents over the years."

According to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report, more than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the U.S. emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018. "That’s the climate-damage equivalent of consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation, or about as much as the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in a typical day," Groom reports. "The actual amount could be as much as three times higher, the EPA says, because of incomplete data. The agency believes most of the methane comes from the more than 2 million abandoned wells it estimates were never properly plugged."

New memoir recounts how Appalachian author broke a generational cycle of abuse

A new memoir, In the Shadow of the Valley (Little A, $24.95), examines what it was like to deal with physical and mental abuse, as well as severe substance abuse, in Appalachian rural Kentucky in the 1980s. Bobi Conn, a debut author, interrogates her own assumptions and attitudes growing up, and narrates how she was able to escape the cycle of abuse and process her haunting past in a book Amazon named a "Best Book of the Month" in the Biographies and Memoirs category.

Conn wrote in the memoir that she rewrote the story many times over the years, and each time saw it more clearly: "With each revision, I understood that although many people had quieted me, even whipped me into silence, I still had words they could not take away from me."

"At times, the narrative is fragmented and disconnected, perhaps due to Conn’s struggle to make sense of it all, but the author is to be commended for her courage and determination to change her life circumstances," according to Kirkus Reviews, which called the book "an inspiration for those attempting to come to terms with abuse."

Appalachian novelist Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne writes: “From the first sentence, I smiled in recognition of a natural storyteller, one 'born and bound to this land,' who is a keen observer and a loving inhabitant of the land of which she writes. This book is a wonder—a dark, tragic Appalachian ballad come to full, lush life."

Studies: Jails a more potent pandemic vector than prisons

The coronavirus has hit U.S. jails and prisons hard, due to high rates of chronic disease and lack of sanitation and social distancing. That has turned communities surrounding prisons into covid-19 hotspots, as workers spread the virus. More than 60,000 prisoners and staff have been infected with the disease, and more than 600 have died, according to the Marshall Project, which tracks such statistics.

Jails may be a more potent vector for the pandemic than prisons, according to two new studies. Jails "mainly house those who are awaiting trial or inmates serving short sentences," Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "Those facilities tend to have more churn than state and federal penitentiaries, with greater numbers of people entering and leaving ... increasing opportunities for the disease to disseminate."

Jails could increase covid-19 infections in U.S. communities from between 99,000 to 188,000 overall, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tennessee and Washington State University, Ollove reports. The numbers may be bigger, since the paper was published in April and relied on lower death estimates.

A newly published, peer-reviewed study from Health Affairs buttresses the ACLU study: "The researchers found that cycling through Cook County Jail was associated with 15.9 percent of covid-19 cases in Chicago and 15.7% in Illinois as of late April," Ollove reports. Though the study notes that the data isn't enough to establish clear causal relationship, it fits the hypothesis that arrests and jailing practices further the spread of infection.

"It’s not only released inmates, many of whom end up in crowded homeless shelters, who might carry the virus into communities," Ollove reports. "There are also risks of infection from inmates making court appearances or receiving medical care at hospitals in the community."

Here's a cartoon and an editorial for July 4, or any time

"As much as the news media may rub some the wrong way, it is frightening to think of a society with no free press," says the lobbying group America’s Newspapers. All news media, have a vested interest in helping the public understand the essential role of journalism in a democratic republic. The group offers for the July 4 weekend an opinion piece by CEO Dean Ridings and an excellent editorial cartoon, above.

The editorial concludes, "On this Independence Day, all Americans should renew our commitment to Jefferson’s description of the United States as “a country which is afraid to read nothing, and which may be trusted with anything, so long as its reason remains unfettered by law.”

Series examines transition of coal country economy as coal declines

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Energy News Network and WyoFile chart.
Click the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive version.
"Transition in Coal Country", a three-part collaboration of the Energy News Network and WyoFile "examines how the declining coal industry presents immediate and long-term changes for coal communities in Wyoming and Appalachia, how those communities are coping with change, and what they might learn from each other in charting a path to a sustainable future beyond coal," Mason Adams and Dustin Bleizeffer report.

The first part, "What's next for coal country?" discusses the overall state of coal communities' economies and the coal industry, and how market and policy forces have contributed to that, as well as predictions for the future.

The second installment, "Coal country faces a healthcare crisis," shows how the pandemic has hurt rural coal communities already struggling with lack of healthcare resources.

The third part, "Coal communities increasingly rely on federal health programs," explores how the decline of coal has forced conservative politicians to reconsider Medicaid expansion and obliged rural communities to depend more on such programs as well as telehealth care. 

Pandemic lays bare the starvation of America's public-health system, AP and Kaiser Health News report

"The U.S. public health system has been starved for decades and lacks the resources to confront the worst health crisis in a century," begins a comprehensive story by reporters for The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News.

"State and local government health workers on the ground are sometimes paid so little, they qualify for public aid. They track the coronavirus on paper records shared via fax. Working seven-day weeks for months on end, they fear pay freezes, public backlash and even losing their jobs. Since 2010, spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16% per capita and spending for local health departments has fallen by 18%."

Change in public-health staff per resident, by state, 2010-19
That shows at the Kentucky River District Health Department, where Public Health Director Scott Lockard "is battling the pandemic with 3G cell service, paper records and one-third of the employees the department had 20 years ago," the story reports. "He redeployed his nurse administrator to work round-the-clock on contact tracing, alongside the department’s school nurse and the tuberculosis and breastfeeding coordinator. His home health nurse, who typically visits older patients, now works on preparedness plans. But residents aren’t making it easy on them.

“They’re not wearing masks, and they’re throwing social distancing to the wind,” Lockard said in mid-June, as cases surged. “We’re paying for it.”

In some states, health departments are coronavirus stepchildren. "Melanie Hutton, administrator for the Cooper County Public Health Center in rural Missouri, pointed out the local ambulance department got $18,000, and the fire and police departments got masks to fight covid-19, but “For us, not a nickel, not a face mask. We got five gallons of homemade hand sanitizer made by the prisoners.”

The crisis has been long in the making, the story says: "Over time, their work had received so little support that they found themselves without direction, disrespected, ignored, even vilified. The desperate struggle against covid-19 became increasingly politicized and grew more difficult. States, cities and counties in dire straits have begun laying off and furloughing their limited staff, and even more devastation looms, as states reopen and cases surge."

Study: Patients with underlying health conditions 12 times more likely to die from covid-19

Many rural residents who get covid-19 are at a higher risk of being hospitalized or dying from it, according to newly published data.

Coronavirus patients with underlying health conditions were hospitalized six times more often than otherwise healthy patients during the first four months of the pandemic, and they were 12 times more likely to die, according to federal health data," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "The data, reported by state and territorial health departments and compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, covers more than 1.7 million cases of covid-19 and 103,700 deaths, all between Jan. 22 and May 30. The information shows the disproportionate effect the virus continues to have on different groups, including Black and Latino people, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

The CDC data dovetails with a recently published paper in The Journal of Rural Health that found that rural residents and racial/ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of dying from covid-19, especially those who are both rural and a racial or ethnic minority.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

GAO report finds increase in repeatedly flooded properties, suggests changes to flood insurance program

Despite billions of dollars the federal government has spent over the past 30 years on flood mitigation projects, a new Government Accountability Office report says the number of properties damaged by floods more than one time has increased in the past decade, especially in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida.

It also notes that premiums for federal flood insurance "do not fully reflect flood hazards for insured property, leaving the federal government financially exposed to this risk," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. The report says reducing the flood risk of insured properties and/or increasing premiums will mitigate the program's financial shortfalls, but says "structural reforms" to premium rates will also be necessary.

The flood-insurance program has been struggling for years, but because of big spikes in claims paid due to disasters, not a gradual increase. The Federal Emergency Management Agency' "has borrowed about $36 billion from the Treasury to pay claims during disasters over the past 15 years or so. Congress cancelled $16 billion of this 'debt' in 2017, but about $20 billion remains outstanding," Lucia reports.

The report dovetails with recently released scientific research showing that far more U.S. properties are at substantial risk of flooding than FEMA maps indicate, since FEMA maps don't factor in climate change and don't use the most recent data available.

Chesapeake Energy declares bankruptcy, others may follow since 1/3 of U.S. shale-oil producers 'technically insolvent'

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing pioneer Chesapeake Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to eliminate $7 billion in debt, and others could follow soon, Alexandra Scraggs reports for Barron's.

Lower demand during the pandemic triggered an oil crash that's hitting the fracking industry hard. The U.S. became a top oil producer recently because of the fracking boom, but keeping up with that boom means most fracking companies are heavily leveraged and can't afford a downturn.

But bond yields for Chesapeake have been distressed since August 2019, long before the pandemic, Scraggs reports. She lists 10 other oil and gas companies that could also declare bankruptcy, including drilling equipment maker Forum Energy Technologies.

According to a Deloitte study, one-third of U.S. shale-oil producers are "technically insolvent," with crude oil prices so low, meaning they will have trouble repaying debts. Oil prices have gone up a bit since April, "but the rebound will do little to prevent 15 years of debt-fueled production growth catching up with many shale producers,"  Kevin Crowley reports for Bloomberg.

Medicaid expansion squeaks by in Okla.; ballot initiative process was key in sidestepping state Republican leaders

A ballot initiative to expand Medicaid benefits via federal funding passed narrowly in Republican stronghold Oklahoma, with 50.48 percent voting yes and 49.52% voting no out of more than 673,000 cast. Most of the "yes" votes were concentrated in urbanized areas.

The move could help at least 200,000 lower-income adults, according to The Associated Press.

"Low-income households earning 133% or less than the federal poverty line will now be eligible for government subsidized Medicaid coverage with the state picking up 10% of the cost and the federal government paying the balance," the Tulsa World reports. "Under 2019 poverty guidelines, expanded Medicaid coverage would provide health insurance to a single adult making less than $17,236 annually, or adults in a family of four making less than $35,535 annually."  Oklahoma has the second-highest percentage of the population without health insurance, with 14.2%, or 548,316 individuals, lacking it, the World reports.

The referendum makes Oklahoma the 37th state to expand Medicaid (38th if you count Washington, D.C.). The ballot initiative process may have been a key factor in the vote in Oklahoma and other red states that have expanded Medicaid, enabling voters to make an end-run around conservative state leaders, Glenn Daigon reports for Who What Why.

Part of Roundup settlement could help some Midwestern row-crop farmers hit by dicamba drift stay afloat

"Largely overlooked in Bayer’s $10.5 billion Roundup settlement last week was a $400 million agreement to settle claims of crop damage from dicamba drift, a deal that could help some struggling farmers stay afloat," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Claims from the 2015 to 2020 growing seasons will be covered by the settlement, and farmers not involved in the litigation are still able to submit claims if they provide proof of damage to crop yields and evidence that it was due to dicamba, according to a Bayer spokesperson."

Some rural Californians illustrate political divide in attitudes toward wearing masks in public during pandemic

Despite ample evidence that masks work to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many refuse to wear them, especially as the pandemic has become increasingly politicized. In rural areas of California, many are rejecting Gov. Gavin Newsom's June 18 order to wear masks while in public.

"Why the split? Some of it’s cultural; as a rule, rural Californians are more suspicious of what they see as government intrusion into their lives," Dale Kasler reports for The Sacramento Bee. "Some of it’s political; rural areas tend to vote Republican, and some residents are taking their lead from President Donald Trump, who has been disdainful of wearing masks. Polls show Democrats are more likely to wear masks than Republicans."

Kasler's interviews with rural residents illustrate some of the reasons. Lorenzo Smith, a retailer in Placerville, pop, 10,389, told Kasler he won't wear them out of principle and because he thinks it's unnecessary. "Most people up here do not like the governor," Smith told Kasler. "The deal is, you have no right to tell me I have to wear a mask. I’m an American. … I refuse to bow to anybody."

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Miami entrepreneur, others indicted in alleged $1.4 billion scheme to route lab tests to rural hospitals for higher pay

Miami entrepreneur Jorge Perez and nine others have been indicted for allegedly scamming insurers by fraudulently routing lab services bills through rural hospitals that are allowed to charge higher rates. Perez owned, co-owned, had a financial stake in, or helped manage over a dozen hospitals, but most have since declared bankruptcy or closed.

"The indictment, filed in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Florida, alleges Perez and the other defendants sought out struggling rural hospitals and then contracted with outside labs, in far-off cities and states, to process blood and urine tests for people who never set foot in the hospitals. Insurers were billed using the higher rates allowed for the rural hospitals," Lauren Weber and Barbara Ostrov report for Kaiser Health News. "Perez and the other defendants took in $400 million since 2015, according to the indictment. Many of the hospitals run or managed by Perez’s Empower companies have since failed as they ran out of money when insurers refused to pay for the suspect billing. Half of the nation’s rural hospital bankruptcies in 2019 were affiliated with his empire."

The insurers may not be the only possible victims. A former employee at one of Perez's hospitals told KHN that "money was so tight under Perez’s management of her former hospital that the electricity was shut off at least twice and staffers had to bring in their own supplies," Weber and Ostrov report. "She said she is owed about $12,000 in back pay, as well as money for uncovered dental expenses and a workplace injury that would have been covered had employees’ insurance or workers’ compensation premiums been paid."

Nearly 70% more U.S. properties at high risk of flooding than federal government estimates; see county-level data

New York Times maps; click here for an interactive, county-level map.
Nearly 6 million more U.S. properties face a substantial risk of flooding than federal data indicates, according to new peer-reviewed scientific research. That could have big repercussions for rural residents who live near waterways.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which assesses properties' flood risk for the government via the National Flood Insurance Program, shows that 8.7 million properties are at a high risk of flooding. But the new research shows that 14.6 million properties face such risk. "The discrepancy exists, the group says, because it uses more up-to-date climate data, analyzes precipitation as a stand-alone risk, and includes areas FEMA has not," Amy Harder and Maema Ahmed report for Axios. Click here for interactive content from Axios, including ranked states, counties and areas at risk.

Residents of high-risk areas are required to buy federal flood insurance. "When FEMA does issue updated maps, politicians and homeowners often object, hoping to avoid higher federal flood insurance rates," The New York Times reports. Poor, rural residents lose out either way: increased insurance payouts could price them out of their communities, but without insurance, they could be left without help and unable to afford repairs when flooding hits, as happened in Florida after Hurricane Michael.

Recent studies found that the federal government needs to spend up to $12 billion to improve its flood maps. In the meantime, First Street is developing a free online database called Flood Factor aimed at helping real estate agents and prospective buyers get a more realistic idea of a property's flood risk.

First Street is a non-profit research and tech firm that developed its flood model with researchers and hydrologists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University and more.

Nominate an outstanding journalist or news media staffer over age 50 for new Editor & Publisher honor by July 10

For years, Editor & Publisher magazine has published a list of 25 outstanding journalists under age 35, but the publication's leaders apparently believe they've been remiss in not honoring veteran journalists.

So, E&P is seeking nominations for its new "15 over 50" Award. Nominees should be someone who has "spent their career moving the news publishing industry forward by leading, inspiring and motivating others." Nominees must be at least 50 years old as of July 1, and can come from newspapers, TV, radio or online, and can come from sales, editorial, production, or audience development.

Nominations are due July 10. Click here for more information or to submit a nomination.

Funds launched to help local news organizations fund-raise from audiences, increase local coverage of covid-19

Several news-media organizations have launched funds aimed at helping local newspapers more quickly and easily begin fund-raising and accepting tax-deductible donations.

The New England Newspaper & Press Association announced the creation of its News Fund of New England in late April; the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation announced its Wisconsin Community News Fund on June 27. Both seek to help local newspapers stay afloat at a time when advertising revenue has taken a steep dive.

A similar venture has a slightly different focus: the Local Media Association has launched the Covid-19 Local News Fund, which aims to help independent and family-owned news organizations fundraise donations so they can increase coverage of covid-19 issues at the local level.

Ensuring that local news media can provide clear, reliable information about the pandemic is imperative, since conflicting messages about the pandemic from scientists, politicians and social media has likely helped the virus spread. Because the pandemic has become so politicized, Republicans—who are disproportionately rural—tend to take the threat of the virus less seriously, Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News.

New rural covid-19 cases hit record – and increasing – highs for at least four days straight through June 26

New covid-19 cases in nonmetropolitan counties. Red bars are days in which the record for most new cases was broken.
(Daily Yonder chart; click the image to enlarge it.)
Rural counties saw record numbers of new covid-19 cases for at least four days in a row last week.

"The streak started on Tuesday, June 23, when there were 3,885 new cases of covid-19 in nonmetropolitan, or rural, counties. The figure climbed each day, reaching 4,550 new cases on Friday, June 26," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. The previous rural record was 2,655 new infections on June 12.

Covid-19 cases are rising overall in the U.S., but rural cases are increasing at a slightly faster rate than the national average. From June 20 through 26, covid-19 cases increased 9.5 percent, while rural cases climbed 11.9%. Cities with populations between 500,000 and 1 million saw the steepest increases in that time frame, at 13.9%. Click here for more Daily Yonder information and analysis on covid-19 cases, including links to county-level data.

New covid-19 cases in non-metropolitan counties. Red bars are days in which the record for most new cases was broken.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Federal Reserve will start buying bonds from major food and agribusiness firms to prop up the economy

The Federal Reserve will buy bonds from large corporations, including several major food and agribusiness firms, "as part of its broad efforts to prop up the economy and financial markets," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

The New York Federal Reserve Bank announced nearly $7 billion in individual corporate bonds and exchange-traded funds from nearly 800 companies. "The program is part of the central bank’s unprecedented efforts to pump money into the economy and keep cash moving through financial markets," McCrimmon reports. "The Fed is buying bonds on the open market from companies that meet its eligibility standards. The purchases will lower borrowing costs for those firms should they seek more credit."

Click here for a full list of companies that will receive help.

Opioid epidemic caused OD deaths on tribal lands to spike; Natives in Okla. 50% more likely to die than non-natives

Native Americans on tribal lands are facing some of the highest per-capita rates of coronavirus infections because of struggles with health disparities, infrastructure and housing problems, isolation and poverty. "But tribal leaders say they have not lost sight of the ongoing devastation caused by prescription opioids," Sari Horwitz, Debbie Cenziper and Steven Rich report for The Washington Post. "As more than 3,000 cities and counties — along with most states — pursue billions in settlement dollars from opioid manufacturers and distributors, tribal leaders are fighting for a fair share of the proceeds through a series of lawsuits filed by Indian tribes. At the height of the opioid epidemic, Native Americans overdosed and died at a rate that rivaled some of the hardest-hit regions in Appalachia. Nationwide, from 2006 to 2014, Native Americans were nearly 50 percent more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-natives."

Oklahoma was particularly hard hit, with opioid-overdose death rates three times higher than the nationwide rate for non-Natives from 2006 to 2014. "At least 370 Native Americans in Oklahoma overdosed and died — with a death rate roughly equivalent to that of West Virginia, federal data shows. Experts say the number of deaths for Native Americans is likely to be far higher because they are often mistakenly classified as white on death certificates," the Post reports.

Pennsylvania attorney general releases 'scathing' grand jury report on state fracking industry, regulatory industry

"Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Thursday released a scathing grand jury report on the state’s Marcellus Shale natural gas industry that not only outlines health and safety issues caused by hydraulic fracturing, but also takes to task the chief agency in charge of enforcing regulations on the industry," Frank Kummer reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

At a press conference, Shapiro described a "revolving door relationship between the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and the industry, saying officials from the agency 'repeatedly failed to exercise their duties and responsibilities,'" Kummer reports. He characterized their relationship as "too cozy" and said DEP officials who testified to the grand jury were repeating fracking industry talking points. He also noted that an energy company hired seven former DEP employees from the same office.

"The grand jury report was the result of a two-year investigation that included 287 hours of testimony. It examined an industry that has drilled over 12,000 unconventional wells, as well as what the jurors called a 'chemical cover-up' that allows companies to keep secret complex chemical compounds used in the fracking process," Kummer reports.

A 2017 study linked low birth weight and other health problems for infants who lived near fracking wells. 

Rural food banks face new challenges amid pandemic

Food banks across the nation are struggling to keep up with demand as unemployed families seek help during the pandemic. But rural food banks are dealing with "the additional challenges of getting food to those who live in isolated places with fewer volunteers and donations," Emily Ness reports for WDIO-TV in Duluth.

According to the director at Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Duluth, food must be packed up and distributed instead of allowing people to come in and take it from the shelf, in order to maintain social distancing. That takes more volunteers, and volunteers tend to be senior citizens. But Second Harvest, in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has barred seniors from volunteering during the pandemic. That leaves them with fewer volunteers, Ness reports.

Second Harvest is also spending more money distributing the food in rural areas since there are so many new people who need help from the food bank. That means increased costs for gas and mileage, Ness reports.

Telehealth expansion for pandemic has made mental health care more accessible in some rural areas

Aggressive efforts to expand telehealth care in rural areas during the pandemic are bringing the unexpected side benefit of making mental health care more accessible in some areas, Raga Justin reports for the San Angelo Standard Times. Though Justin's story centers around Texas, the same thing is likely happening in other states.

"In April, Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily waived restrictions on telehealth, allowing mental health care providers and local mental health authorities to broadly expand services and collect reimbursement for online appointments more easily," Justin reports. "The state also implemented a mental health hotline in March that offers free over-the-phone support and provides resources and information to callers who need help."

Andy Keller, president and CEO of Texas-based Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, told Justin that "in some ways, people in rural Texas have better access to health care than they’d ever had before" and noted that expanded telehealth access has lifted barriers to accessing physicians in other parts of the state.

Telemedicine appointments at Texas Tech University's Psychiatry Department—a telemedicine pioneer—have been skyrocketing since the pandemic began, according to department chair Sarah Wakefield.

But lack of broadband access in rural areas has stymied further expansion of telemedicine. About 500,000 Texas households lack broadband access in Texas, and about 440,000 of them are in rural areas, Justin reports.