Friday, March 26, 2021

Larry McMurtry, novelist who shaped Texas' view of itself, and America's view of Texas and the Old West, dies at 84

Larry McMurtry posed for Dallas Morning News photographer David Woo in 2012 as he disposed of two-thirds his collection of half a million books, which filled several store buildings in his hometown of Archer City, Texas.
Larry McMurtry, "whose novels about small-town life and the cowboy era of the American West chiseled him into the folklore of his native Texas," died Thursday night at 84, the Dallas Morning News reports.

"McMurtry shaped Texas’ view of itself far more than any contemporary writer," writes Michael Granberry. "None achieved his level of critical acclaim or rivaled his Hollywood success, as he simultaneously shattered and celebrated the mythology of his native state."

Lonesome Dove, which Granberry calls "an elegiac study of the Old West," won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He wrote 45 other books, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment and Brokeback Mountain, novels that became Oscar-winning movies. He shared an Oscar for adapted screenplay for Brokeback. with Diana Ossana, his partner in writing and much of his life.

Google map
McMurtry grew up the son of a rancher in Archer City, which became the setting for The Last Picture Show. His first novel, Horseman, Pass By, was reworked to become the multiple-Oscar-winning movie Hud, starring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal.

“Larry is someone who took on the stereotypes and busted them. He was willing to say that the cowboy myth was just that,” his friend, retired University of North Texas writer-in-residence George Getschow, told the Morning News. “He wrote about things that disturbed and challenged convention in a way that was piercing, indelicate and right on.”

The New York Times' Dwight Garner notes, "For two years in the early 1990s he was American president of PEN, the august literary and human rights organization. He was a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, where he often wrote on topics relating to the American West. . . . There was a comic brio in his best books, alongside an ever-present melancholy. He was praised for his ability to create memorable and credible female characters. . . . McMurtry had reportedly completed a draft of a memoir titled 62 Women, about some of the women he knew and admired. He had an unusual arrangement in the last years of his life. In 2011 he married Norma Faye Kesey, Ken Kesey’s widow, and she moved in with Mr. McMurtry and Ms. Ossana. “I went up and drug Faye out of Oregon,” he told “I think I had seen Faye a total of four times over 51 years, and I married her. We never had a date or a conversation. Ken would never let me have conversations with her.”" He also leaves a son, James, "a well-regarded singer and songwriter."

Fact-checking Biden's first presidential news conference

At his first presidential news conference yesterday, President Joe Biden took questions on immigration, foreign policy and more. Here's some fact-checking:

Asked about the increase in immigrant children crossing the border, Biden said "Truth of the matter is, nothing has changed. As many people came — 28 percent increase in children to the border in my administration; 31% in the last year in 2019, before the pandemic — in the Trump administration. It happens every single solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. It happens every year."

Border crossings do have seasonal trends, but "unaccompanied immigrant children have come to the border in higher numbers than what he said," report Nomaan Merchand and Josh Boak of The Associated Press. "According to statistics published by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, authorities encountered 9,457 children without a parent in February, a 61% increase from January, not 28%. The numbers of unaccompanied children did rise 31% between January 2019 and February 2019." And while Biden downplayed his election as a reason many youths decided to come to the U.S., AP interviewed migrants who said they hope immigration policies would be more permissive under him.

Biden said the U.S. is sending back the "vast majority" of families crossing the border illegally. Not so, Jane C. Timm reports for NBC News. It's true that they're sending back more than 70% of people at the border, according to data from February, but less than half of family units were sent back.

Biden addressed Republican complaints that his pandemic relief-and-stimulus package was too expensive, saying GOP lawmakers and President Trump passed a nearly $2 trillion tax cut, 83% of which 83% benefitted the wealthiest 1%. That's misleading, AP says: The tax cuts disproportionately favored the top 1%, but the stats Biden cited will only be true if Congress extends the cuts in 2027.

Gaps in weather radar coverage leave Delta and Black Belt more vulnerable, but it's not necessarily driven by race

Chart by meteorology student Jack Sillin shows radar coverage and black population. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Severe storms and tornadoes in the Southeast left at least five people dead yesterday, some rural, Jan Wesner Childs reports for The Weather Channel. That makes all the more relevant a recent storm of another kind on Twitter about rural—and racial—disparities in weather warning systems. 

Cornell University meteorology student Jack Sillin, who grew up in the rural South, kicked off a debate March 19 after tweeting that the National Weather Service's radar network leaves many rural Black communities uncovered, and thus less likely to get advance warning of tornadoes and severe storms. "Overlaying demographic data with radar coverage data, it's hard not to notice how the areas most underserved by NEXRAD are also majority Black," Sillin tweeted.

Marshall Shepherd, a meteorology professor at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Societywrites for Forbes that Sillin's observation is fair and revealed "a convergence of science, geography and history that is worth a discussion." Rurality is the main factor in coverage gaps, and "in the South, this will bring a large Black population into play. In the West, it is likely to disproportionately impact Hispanic or Native American populations. Of course, these gaps will affect White populations in these regions too. It is important to shatter the narrative that highlighting one group’s challenge minimizes another group."

Sillin replied to Shepherd in an email that however the disparitiescame about, "The gaps are still frustrating, impactful, and consistent with a long legacy of underinvestment in these communities."

As the national job picture remained stagnant in January, rural areas continued to do a little better than cities

Employment change from January 2020 to January 2021
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"The slowdown in the creation of new jobs that began last fall has continued into 2021, according to employment data released Friday by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Throughout the late spring and summer, the nation gained jobs back from the plunge in employment that swept the country after the pandemic’s outbreak a year ago. But since the fall, there has been little change in the nation’s employment picture," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder.

Big cities continued to see the largest fall in employment, with 6.1 million jobs lost between January 2020 and January 2021—a 6.7 percent drop. "Rural counties have done a better job of holding on to their jobs throughout the past year," Bishop writes. "And that trend continued in the January 2021 jobs report. Rural counties had 3.1% fewer jobs this January compared to January 2020 (a negative 621,000 jobs). In December 2020, compared to the same month in 2019, rural employment was off by 3.2%."

On the upside, first-time unemployment claims fell sharply last week, according to broader figures released by the Labor Department. "Claims fell to 684,000 for the week ending March 20, a drop of 97,000 from the previous week and the first time that claims have dipped below 700,000 since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "Applications had never totaled above 700,000 before then, according to federal data. The previous record was 695,000, in October 1982." Continuing unemployment claims also declined, though more than 18.9 million Americans still collect unemployment benefits. 

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

Quick hits: myths vs. realities of rural economies; kids' lungs particularly vulnerable to wildfire smoke; telehealth abortion?

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

Wildfire smoke is particularly harmful to kids' lungs, a new study says. Read more here.

Families say school bans would jeopardize the mental and physical health of transgender athletes in rural areas. Read more here.

A study examined the benefits and drawbacks for rural hospitals that affiliate with large health systems. The verdict: it's a mixed bag. Read more here.

An economist discusses the myths and realities of rural America's economies. Read more here.

A cost-cutting Medicare rule approved by the Trump administration will cut payments to hospitals for some surgeries and could raise costs and cause confusion for patients when it takes effect. Read more here.

Pressure is mounting on the Biden administration to allow providers to prescribe abortion pills via telehealth appointments. That would make abortions easier to access for rural residents who live far from abortion providers. Read more here.

Commentary: Candidates for local office may ignore community issues to highlight national culture wars

When Republican Kyle Woodman ran for a city council seat in 2019 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he campaigned on local issues and finished last. This year he's trying again, but with a different strategy: he's ignoring local issues and mostly hitting talking points about national political stances.

"Woodman is part of a mostly conservative group of candidates for local office across the state who are forgoing the hyper-local issues that city council and school boards largely deal with — instead aligning themselves with controversial culture war topics and making appearances with some of the state’s most divisive conservative personalities," Henry Redman writes for the Wisconsin Examiner. "This trend, the nationalization of state and local politics, has been occurring across the country as state parties have become more homogenous and local news has been overshadowed by national cable news and social media." Read more here.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Conflict-of-interest story is the latest from a South Carolina project to uncover corruption in rural news deserts

A local council member in rural South Carolina made money from the local government through his medical practice for more than a decade but never disclosed it to the State Ethics Commission, reporters from The Post and Courier in Charleston found. The story is a product of Uncovered, a project the paper launched in February in partnership with rural papers. The goal is to shine a spotlight on corruption, especially in smaller towns where weak ethics laws and news deserts have allowed corruption to flourish.

Dr. Phil Wallace, now acting mayor, is a longtime member of Dillon's council. His medical practice, Dillon Internal Medicine, has been providing physicals and other services to city employees for years. "The relationship was hardly a secret. Wallace’s medical practice had a list of clients on its website. 'Historic City of Dillon, S.C.' was at the top of the list," Stephen Hobbs and Thad Moore report. "Yet until days ago, Wallace, who has served on Dillon’s council for more than two decades, did not include the money his practice made from the city in any of his past 14 annual financial disclosures. He amended his filings after he was questioned by The Post and Courier."

Wallace's practice has made more than $83,000 from its work for the city since 2009, and the contract only came to light after another council member began asking questions. When questioned by a reporter, Wallace said he wasn't aware he had to update his disclosure information annually. "The repeated omissions show how a deluge of paperwork and South Carolina's loose enforcement of ethics laws can let apparent violations hide in plain sight," Hobbs and Moore report. "The state’s ethics agency has just one auditor to check the truthfulness of filings it receives, which last year topped 20,000." Read more here.

Hospital lobby projects that the best scenario for rural hospitals' profits this year is an overall reduction of 38%

American Hospital Association chart; for a larger version, click on it.
The pandemic has drained many hospitals' financial reserves, and rural hospitals are some of the worst off. The problems began early in the pandemic when elective surgeries and other non-emergency care had to be postponed; hospitals get most of their revenue from such procedures. As hospitals resume normal operations, the revenue shortages persist.

In 2020, hospitals were projected to lose $323 billion and more than four dozen went bankrupt or closed, according to a new analysis prepared for the American Hospital Association. This year hospitals could lose an additional $122 billion, the report says, causing nearly 40% of the nation's more than 6,000 hospitals to operate at a loss, Christine Vestal reports for Stateline

"But that’s only if the largest vaccination program in U.S. history runs smoothly and Covid-19 hospitalizations continue to drop, Vestal reports. "A pause in vaccinations or a new surge in Covid-19 cases could result in at least half of all hospitals operating in the red this year, the analysis found."

Rural hospitals are expected to do even worse. "Under the most optimistic scenario, profit margins for rural hospitals are expected to decline 38% this year. Last year, 16 of the nation’s roughly 1,800 rural hospitals shuttered, in part due to revenue declines caused by the pandemic," Vestal reports. That's on top of the 133 rural hospitals, mostly in the South, that have shuttered over the past decade. 

USDA announces $12 billion agriculture aid program; aims to reach smaller producers overlooked in previous aid

The Agriculture Department has announced a program to distribute more than $12 billion to farmers from the relief-and-stimulus bill passed at the end of December. USDA said the Pandemic Assistance for Producers program is meant to "reach a broader set of producers" than previous pandemic aid has.

"Most of the nearly $24 billion in coronavirus aid during the Trump administration was funneled toward big farmers and major commodities. White farmers collected almost 97 percent of the cash in the first round, said the Environmental Working Group, based on a review of USDA data. Advocates for small farmers and producers who sell their crops and livestock locally also said they had been given short shrift," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food and Environment Reporting Network. "Along with dedicating at least $6 billion to new forms of coronavirus relief, USDA said it would put a greater emphasis on reaching out to small and socially disadvantaged producers, specialty crop and organic producers, and timber harvesters, among others." Click here for an in-depth breakdown of how the money will be apportioned.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Laura Reiley of The Washington Post that 0.1% of overall pandemic relief for agriculture went to Black farmers. "Of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States today, only 45,000 — 1.3% — are Black," Reiley writes, introducing an interview. "Vilsack said the Biden administration would be focused on closing those inequalities. USDA will battle three systemic problems concurrently, he said: a broken farm system, food insecurity and a health-care crisis." 

"Where statutory authority allows, the old programs will be refined," Natalina Sents reports for Successful Farming. "CFAP 2 sign-up will be reopened for at least 60 days beginning April 5, 2021. The [Farm Service Agency] has committed at least $2.5 million to improve outreach for this program and will partner with organizations to ensure socially disadvantaged communities are informed and aware of the application process."

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

High-tech rural Ky. produce grower AppHarvest plans big expansions in Central Appalachia, founder/CEO tells CBS

One of the two AppHarvest tomato greenhouses near Morehead, Kentucky
, a company bringing fresh produce and high-tech agriculture jobs to Eastern Kentucky, has big plans for the future, according to a "CBS This Morning" profile  Tuesday. "Everybody watch out for Central Appalachia," AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb, a native of the region, said in an interview with environmental correspondent Ben Tracy. "We’re absolutely going to be one of the largest fruit and vegetable suppliers in the U.S. in the decades to come."

AppHarvest, which shipped its first tomatoes four months ago and began public trading in January, aims to capitalize on geography, weather trends, and smart farming practices to produce more food with fewer resources. Its farms are designed to use 90 percent less water than usual and yield up to 30 times more than traditional open-field agriculture. Its 2.76-million-square-foot flagship farm in Morehead is expected to produce about 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually, AppHarvest says in a press release.

Tracy, who spent the day at the Morehead farm, said such efforts are critical: "Re-inventing farming on a changing planet is crucial because the United Nations says the world’s farmers need to grow 60% more food by 2050 to feed the estimated 9.3 billion people that will be living on the planet." And, Tracy noted, much of the nation's produce comes from California and Mexico, which are frequently hit with droughts. 

"It makes so much sense when you think about it,” said CBS This Morning’s Anthony Mason. "Those are some good-looking tomatoes."

Rural coronavirus cases increased a little last week for first time since January, but a data problem could be the cause

Rates of new coronavirus infections, March 14-20
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New rural coronavirus infections rose 5 percent last week over the week before, the first increase since early January. The rural death rate, a lagging pandemic indicator, continued to decline steadily, falling about 17% from two weeks ago. There were significant regional differences in trends.

From March 14-20, 40,578 new coronavirus infections and were reported in nonmetropolitan counties, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The rural death rate was 0.1% lower than the metropolitan rate last week, at 2.6 deaths per 100,000 residents compared to 2.5 per 100,000. That marks the first time in 32 weeks the metro death rate has edged above the rural rate.

Murphy and Marema note that the small bump in rural infections could be chalked up to data reporting problems in Missouri. "The state went from reporting 287 cases two weeks ago to about 4,400 new cases last week – a signal that the difference has more to do with data problems than actual spread of the coronavirus," Murphy and Marema report. However, they note, a few other states show a rebound in rural cases, including Alabama, Michigan and North Carolina. 

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

Pandemic spurs right-to-repair bills, which could help rural residents, especially farmers with expensive equipment fixes

Americans have relied increasingly on computers and phones for remote work and socializing during the pandemic, but corporate policies have often made it difficult for people to easily access parts, manuals and equipment to repair them, especially in rural areas.

"The resulting frustration has given new impetus to at least 39 so-called right-to-repair bills in 25 states," Elaine S. Povich reports for Stateline. "The legislation would loosen restrictions on manufacturers’ information and parts and allow small repair shops and handy device owners to do their own fixing."

Though the Stateline article focuses mainly on phones and computers, some of the bills are broad enough to cover repairs on tractors and other farming equipment, which has frustrated farmers for years

Brand-name product manufacturers and distributors oppose the notion, arguing that unauthorized repairs are unsafe and make machines more vulnerable to hacking, Povich reports. However, right-to-repair laws are popular elsewhere. American Farm Bureau Federation delegates included such laws as part of their 2020 policy goals, and the Democratic party platform also supports such laws.

Tiny News Collective initiative aims to help the smallest newsrooms build and grow sustainably, for $100 a month

"As more local news organizations close their doors and news deserts pop up throughout the country, Local Independent Online News [LION] Publishers and News Catalysts want to create a solution. Together, they have launched the Tiny News Collective, an initiative that will provide the tools and resources to help people build sustainable news organizations," Evelyn Mateos reports for Editor and Publisher. "To do that, the collective will provide industry-standard technology, like a complete publishing system based on Google Docs and Google Workspace; a full accounting and fundraising suite from MonkeyPod; and a local advertising marketplace from Letterhead and WhereBy.Us. Additionally, it will provide training curriculum led by LION, payroll services, legal assistance and more." The resources will cost about $100 a month.

The idea grew from conversations among news-media professionals on the board of News Catalyst and its advisors, Director Aron Pilhofer said. They spoke to the smallest news organizations and discovered that newsrooms with only one or two people generally don't have access to support resources.

"Although formal applications have not yet open, the collective has been accepting interest forms and nominations," Mateos reports. "The plan is to launch 500 news outlets—10 by this spring and 490 over the next three years. Pilhofer also explained that initially, one or two founders would be the limit for an accepted news outlet, but that does not mean they cannot hire more staff if they wish."

The collective invites applications from non-traditional journalists and is especially interested in founders from backgrounds that have been "historically and systematically shut out of media ownership," such as Black, indigenous and other people of color.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Pandemic roundup: ACA enrollment booming; what we don't know about 'long Covid'; National Guard opening vax clinics

Here's a roundup of recent news about the pandemic and vaccination efforts.

As more people get vaccinated, more Americans are relaxing social-distancing precautions and returning to normal life, according to a new poll. Read more here.

More than 200,000 people have signed up for health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace during a special enrollment window that President Biden opened, which one health policy reporter says is "a sign that those who lost insurance during the pandemic remain in desperate need of coverage." Read more here.

The National Guard is opening coronavirus vaccination clinics in rural counties to increase access to underserved areas. Read more here.

Vaccination sign-ups prove daunting for speakers of other languages. Read more here.

Visually impaired people face extra difficulties in getting vaccinated. Read more here.

Communities and organizations are working to get the vaccine to homebound people. Read more here and here.

A 70 percent vaccination rate doesn't ensure herd immunity, some experts caution. Specifically, if residents in some areas can't or don't get vaccinated and social distance, they can harbor the coronavirus and allow it to mutate and spread to other areas. Read more here.

American adults gained an average of half a pound for every 10 days spent under stay-at-home orders, according to a new study. Read more here.

What we know and don't know about "long Covid," or symptoms—sometimes debilitating—that persist for months after catching the virus. Read more here.

People may share fake news because they're not paying attention, not because they can't tell whether it's accurate

"Many Americans share fake news on social media because they’re simply not paying attention to whether the content is accurate — not necessarily because they can’t tell real from made-up news, a new study in Nature suggests," Denise-Marie Ordway reports for The Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

"Lack of attention was the driving factor behind 51.2% of misinformation sharing among social media users who participated in an experiment," she writes. "The results of a second, related experiment indicate a simple intervention — prompting social media users to think about news accuracy before posting and interacting with content — might help limit the spread of online misinformation."

"The study highlights not only the pitfalls of social media, but the existential obligation of news media to point those out — preferably on social media, where it could make more of a difference," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. "We like to say that journalism practices a discipline of verification: We tell you how we know something, and we're fact-based. Social media are opinion-driven and have very little discipline or verification."

Other findings from the experiments:
  • 33.1% of participants said they shared false headlines because they didn’t realize they were inaccurate.
  • 51.2% of participants said they shared false headlines because they were inattentive.
  • Participants reported valuing accuracy over partisanship. Self-analysis is questionable, but the finding challenges the idea that people share misinformation to benefit their political allies or harm their foes. Nearly 60% of participants who completed a survey said it’s "extremely important" that the content they share on social media is accurate. About 25% said it’s "very important."
  • Partisanship was a driving factor behind 16% of decisions to share false headlines on social media.
  • Social media platform design could contribute to misinformation sharing. According to the study's authors, the results suggest that the current design of social media platforms, which encourage users to scroll quickly through a mix of news and opinion content, may discourage people from thinking about accuracy before sharing.
  • Twitter users who previously shared content from right-wing sites Breitbart and Infowars were less likely to share misinformation after receiving private messages asking them for their opinion of the accuracy of a headline. During the 24 hours after receiving the messages, these Twitter users were 2.8 times more likely to share a link to a mainstream news outlet than a link to a fake news or hyper-partisan website.

15% SNAP boost extended; states to get more than $1 billion over 3 years in other hunger aid; state data available

The Agriculture Department confirmed Monday that it will extend the 15 percent increase in benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps, through September with funds from the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief-and-stimulus bill. Without the funds, the extension would have ended in June. The bump will add up to about $3.5 billion of assistance to an estimated 41 million food-insecure Americans. That means $28 more per person, per month, or more than $100 more per month for a household of four, Shawna Chen reports for Axios. Rural households are more likely to use SNAP benefits than their suburban and urban peers.

"An additional $1.135 billion will be provided to U.S. states over three years, which they will not be required to match," Joseph Choi reports for The Hill. Of that, USDA will get $25 million to expand online SNAP purchasing, develop mobile-payment technologies, and provide technical assistance to retailers and farmers' markets in adopting the new platforms. "With these investments, we hope to make it easier for participants, especially individuals in rural areas, as well as those with physical limitations, to order and pay for their groceries online," according to USDA's fact sheet, which provides a state-level breakdown of the estimated increase in SNAP benefits.

The fact sheet details how the rest of that $1.135 billion will be divided: nearly $900 million will go to the Women, Infants and Children program; $37 million to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which feeds low-income seniors, and an unspecified amount will fund meals for young adults in emergency shelters participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

"We cannot sit by and watch food insecurity grow in the United States," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "The American Rescue Plan brings help to those hurting the most due to the pandemic. It increases SNAP benefits so households can afford to put food on the table. It invests in working people and small towns and small businesses to get the economy back on track. And it makes the most meaningful investments in generations to reduce poverty."

The SNAP boost is "a sharp contrast to the Trump administration's attempt to block states from giving emergency food stamps to low-income Americans during the pandemic last year," Chen writes.

Canadian Pacific-K.C. Southern merger to create first U.S.-Canada-Mexico railroad, boosting markets for northern grain

Map from companies' presentation shows potential flow of grain
from producing areas through processing areas to producing areas.
The first railroad to span Canada, the U.S. and Mexico will be created if and when Canadian Pacific Railway buys Kansas City Southern, as the two firms agreed Sunday.

The $25 billion cash-and-stock deal "would be the largest ever combination of North American railways by transaction value," just behind Berkshire Hathaway's purchase of BNSF Railway in 2010, Reuters reports. "It comes amid a recovery in supply chains that were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and follows the ratification of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement last year that removed the threat of trade tensions that had escalated under former U.S. President Donald Trump."

The merger is subject to approval of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, but "The companies expressed confidence this would happen by the middle of 2022, given that the deal would unite the smallest of the seven so-called Class I railways in the United States, which meet in Kansas City and have no overlap in their routes. The combined railway would still be smaller than the remaining five Class I railways," Reuters reports. 

The companies argued that the deal will have trade, agricultural and environmental benefits, reducing U.S. truck traffic. John Brooks, CP's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, called the prospects for agricultural exports a "game-changer in terms of what this combination is going to do" for the grain business in Canada and areas the railway serves in the U.S.

"Pointing to opportunities for Canadian Pacific's customers, the presentation on the purchase heavily stressed the growth in U.S.-Mexico cross-border trade in areas such as Laredo, Texas, where Kansas City Southern operates," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Pandemic sends home prices surging, pressuring the rural real-estate market, especially in Central Appalachia

Olivia Morris, 31, wants to remain in her home state of West Virginia, and her dream was to save enough money to buy a small home in Fayetteville. But after a pandemic-fueled real estate boom in the area around the New River Gorge has driven up housing prices, she wonders if she can afford it. (Image from West Virginia Public Broadcasting)
Real-estate prices are soaring across the country, especially in rural areas where city-dwellers are looking to relocate to greener pastures, Roxy Todd reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Many workers are looking to relocate to small towns, according to surveys and real estate data. The infusion of new workers could help local economies (though it could also trigger growing pains).

The phenomenon is the result of several factors. Housing stock is down nationwide; there just aren't enough houses for everyone who wants to move. Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors, said that stretches back to the Great Recession. For years afterward, homebuilders weren't building enough homes, and some smaller builders went out of business during the crash, Chris Arnold reports for NPR. Also, many seniors have been hesitant to sell for fear they might get the coronavirus from prospective buyers and real-estate agents.

What that adds up to: "The number of homes for sale is at a record low, with just a two-month supply at the current pace of sales. Once homes do go on the market, they sell fast. Homes are also selling at a record pace — just 20 days after being listed," Arnold reports.

In Central Appalachia, which has seen declining populations for years, the trend has resulted in a surprising real-estate squeeze. For the first time ever, every geographic region in West Virginia is experiencing a housing shortage, Todd reports. Many of the new residents are from out of state, and some are buying second homes as an insurance policy against future pandemics, according to Raymond Joseph, CEO of the West Virginia Association of Realtors.

However, the boom is hurting some longtime West Virginians who now have a harder time affording housing, Todd reports. Yun told Arnold that the boost in home values is great for homeowners, but exaggerates the wealth gap and makes it harder for first-time buyers to afford a home.

Monday, March 22, 2021

As states open up coronavirus vaccination to wider audiences, vaccine hesitancy becomes more apparent

President Biden has set a May 1 deadline for all states to drop eligibility requirements for the coronavirus vaccine and allow everyone age 16 and up to get one. Many states are gradually doing away with tiered restrictions, but on March 9 Alaska became the first state to open up vaccination to all. That "illustrates how quickly access is expanding throughout the country, and some of the reasons. Chief among them is a lack of demand for the shots, as vaccine scarcity gives way to vaccine hesitancy, or even outright resistance in some communities," Isaac Stanley-Becker and Lena H. Sun report for The Washington Post. "Health officials said vaccine misinformation metastasizing online plays a role in that resistance and is adding to their sense of urgency about the pace of vaccinations." Rural residents and Republicans (especially men) are among the most likely groups to be hesitant or resistant.

As vaccines become more easily accessible, hesitancy becomes more apparent because there are fewer excuses not to get one. In Mississippi, which on March 16 became the second state to open up vaccinations to all, some residents are jumping at the chance to get immunized, "but many other people are holding back, spotlighting challenges likely to face the rest of the country related to equity, access and trust that could complicate the quest to reach the high levels of immunity needed to stop the virus’s spread," Stanley-Becker and Sun report.

"Nirav Shah, director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said he has been hearing from colleagues across the country that they are starting to see appointments go unfilled," the Post reports. "Still, Shah cautioned against conflating lack of demand with hesitancy. Many people may simply not feel the same degree of urgency, he said. People who have had the opportunity to get vaccinated but have not done so fall along a spectrum, including some who are uninformed, some who are misinformed and some who just haven’t gotten around to it."

In some rural counties that have opened up vaccine registration, there's evidence that barriers to access and lack of awareness may also be responsible for unfilled appointments, the Post reports. Racial and ethnic minorities, including undocumented immigrants and refugees, are less likely to have received the vaccine in many counties. Many rural residents lack reliable transportation and may have a difficult time getting to both two-shot vaccine appointments. One health official told the Post that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine would help.

Dropping vaccine restrictions may increase immunizations among residents of communities who feel uncomfortable getting vaccinated when others aren't eligible. Anne Zink, Alaska's chief medical officer, said that many in the state's Pacific Islander community refused to get the vaccine when only some age groups were eligible. "They were very clear: We’re in this together," she told the Post.

Bankruptcy judge lets coal firm walk away from reclamation costs for abandoned surface mines; could signal a trend

"The Blackjewel coal mining company can walk away from cleaning up and reclaiming coal mines covered by more than 30 permits in Kentucky under a liquidation agreement that was reached Friday in federal bankruptcy court in Charleston, West Virginia, attorneys participating in the case said," James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News. Blackjewel made national news when Kentucky miners blocked a coal train in 2019 after the firm abruptly declared bankruptcy and their paychecks bounced. 

The ruling means rural counties with shuttered Blackjewel surface mines could have to pay for those costs or expose nearby residents to safety and environmental hazards. "In court testimony, residents and state regulators described mines with unstable slopes presenting landslide risks, and clogged pipes putting retention ponds containing polluted water at risk of overflowing," Bruggers reports.

Coal companies must post bonds to guarantee reclamation, and are supposed to reclaim abandoned mines as they go, but Blackjewel and affiliate Revelation Energy posted inadequate bonds, according to court documents. That's a longstanding problem in Kentucky.

Peter Morgan, a senior attorney for the Sierra Club, which is participating in the case, said he worries the Blackjewel ruling may foretell similar cases. "Unfortunately, this is likely the start of a trend where bankrupt coal companies dump their coal mine cleanup obligations onto communities and taxpayers who simply don’t have the money to pick up the tab," Morgan told Bruggers. "This should be a wake-up call to state regulators across the country to immediately hold coal mining companies accountable and to put miners to work cleaning up coal mines before all the burden falls on taxpayers and underfunded surety bonds."

It's unclear what will happen to the 170 or so other Blackjewel permits in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. They "will be placed into legal limbo for six months while Blackjewel attempts to sell them to other coal mining companies. Any permits that are unable to be transferred can then also be abandoned by the company, once the nation’s sixth-largest coal producer," Bruggers reports. "The judge required coal mining companies that might purchase the permits to take reclamation responsibility should they eventually go bankrupt, she said. But their financial condition in a weakened coal industry makes that also uncertain."

OSHA virtual inspections during pandemic likely led to more workplace danger, says Labor Dept. internal watchdog

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s decision during the Covid-19 pandemic to conduct many inspections virtually — instead of onsite — risked worker safety, the U.S. Department of Labor’s inspector general concluded in an audit report released Tuesday," Sky Chadde reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "In addition to virtually inspecting workplaces, OSHA conducted far fewer inspections in general."

Though the report doesn't specifically mention OSHA inspections at meatpacking plants, which were Covid-19 hotspots in 2020, "the problems the report details have plagued the agency’s response to the industry," Chadde reports. "In January, USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found that OSHA had not inspected 40% of the plants where at least one employee had died of Covid-19. The agency said it had conducted 10 virtual inspections of meatpacking plants after reports of deaths."

The report says that remote inspections may have helped avoid transmission of the coronavirus among inspectors, but the reduction in onsite inspections could trigger more accidents, injuries, deaths and/or employee illnesses at worksites. Chadde notes that personal protection equipment was available to OSHA employees who inspected meatpacking plants.

Pandemic roundup: Federal program gets vaccines to more rural residents; Facebook adds fact-checks to vax posts

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts.

Coronavirus cases are surging in 21 states as health officials warn against reopening too quickly. Read more here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reduced its social-distancing recommendation for children in schools from six feet to three feet. Read more here.

Facebook is adding informational labels to posts about coronavirus vaccines as it expands its efforts to counteract pandemic misinformation. The platform is also adding a tool to give users information on where and when they can get vaccinated. Read more here.

The two-shot AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine reduced symptomatic disease by 79 percent, according to the drug maker's study. That will help the vaccine be authorized in the U.S. Read more here.

Experts warn: even those who have already been vaccinated must observe social-distancing measures and other precautions to help stamp out the spread of the virus. Read more here.

Vaccine eligibility in the U.S. is a confusing mish-mash of state rules. Read more here

Commentary: Primary-care physicians should be at the heart of rural vaccination. Read more here.

A federal program gets vaccines to qualified facilities, rural residents, and migrant workers. Read more here.

Rural Wisconsin residents now have more options for getting vaccinated since the state has expanded a federal pharmacy program. Read more here.