Friday, October 23, 2020

Trump and Biden touched on rural concerns like fracking and pandemic in last debate; prompted lots of fact-checking

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden squared off at Belmont University in Nashville last night for the final presidential debate of the 2020 election. The debate covered six topics: the coronavirus pandemic, American families, race in America, climate change, and leadership. The tone was markedly more civil than the first debate on Sept. 29, though both candidates were eager to take shots at each other. The candidates covered some familiar ground, sometimes on topics with rural resonance, but President Trump frequently repeated often-debunked claims and Biden made a few misleading or false claims.

Here are some of the topics they touched on with rural resonance, as well as fact-checking. 

Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News noted that coronavirus infection rates are soaring (though she didn't note that this is happening disproportionately in rural areas). Trump said that 2.2 million people were expected to die from covid-19, but that the "excess mortality rate is way down, and much lower than almost any other country." That 2.2 million figure is incredibly misleading, and comes from an incredibly unlikely worst-case scenario, reports. Moreover, the U.S. has a higher per capita excess mortality rate than 30 out of 34 countries in the Human Mortality Database.

Trump also implied that his administration has kept U.S. health-care providers well supplied with medical equipment such as personal protective equipment and ventilators, but rural hospitals have had a difficult time obtaining such equipment.

Trump said the nation is "rounding the turn" on the pandemic, but covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths are increasing, especially in rural areas, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the pandemic is far from over. FactCheck notes.

"Biden misquoted Sen. Mitch McConnell as saying, 'Let them go bankrupt,' about cities and states that have lost revenue as a result of the pandemic. McConnell said bankruptcy should be a legal option for states with unrelated money woes," FactCheck reports.

Trump claimed that Democrat-run states are having the worst time in the pandemic, but Biden said red states in the Midwest and Upper Midwest are seeing significant spikes. Biden is correct about this, when measured by per-capita infection rates, according to fact-checkers at The Washington Post.

Also, Trump blamed shut-downs in Democrat-run states for slowing economic recovery, but the economy is faring poorly even in places with few restrictions, like Iowa, Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley report for The New York Times.

On energy and the environment, Trump said the U.S. is energy-independent. That's "flat-out false," the Post reports, since the U.S. imported about 9.14 million barrels of oil per day in 2019. However, the nation became a net exporter of energy last year.

Biden said he wants to transition away from the oil industry to help slow climate change, prioritizing renewable energy sources. After the debate he clarified that he didn't want to end the entire fossil-fuel industry, but instead get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels, Matthew Choi reports for Politico.

"Trump was not lying" about Biden’s statements on fracking, Daniel Dale of CNN says. He adds that when Biden would make "broad, anti-fracking statements" in the primary, his staff would clarify that his stance was against it only on federal land.

Biden claimed the U.S. trade deficit with China went up, not down, under Trump. But in 2019 it was lower than in Biden's last year as vice president, reports.

Trump said he gave farmers $28 billion in trade aid and that China paid for it. Biden said that American taxpayers footed the bill. Biden is essentially correct, the Post reports.

Meatpacking workers say company policies force them to work or risk being fired when they have covid-19 symptoms

Some meatpacking workers say company attendance policies have forced them to go to work or risk being fired for absenteeism when they have covid-19 symptoms. Meatpacking plants are a major source of outbreaks in rural counties, Heather Schlitz reports in a collaboration between the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and USA Today, funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Most major meatpackers use a point system in which workers receive a points for missing work. After a certain number, they get fired. "For a few months earlier this year, as case counts swelled, Tyson Foods suspended its point system, and Smithfield Foods said it has halted its version for the time being," Schlitz reports. "However, the point system has endured at Tyson and JBS plants throughout the pandemic, and it has continued to coerce people with potential covid-19 symptoms into showing up to work, said plant employees, their family members, activists and researchers."

As one worker told Schlitz: "If they see that you can walk, they’ll tell you to keep working . . . If you can’t stand on your own, they’ll send you home." Spokespeople for Tyson and JBS, the nation's two largest meatpackers, told Schlitz that they encourage employees to stay home while sick. A JBS spokesperson said the company has never taken points from a worker for a documented illness during the pandemic.

However, a worker may display symptoms long before receiving a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis, due to testing delays. The point system has likely contributed to the spread of the virus, Jose Oliva, co-founder of HEAL Food Alliance, a non-profit that organizes food industry workers, told Schlitz.

Why are rural areas seeing worst coronavirus outbreaks? N.Y. Times has answers in story with maps, county rankings

New York Times chart
The coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately hurting rural America, and has been since August. About one in four covid-19 deaths are now in rural counties; in in March and April, when almost all deaths were in metropolitan areas.

"Now, with the national case count and hospitalization rates approaching a third peak, none of the country’s biggest hotspots are in a large city," Lauren Leatherby reports for The New York Times. "Almost all the counties with the largest outbreaks have populations under 50,000, and most have populations under 10,000. Nearly all are in the Midwest or the Mountain West. Nursing homes, prisons and jails are significant vectors for spreading the infection in rural counties."

Many rural hospitals are struggling to handle the surge and some are over capacity. "Overwhelmed by the record case numbers, North Dakota suspended its contact tracing program this week," Leatherby reports. "New Mexico’s governor, also seeing hospital beds fill up in her state, plans to put in effect new restrictions on restaurants, bars and retail stores.

See the Times story for plenty of maps, charts, and a ranking of rural counties with the highest infection cases and rates. Also, The Daily Yonder has been tracking the rural spread for months.

'Covering the Pandemic' program available for viewing

Reporters and news managers who are covering the pandemic discussed their work and the challenges they face Thursday night in an online program sponsored by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. All the panelists were from Kentucky, but the discussion was not Kentucky-specific and could be useful to journalists regardless of location. A recording of the Zoom meeting is at

Quick hits: Photo book follows Mississippi R.: coal-ash ponds reprieved; USDA rural opportunity agency proposed

How the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have spread coronavirus. Read more here.

The Trump administration will let some leaking or otherwise dangerous coal-ash storage ponds stay in operation longer, and some unlined ponds stay open indefinitely, under a rule change. Read more here.

A new photo book follows the Mississippi River from headwaters to the Delta and Gulf. Read more here.

The director of a rural health research center, whose work has led to laws aimed at improving rural maternity care, has won a prestigious award. Read more here.

A left-leaning think-tank proposes a Rural Opportunity Administration within the USDA. Read more here.

A recent Cargill study found that most Americans acknowledge the difficulties farmers are facing during the pandemic, and an "overwhelming majority" said they're generally confident that farmers can meet demand and feed growing populations. Read more here.

The Farmer Veteran Coalition has announced that it will hold its annual stakeholders conference online on Nov. 18-19. Read more here.

Telehealth program at public library in rural northeast Texas could serve as a nationwide blueprint to bridge digital gap

Pottsboro, Texas (Wikipedia map)
Telehealth has been touted as one way to bridge the gap in rural health-care access. But poor broadband access limits its potential to help. Rural public libraries can help expand rural broadband access and help local residents improve their health in other ways, as the library in Pottsboro, Texas, pop. 2,160, shows. Its innovative practices could serve as a blueprint for other libraries nationwide, Craig Settles reports for The Daily Yonder.

Pottsboro Public Library director Dianne Connerly told Settles that the library is about "internet access" and "innovation," not "storytimes or even books, really." About 10 years ago, the library was poorly funded and on the verge of closing. So Connerly and volunteers began pursuing innovative grant proposals that they figured would make them more likely to get funding.

"Early on these innovations took a healthy turn," Settles reports. "Grant money funded a community garden because Pottsboro is a 'health desert.' Many residents don’t have transportation, so the library got cargo bicycles that enable people to reach the nearest grocery store and bring home food. They also started 100 individual garden beds so homes can grow their own organic produce and fruits."

The library also received a $25,000 grant to put internet access in low-income students' homes by loaning portable broadband hotspots, Settles reports. The grant covered the installation of wireless equipment on water towers in the community so the hotspots would work. Another grant funded three neighborhood broadband access hotspots that stay out in the community.

When the pandemic began, more patrons began calling the Pottsboro library and asking for hotspot loaners or a space on-site for telehealth appointments. Connerly offered her office, the library's only private room, as a place where patrons could have telehealth consultations, Settles reports.

Connerly applied for and won a $20,000 grant to launch a substantial telehealth program, and within the next two months, the library will add a soundproof room, monitors, good lighting, and enhance the internet connection, Settles reports. In January, they'll be ready for patrons to regularly contact their doctors from the library.

Connerly is blazing the trail; few other rural libraries have advanced as far with such programs, though many other rural librarians she's spoken with agree that libraries are a natural fit for delivering telehealth. "According to Connerly, rural libraries have a huge advantage because typically they are given freedom to innovate," Settles reports.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Internal Postal Service watchdog says changes under new postmaster general slowed mail delivery nationwide

"The independent government watchdog for the United States Postal Service has concluded that a sweeping series of operational changes implemented at the agency by President Donald Trump’s postmaster general 'negatively impacted the quality and timeliness of mail delivery' across the country," Quint Forgey reports for Politico. "In a report released this week in response to various congressional requests, the USPS Office of Inspector General analyzed the cost-cutting measures Postmaster General Louis DeJoy put in place after assuming control of the agency in June — as well as the nearly six dozen strategies initiated by USPS operations executives to achieve financial targets."

The Postal Service's "mail service performance significantly dropped beginning in July 2020, directly corresponding to implementation of the operational changes and initiatives," the report says. 

According to the report, USPS officials didn't research how their changes would affect services, and that documentation and guidance for postal workers on how to follow the new policies was "very limited and almost exclusively oral . . . The resulting confusion and inconsistency in operations at postal facilities compounded the significant negative service impacts across the country," the inspector general wrote. The report also found that documentation of the changes for USPS customers and Congress was "generally accurate but incomplete."

"DeJoy, a former businessman and Republican megadonor, was tapped to lead the cash-strapped USPS this summer as the White House escalated its unsubstantiated attacks on mail-in voting — provoking widespread criticism of DeJoy’s organizational restructuring at the agency," Forgey reports.

An internal performance report leaked to House Democrats showed that "on-time" first-class mail delivery was down about 8 percent since DeJoy's appointment, on-time delivery of periodicals (including rural newspapers) was down 9.57%, and internal processing time was down 6.49%.

USPS agreed last week to reverse the changes nationwide, settling a lawsuit filed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. "The Postal Service agreed to reverse all changes, which included reduced retail hours, removal of collection boxes and mail sorting machines, closure or consolidation of mail processing facilities, restriction of late or extra trips for timely mail delivery, and banning or restricting overtime," Iris Samuels reports for The Associated Press.

Bullock sued the service and DeJoy on Sept. 9, arguing that changes made in June decreased access to mail services in Montana. That not only made it harder for Montanans to vote by mail, he alleged, but also delayed delivery of job applications, payments, medical prescriptions, and more.

Judge invalidates ousted Bureau of Land Management chief's decisions in Montana; could set precedent elsewhere

"A federal judge in Montana has once again handed the Bureau of Land Management and its embattled former de facto acting chief, William Perry Pendley, another major legal defeat," Scott Streater reports for Energy & Environment News.

Last week, Montana Chief District Judge Brian Morris ruled that three major land-use plans revisions in the state were invalid because Pendley had been unlawfully leading BLM for more than a year, Streater reports. All three of the plan revisions would have opened more federal lands to oil and gas drilling. 

The ruling could jeopardize the BLM's decisions in other states, Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill. Environmental groups have a list of at least 30 land-management plans overseen by Pendley they'd like to see reversed.

"Morris also issued what appeared to be a warning to Pendley and the Interior Department that they better abide by his previous order from last month barring Pendley from performing the duties of BLM director," Streater reports.

The ruling is another coup for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, whose lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service forced the agency to reverse recent changes that slowed mail delivery nationwide. Bullock filed suit against the BLM in July, Streater writes.

AppHarvest opens high-tech greenhouse in Eastern Kentucky, breaks ground on second location nearby

AppHarvest, a start-up that aims to bring more high-tech agriculture jobs and fresh produce to Eastern Kentucky, opened its first greenhouse on Wednesday in Morehead.

The 2.76-million-square-foot building in Rowan County is considered one of the world’s largest high-tech greenhouses. It will employee more than 300 Eastern Kentuckians to produce 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually," Liz Moomey reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The first harvest of non-GMO, chemical pesticide-free produce is expected to be available in early 2021 at grocers and restaurants."

The opening came a day after the company broke ground on its second greenhouse in Richmond, just a few counties away, Moomey reports.

AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb told Moomey that the pandemic has shown how fragile food supply chains are, and that projects like this can make it easier for people to access food locally. Webb first announced the project in early 2017, but has faced obstacles in finding the right land and funding. But AppHarvest has attracted considerable attention, venture capital, and government funding over the past two years, with prominent backers including Martha Stewart, J.D. Vance, and AOL co-founder Steve Case.

Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual festival Oct. 26-30

Rural Assembly Everywhere
, a virtual festival for rural leaders, advocates and allies, is coming up Oct. 26-30. It's organized by the Rural Assembly, a Center for Rural Strategies program that connects more than 400 organizations and individuals nationwide focused on improving rural policies and communities. 

Rural Assembly director Whitney Kimball Coe said it was critical for such people to be able to gather, even if it couldn't be in person. "Family meeting feels like an appropriate metaphor for what we’re trying to accomplish with Everywhere," she told Tracy Staley of The Daily Yonder. "We’re calling everyone together, from all places, all regions, all sectors, and backgrounds because it’s going to take all us committing to the future together, and we don’t leave family behind."

The festival will feature a diverse line-up of speakers, panelists, artists, and happy hour discussions. "The keynotes, panels, and breakouts will address both current and longstanding issues, such as the 2020 election, the pandemic, gender and race, climate change and resilience, and rural and Native youth leadership," Staley reports. "The event will also include artists from across the country who will weave songs, poetry, film, and humor into the program throughout the week."

Registration is free. Click here for more information or to register.

Oct. 28 Society of Environmental Journalists webinar to cover climate, pandemic, and the election

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, the Society of Environmental Journalists will host a webinar aimed at helping journalists cover issues such as climate change, the pandemic, and what recent polls say about the role of environmental issues in the election. 

Climate change seems to be more important to voters these days; it was a featured question at a recent presidential debate for the first time in 20 years, SEJ notes. But what role will it play in voters' decisions, from nationwide races to local ballot initiatives? Speakers will include pollsters, advocates and reporters.

The webinar will begin at 1 p.m. ET and will last about an hour. Participation is free, and all journalists are welcome. Click here for more information or to register.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Purdue Pharma settles opioid probes for $8.34 billion, but lacks assets to pay it all; claims by states totaled $2 trillion

Purdue Pharma has agreed to an $8.34 billion settlement with the Department of Justice, resolving longstanding federal criminal and civil cases against the company for how it marketed and distributed OxyContin. "Purdue has agreed to plead guilty to three counts related to payments to health-care providers and other actions. The deal doesn’t prevent the government from prosecuting owners or employees of Purdue in the future," Sara Randazzo reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The deal helps "clear the way for the bankrupt drugmaker to turn over future profits to cities and states that accuse it of fueling the opioid crisis," Randazzo reports. "The final price tag for Purdue, however, is largely symbolic: Because the company’s assets fall well short of $8 billion, it will pay $225 million and the federal government is expected to cede most of the rest to allow more money to flow to states, counties and Native American tribes." The Justice Department reached a separate settlement with the Sackler family, Purdue's owners; they will pay another $225 million to resolve civil claims.

Even the $8 billion would be "only a fraction of what it has cost federal, state and local governments to combat the opioid crisis. States across the country have filed claims topping $2 trillion in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy case," Chris Isidore reports for CNN.

Surge in covid patients swamps rural hospitals

"The nation’s pandemic hotspots have shifted to rural communities, overwhelming small hospitals that are running out of beds or lack the intensive care units for more than one or two seriously ill patients," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. "And in much of the Midwest and Great Plains, hospital workers are catching the virus at home and in their communities, seriously reducing already slim benches of doctors, nurses and other professionals needed to keep rural hospitals running."

New infection rates in rural areas have set records for the past four weeks in a row, and total rural cases topped 1 million as of last week. The rural epicenter of the pandemic has shifted in recent months from the Deep South to the Upper Midwest. Infection rates are "highest in North Dakota, followed by South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Iowa, Arkansas and Illinois. Hospitalization rates also were rising in those states and others," Vestal reports. "Health care experts expect that a seasonal spike in flu and pneumonia, combined with a steady rise in covid-19 cases, will swamp many health-care systems, particularly in rural areas."

Surging cases could be the last straw for some rural hospitals, already cash-strapped from lack of elective procedures during clampdowns this year. For example, "according to a new report from the Kentucky Hospital Association, approximately 16 to 28 rural hospitals, financially vulnerable before the pandemic, could close eventually," Corinne Boyer reports for Ohio Valley Resource. "The pandemic has put even more strain on rural counties that already suffer from some of the poorest health outcomes in the country."

Democrats miss the mark on fossil fuels stances in Appalachia, writes rural Ohio newspaper editor

Rick Greene
Arguments over climate change and fossil fuels are an election-year mainstay, one that coal-country Appalachians give particular attention to, but both sides tend to dig in their heels and little progress is made. Though climate change is patently real, and Democratic politicians should be commended for taking a more aggressive approach to the issue, they still don't understand how many Appalachians see the issue, writes Rick Greene, editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today in Waverly, south of Chillicothe.

"Democrats are missing the mark in Appalachia, which in recent years has become more politically potent because of its impact in key swing states. 'Renewable energy' is the darling catch phrase, and energy solutions that center around renewables are at the heart of the Democratic platform," Greene writes. "Their problem is every time people in many parts of Appalachia hear that language, they also hear an unspoken assault on the coal industry and fossil fuel industries that are a strong part of the region’s economic health. Therefore, the solution — from either party — cannot be that climate goals are to be achieved at the expense of the livelihoods of the people of Appalachia and the fossil fuel industries."

If Democrats want Appalachians to be more receptive to their environmental goals, they must reassure such voters that those goals won't come at the expense of jobs and the local economy, Green writes.

Weekly fact check: Trump's long history with conspiracy theories, and Biden's misleading union endorsement claim

With just a few weeks to go before Election Day and both presidential campaigns turning up the heat, fact-checking is more important than ever. Here's some of the latest:

During his Oct. 15 town hall, President Trump defended retweeting a conspiracy theory that accused Joe Biden of murder. "The theory, which has no basis in fact, specifically claimed Biden had members of SEAL Team 6 killed to cover up a purportedly failed assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Trump retweeted a post spreading the theory, therefore amplifying the message to his 87 million followers," Angela Fichera and Saranac Hale Spencer report for "At the same event, Trump also declined to condemn QAnon — the widespread conspiracy theory movement that baselessly suggests Trump is dismantling an elite child sex trafficking ring involving high-profile Democrats. He claimed he knows 'nothing about' it.

"During a campaign rally, President Donald Trump said that once he came down with covid-19, people for partisan reasons shifted from saying immunity was lifelong to saying it lasted only a few months," Jessica McDonald reports for FactCheck. "Experts, however, haven’t changed their estimates for immunity duration, which remains unknown — but unlikely to be lifelong."

Meanwhile, during Biden's Oct. 15 town hall, Biden said the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers had endorsed him. But that's misleading, Jessica Calefati reports for PolitiFact. The Pittsburgh-area local did endorse Biden, but the organization as a whole, which represents 50,000 industry workers nationwide, did not.

Also during that town hall, Biden insinuated that Republicans eliminated funding for a community policing program. But that's false, Lou Jacobson reports for Politfact. Funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which Biden spearheaded as part of a 1994 crime bill, was not eliminated. "Biden’s campaign told PolitiFact that he was referring to Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal, which would have halved funding for the community policing program. But this proposal wasn’t enacted, and it did not amount to an 'elimination,'" Jacobson reports. "The program is smaller than it was in its early years, when its budget ranged between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion, and crime rates were higher. But funding was never zeroed out."

New study shows widening mortality rate gap between rural and metro working-age residents

"A recent study by Syracuse University sociology professor Shannon Monnat shows that mortality rates are higher for U.S. working-age residents who live in rural areas instead of metro areas, and the gap is getting wider," according to a press release. "The study 'Trends in U.S. Working-Age non-Hispanic White Mortality: Rural-Urban and Within-Rural Differences' was published recently by Population Research and Policy Review. Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, said no single cause of death is to blame for the growing disparity."

Death rates are declining in both rural and metro areas, but not as much in rural areas, resulting in the widening gap. The trend is especially pronounced among women, Monnat says. Rural mortality rates were lower or comparable to urban rates for decades, but rural rates began to outstrip urban rates in the 1990s, and the gap has continued to widen, especially among non-Hispanic whites. 

It's important to note that this study is about the comparative change in rates, not the rates themselves. Though mortality rates across the board are declining, mortality rates among Black Americans, for example, remain substantially higher than those of non-Hispanic whites, Monnat reports. So the most interesting facet of this study is why mortality rates for non-Hispanic whites haven't declined as much as other groups.

Other recent research has found that the diverging mortality rate among rural non-Hispanic whites was driven by screenable cancers, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, and influenza/pneumonia. Monnat notes that economic changes have also likely played a role, though there are no studies that track mortality trends across different types of rural economies. Poor diet, higher smoking rates, lower seatbelt use, a more sedentary lifestyle, poverty, underemployment, and lack of access to health care are also likely factors, Monnat reports.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Two years after nationwide legalization, hemp industry slumping because of patchwork regulations, oversupply

"It’s been nearly two years since the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, legalizing industrial hemp production nationwide and fueling hopes of a hemp farming boom. But that hasn’t panned out yet, with growers around the country still struggling to reap the benefits of the burgeoning crop sector," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "After millions of acres of hemp were planted in 2019, production is way down this year; many growers gave up because of a steep drop in prices and the lack of a market for their crops."

Another big problem is inconsistent state regulations. "The Agriculture Department has approved hemp programs for 29 states and is negotiating with another 12," McCrimmon reports. "Some state agricultural officials were so unsatisfied with the regulatory framework that USDA proposed last year that they decided not to move forward with hemp initiatives. (Among the biggest complaints are the strict limits on THC that can be present in hemp crops and the stringent testing requirements to certify those levels of the psychoactive chemical.)"

Unclear federal oversight has also hurt the fledgling industry. The Food and Drug Administration "has yet to put forth regulations on cannabidiol, the widely popular compound derived from hemp that’s increasingly found in products from pills to pet foods. The agency’s CBD guidance has been awaiting approval from the White House since July," McCrimmon reports.

One thing hemp farmers have going for them: though they were excluded from an earlier round of federal aid for farmers hurt by the pandemic, the USDA announced in late September that hemp growers could apply for a slice of $14 billion in new relief.

Over 1/3 of rural bankers in 10 mid-America states report recession conditions, but overall economic confidence rising

Creighton University chart compares current month to month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

A Creighton University survey of rural Midwestern bankers in October found a cautiously optimistic outlook, with the overall Rural Mainstreet Index climbing slightly above growth-neutral, its highest reading since January. The index ranges between 0 and 100 with a reading of 50 representing growth-neutral. In September the overall index was 46.9, but this month's was 53.2.

The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in 10 states where agriculture and energy are critical to the economy: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Recent improvements in agriculture commodity prices, federal farm support, and the Federal Reserve’s record low interest rates have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy. Still, more than one-third, or 35.5%, of bank CEOs reported their local economies were experiencing recessionary economic conditions," reports Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who does the survey.

One banker said that politicized misinformation about a coronavirus vaccine has led many locals to say they won't get the vaccine when it becomes available. Failure to achieve a high vaccine rate, and therefore control the spread of the coronavirus, will hurt economic recovery, the banker told Goss.

Other findings of interest in this month's survey:
  • Overall index advanced for a sixth straight month to its highest level since January of this year.
  • More than eight of 10 bank CEOs identified restaurants/bars as experiencing the greatest negative impact from covid-19.
  • Only 3% of bankers named farmers as experiencing the greatest negative covid-19 impacts.
  • For only the third time in the past 82 months, the farmland price index advanced above growth neutral.
  • Bank CEOs estimated that farm equipment sales will fall by an additional 3.1% over the next 12 months.
  • More than one-third, or 35.5%, of bank CEOs reported that their local economies were experiencing recessionary economic conditions.

Total rural coronavirus cases top 1 million as new rural infections break record for fourth week straight

New coronavirus infections from Oct. 11 through 17
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version with county-level data.

"Covid-19 spread in rural America at a record-breaking pace again last week, adding 160 counties to the red-zone list and bringing the total number of rural Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus to more than 1 million," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Rural America had 82,188 new infections last week, a 16 percent increase and the fourth consecutive week of record-breaking levels of new cases. With last week’s cases, the total number of rural residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus broke 1 million (1,068,949), according to data compiled by the nonprofit USA Facts."

The new-infection rate in rural counties "now exceeds the urban rate by 63%, according to this week’s Daily Yonder analysis, which covers Sunday, October 11, through Saturday, October 17," Murphy and Marema report. Almost 70% of rural counties are now classified as red zones by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, meaning they have at least 100 new infections per 100,000 people.

Click here for more analysis and charts from The Daily Yonder, including an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

New telehealth program aims to help rural patients with chest pain figure out whether they're facing a heart attack

A new health care program in North Carolina—which could be replicated elsewhere—aims to help rural patients with chest pain avoid a potentially unnecessary and expensive trip to the emergency department. 

"The $1.2 million program, slated to begin in mountainous Wilkes County early next year, will bring doctors and nurses to the scene of medical emergencies through telehealth," Liora Engel-Smith reports for North Carolina Health News. "The doctors and nurses — most of them experts in emergency medicine — will help first responders evaluate patients with chest pain to decide the most appropriate next step, be it a hospital visit or a trip to a county health department for further tests."

The program could save both patients and the health-care system a lot of money, said Simon Mahler, professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health, which helps oversee the program. "Mahler hopes the program will serve as a blueprint for similar initiatives for cardiac patients in other rural corners of North Carolina," Engle-Smith reports. "Heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases — the state’s leading causes of death — affect and kill rural residents far more often than their urban counterparts." That's true nationwide as well.

New database shows coronavirus infection clusters in a dozen rural jails in the Mountain West

"The Mountain West, which for months avoided the worst of the pandemic, has rapidly devolved into one of the most alarming hot spots in a country that recorded its eight millionth confirmed case on Thursday, a day when more than 65,000 cases were announced nationwide, the most in a single day since July," Lucy Tompkins, Maura Turcotte and Libby Seline report for The New York Times. "Seventeen states, including many in the Mountain West, have added more cases in the past week than any other week of the pandemic. And the spread through sparsely populated areas of rural America has created problems in small towns that lack critical resources — including doctors — even in ordinary times."

Prisons and jails, often overcrowded and unsanitary, have been a major driver of coronavirus spread in many parts of the country. "Nationally, jails and prisons have seen disproportionate rates of infection and death, with a mortality rate twice as high as in the general population and an infection rate more than four times as high, according to recent data," the Times reports. "A New York Times database has tracked clusters of at least 50 coronavirus cases in a dozen rural jails in Montana, Idaho, Utah and New Mexico during the pandemic. Among them: the Purgatory Correctional Center in Hurricane, Utah, with 166 infections; the jail in Twin Falls, Idaho, with 279; and, in New Mexico, the Cibola County Correctional Center, which has reported 357 cases."

A recent coronavirus surge at the Cascade County Detention Center in Great Falls, Montana, illustrates how quickly infections can spread among incarcerated populations and the community beyond. "More than 300 inmates and staff members have been infected in a facility meant to hold 365 people, the county’s first major outbreak in a region where the virus is suddenly surging," the Times reports. "Infections at the jail make up about a quarter of all known virus cases in the county. Health authorities say that the jail’s outbreak, which began in mid-August, was not believed to be the main cause of the community’s recent surge, but that it had led to some cases." The jail's medical director told the Times that the jail had released 29 people who were considered actively infected within the past two months.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Domestic violence up in rural America during pandemic

"Preliminary research from radiologists and anecdotal information from those who work with domestic violence victims show that across the board, incidents of domestic violence in rural America are up," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "Researchers at the Southwest Rural Health Education Research Center found that the prevalence of domestic violence-related emergency department visits among women in rural settings was higher than in non-rural settings in all regions of the country except the Midwest." From 2009 through 2014, 15.5 rural women out of every 100,000 visited an emergency room because of a domestic violence incident, compared to 11.9 urban women out of 100,000.

Health officials and advocates have been concerned that the pandemic would worsen domestic violence and make it more difficult for victims to get help. "Trapped alone with their abusers, women faced the prospect of higher tension, lower income, and increased substance use – triggers for domestic violence. At the same time, it was harder for women to reach out for help because of barriers like lack of transportation and independent income," Carey reports.

That's especially true for women in rural areas, who are more isolated and have less access to medical services. Also, one shelter worker noted, many rural women in her area tended not to seek help even before the pandemic. She speculated that their more conservative culture and religious norms might discourage them from reaching out, Carey reports.

Network of conservative websites masquerade as unbiased local news; see interactive map for local examples

Brian Timpone's network of "news" websites from 2010 to 2020
New York Times graphic; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

A fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites aims "to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country," Davey Alba and Jack Nicas report for The New York Times. "Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found."

The websites masquerade as local-news outlets, employing simple layouts and providing enough wire stories and community event content along with its political coverage to lull readers into thinking they're legitimate news sites. "But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate PR firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals," Alba and Nicas report. "The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality." 

Timpone is involved with or oversees a network of interconnected media companies with nebulous ownership such as Locality Labs LLC, Metric Media, Newsinator, Franklin Archer, and Interactive Content Services, Alba and Nicas report.

Some liberal operatives are trying the same scheme, but lately it's been mostly conservatives—and not just Timpone. "The Free Telegraph' states nowhere on its homepage that it’s published by the Republican Governors Association," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's NiemanLab. "Politico and Snopes uncovered a network of sites in key 2020 states (The Ohio Star, The Minnesota Sun, The Tennessee Star) created by Republican consultants and mislabeling people paid to elect a GOP candidate as 'investigative journalists' who were now covering them."

Health reporters, editors, news director to discuss 'Covering the Pandemic' in online program at 7 p.m. ET Thursday

The world’s biggest story in 75 years is also a local story for everyone: the coronavirus pandemic. It has posed special challenges for news organizations at a time when they were already challenged: the politicization of public health, pushback from audiences, confusing data, and pandemic fatigue – among audiences and journalists.

To help journalists with this story, the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will hold an online panel discussion, “Covering the Pandemic,” at 7 p.m. ET Thursday, Oct. 22. The panelists will all be from Kentucky, but the discussion should be helpful anywhere in the country:

• Alex Acquisto, health reporter, Lexington Herald-Leader

• Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, who recovered from Covid-19 and wrote about it in her online newspaper, Hoptown Chronicle

• Ben Sheroan, editor, The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown, who will speak to the pushback newspapers receive from their coverage of the pandemic

• Brian Neal, news director at Lexington’s WLEX-TV, who will address the fatigue factor experienced by journalists

The discussion will be moderated by Melissa Patrick, reporter for Kentucky Health News.

There is no charge to attend the program, which will be held via Zoom, but registration to receive the Zoom link is required. To register, send an email to

Federal judge blocks plan to cut food stamps for jobless

"A federal judge on Sunday formally struck down a Trump administration attempt to end food-stamp benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed people, blocking as 'arbitrary and capricious' the first of three such planned measures to restrict the federal food safety net," reports The Washington Post.

"In a scathing 67-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of D.C. condemned the Agriculture Department for failing to justify or even address the impact of the sweeping change on states, saying its shortcomings had been placed in stark relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, during which unemployment has quadrupled and rosters of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have grown by more than 17 percent, with more than 6 million new enrollees," Spencer Hsu reports.

The administration's proposed change would likely disproportionately affect rural residents, who are more likely to rely on benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. In 2018, 85 of the 100 counties that relied most on SNAP were rural. It's not an exact metric for hunger, but suggests that need for food assistance is disproportionately rural.

Farmers remain loyal to Trump despite pain from trade wars and pandemic, thanks in part to hefty taxpayer subsidies

Some states (dark purple) received more in net farm subsidies than they lost from the trade war, but most states lost out. Map from The Conversation; click here for the interactive version.

Farmers overwhelmingly supported President Trump in 2016, and most plan to do so again, despite the economic pain caused by the trade war with China and the pandemic. One big reason for that is record-high government subsidies, which have made up the highest single source of farmer income for the past two years running, Wendong Zhang and Minghao Li write for The Conversation. Both are assistant professors of economics, Zhang at Iowa State University and Li at New Mexico State University.

"Just as some states were hurt more by the trade war than others, not all states benefited equally from the payments. The subsidies heavily targeted the Midwest, reflecting the political influence of rural constituents in these states. Most of the states that came out ahead – such as Iowa and Nebraska – tend to vote Republican and have relatively large agricultural sectors."

The Trump administration has also distributed almost $30 billion in aid to farmers hurt by the pandemic. "Again, a large chunk of the payments have gone to red Midwestern states such as Iowa, which alone received almost $1 billion of the first $10.2 billion disbursed," Zhang and Li report. "Payments have been accelerating as Election Day approaches. Combined with trade-related and pre-Trump subsidies, total payments this year are expected to reach a record $46 billion."

The agriculture sector may be hurting for a long time to come because of the trade war, which "may already have done long-term damage to American farmers," Zhang and Li report. "The tariffs on U.S. agricultural products led Chinese companies to seek out cheaper sources for food and feed. Brazilian farmers sold record amounts of soybeans to China in May and June and are now enjoying their highest profits from the crop in history."