Friday, August 06, 2021

New study says Alzheimer's deaths more common in rural U.S., especially in Southeast, and disparity is increasing

"Death rates from Alzheimer's disease are particularly high in the rural United States, a preliminary study finds, highlighting a need for health care resources in traditionally under-served areas," Amy Norton reports for HealthDay. In a study that has not been peer-reviewed, "Researchers discovered that over the past two decades, rural areas in the Southeast have seen the highest death rates from Alzheimer's, at 274 per 100,000 people. That's about twice the rate as seen in urban areas of the mid-Atlantic region, which had the lowest numbers."

Researchers studied data from the National Center for Health Statistics to compare deaths by region and urbanization. Overall, Alzheimer's deaths rose by 88 percent between 1999 and 2019, they found. "The Mid-Atlantic and New England regions maintained the lowest rates, while the Southeast had the highest for most of the study period. Big cities, meanwhile, had lower death rates than non-metropolitan areas," Norton reports. "Those disparities only increased over time, the study found."

The study didn't address the reasons for the trends, but lead researcher Dr. Ambar Kulshreshtha of Emory University said some likely culprits include the higher likelihood of stroke and heart disease—both of which are risk factors for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia—as well as overall poorer health-care access, Norton reports. That can mean people are less likely to get early dementia screening or specialist care. He recommends more training for doctors and more resources for under-served communities.

The findings, which were presented this week at the Alzheimer's Association's annual meeting, are considered preliminary until published and peer-reviewed.

Newspapers in Idaho, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota and Wyoming win NNA contest general-excellence awards

The North Scott Press of Eldridge, Iowa, won for best website
and was second in general excellence for medium-large weeklies.
The Sioux City Journal, the Idaho Mountain Express of Ketchum, The Highlands Current of Cold Spring, N.Y., The Taos News and the News Letter Journal of Newcastle, Wyo., are the general-excellence winners in the National Newspaper Association's annual Better Newspaper Contest.

The Sioux City Journal won the daily division. The Idaho paper won the division for weeklies with 10,000 or more print circulation. The Taos paper won the 6,000-to-9,999 category; the Cold Spring paper was tops in those 3,000-5,999; and the Newcastle paper won among those of less than 3,000.

Second-place winners in those respective categories were the Wyoming Tribune Eagle of Cheyenne, The Examiner of Beaumont, Texas; the North Scott Press of Eldridge, Iowa, the Hyattsville Life & Times of Maryland and the Antelope County News of Neligh, Nev.

Third-place winners were The Daily Times of Farmington, N.M.; The Pilot of Southern Pines, N.C.; the Blair Pilot-Tribune of Nebraska, the Lake Oswego Review of New York and the Glenrock Independent of Douglas, Wyo.

The general-excellence awards are a combination of editorial and advertising awards. Here are some of the editorial awards, for particular pieces of work:

Local-government reporting: The Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan won first and second place in the daily division; the Sioux City Journal won third. The division for non-dailies was won by the Walsh County Record of Grafton, N.D. The North Scott Press and the Jackson Hole News and Guide were second and third, respectively.

Among categories open to all papers, the Eldridge North Scott Press won for best website and best localized national story, the Antelope County News won the award for best use of social media for breaking news, The Highlands Current had the best front-page design, and the Taos News won for best civic and community service.

Cattle ranchers not seeing profit from high grocery store beef prices; many blame major processors

Annual farmers' share compared with beef and veal prices, 1970-2020. Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting chart; click the image to enlarge it.

"While consumers pay high beef prices at the grocery store, very little has trickled down to ranchers — in fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the gap between the retail price for beef and the price producers receive is the largest it's ever been," Mary Hennigan reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "In interviews, eight ranchers in seven states agreed their profits have stagnated or even decreased, while the meatpacking companies — which buy the animals for slaughter, then package the meat to be sold at grocery stores — have benefited."

Some ranchers blame limited processing capacity, especially with pandemic shutdowns. But most ranchers blame meat processors Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and National Beef, which accounted for more than 80 percent of the processed beef in the U.S. Numerous lawsuits in recent years claim meatpackers have colluded to raise beef prices by limiting supply, Hennigan reports.

Whatever the cause, "since 2017, the price consumers have paid for beef and veal has increased each year. In 2020, the cost increased by about 10% from 2019, the sixth highest year-to-year increase in four decades. In turn, the companies’ profits have skyrocketed. From 2010 to 2020, both Tyson and JBS saw an increase in revenue from their cattle operations, 34% and 66% respectively, according to the companies’ annual reports," Hennigan reports. "But, at the same time, the farmers’ cut has decreased. Between 2010 and 2020, the farmers’ share — beef’s value to the rancher divided by its retail value — decreased by about 9%."

The federal government is taking notice. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a hearing in June to seek answers. On July 9, President Biden signed an order to promote economic competition, and specifically addressed agricultural consolidation. And that same day, "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA would spend half a billion dollars to encourage building more meatpacking plants closer to producers," Hennigan reports.

Quick hits: plague chipmunks; farmers' markets importance; what ballads and science fiction tell us about Appalachia . . .

Adorable and, possibly, dangerous.
Alamy Stock Photo by Sam Judy
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

Hopefully not coming to a tree near you: the U.S. Forest Service has had to close several top hiking spots on Lake Tahoe because of chipmunks with the bubonic plague (most small-mammal infections are in the West.). A park ranger said wild rodents in the Sierra Nevada commonly carry the virus and advises people to keep their dogs on a leash. Read more here.

A small Black-majority town in Virginia is trying to keep a supermarket chain from building a warehouse there, worrying it could destroy the rural character of their town. Read more here.

To cap off National Farmers Market Week: The markets are growing in their role as essential sources of healthy food for the rich and poor, say two landscape architecture professors. Read more here.

What ballads and science fiction tell us about Appalachia's past, present and future. Read more here.

Rural communities should harness the once-in-a-generation windfall from the American Rescue Plan to invest in and improve school STEM programs, writes a rural education expert. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department is taking applications for loans and grants for rural start-ups, small businesses, non-profits, institutions of higher learning, and more. Read more here.

A new report provides a road map for expanding chestnut agri-forestry in the U.S. Read more here.

The Vera Institute of Justice is inviting applications for grants to rural organizations seeking alternative solutions to incarceration. Read more here.

Journalism chops and receptionist charm will get you a job and a home in West Virginia. Read more here.

Multi-pesticide 'cocktails' used on farms can kill twice as many bees as regular pesticides, studies find

"Agricultural pesticides sold to farmers ready-mixed into 'cocktails"' can kill twice as many bees, Victoria Gill reports for BBC News. That's according to an analysis of 90 studies that measured the impact of environmental stressors such as pesticides and poor nutrition. University of Texas at Austin researchers cross-referenced that data to figure out how combinations of those factors affected bees. 

When a pesticide that kills 10 percent of bees is combined with another pesticide that kills 10%, one might expect a cocktail of the two to kill 20% of bees, but a "synergistic effect" could make the combo deadly to 30% to 40% of bees, lead researcher Harry Siviter told Gill.

Such cocktails should be required to have their own license, since pesticides are not generally monitored once they're licensed for use. That would create more of a paper trail when pesticide cocktails harm bees, he said.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Fire destroys Calif. town; nearby paper steps up to cover it: 'These are the numbers, but they don't tell the story'

Greenville before the fire (Google maps) and after (above)
The Dixie Fire, now one of the 10 largest in California history, has destroyed most of the town of Greenville. And though the story has been covered by many nationwide outlets, one based an hour away, in Quincy, has stepped up to cover the story comprehensively.

Nationwide stories have covered the size of the fire and progress on its containment, and the Plumas News has those essentials, but as one update noted, "these are the numbers, but they don't tell the story." Only from a local paper can readers hear whether a beloved local bakery has survived. And only a local news source can help outsiders understand how Greenville's natural beauty and quirky residents made it special, as this moving "Eulogy for Greenville" does.

Plumas News is an umbrella website for six local newspapers owned by Feather Publishing Co., whose owners kept the paper local by selling it to longtime employees Cobey and Susan Brown a year ago. Cobey Brown, now the president and publisher, has been with the company for 33 years.

The print editions halted in April because of the pandemic, but Plumas News is still providing vital local coverage online. It's filling other community needs too, publishing notices about missing people and providing a place for community members to voice their grief.

Trumka, who mined Pa. coal, then became a UMW lawyer and the labor leader of all labor leaders, dies suddenly at 72

Rich Trumka spoke to the International Brotherhood
of Boilermakers convention in 2016. (IBB photo)
Richard Trumka, who went from mining coal in rural Pennsylvania to the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America and the AFL-CIO labor federation, has died. He was 72.

Trumka's death was announced on the Senate floor by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, "his voice breaking as he patted the lectern to compose himself," CNN reports. "The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most," Schumer said.

Trumka was born in Nemacolin, Pa., originally a coal camp, and became a third-generation miner in 1968. After getting a law degree, he was a UMW staff attorney, and became president of the union in 1982. His high point there was a successful nine-month strike against Pittston Coal Co.,"which became a symbol of resistance against employer cutbacks and retrenchment for the entire labor movement, Wikipedia says. He became AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer in 1995 and president of the federation in 2009.

"President Biden called Trumka a 'very close' friend and said he was more than head of AFL-CIO,' in brief remarks to reporters," The Washington Post reports. "The president added that Trumka had died during a camping trip with family members." Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who grew up less than an hour away from Trumka, said of him, “He never forgot where he came from. He dedicated the rest of his career to fighting for America’s working men and women. He was a fierce advocate for working people, and a truly decent man.”

Rural vaccination rate steady overall, rising in high-infection areas; new rural infections up more than 50% in past week

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, July 25-31
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version
Two items from The Daily Yonder show rural trends in coronavirus vaccinations and infections.

Driven by the highly infectious Delta variant, the coronavirus "surged across the southern Midwest and South for the fifth consecutive week last week, raising new rural infections to a rate not seen since the middle of February," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for the Yonder. Rural areas saw just under 70,000 new cases in the week of July 25-31, a jump of more than 50 percent "after climbing by more than 60% the week before. In the past six weeks, new cases in rural counties have increased five-fold. The metropolitan new-infection rate has climbed at a slightly higher rate over the same period."

Deaths, the most lagging indicator of the pandemic, are beginning to rise. Rural counties saw 368 Covid-related deaths last week, up 25 from the week before—a 7% increase. New Covid deaths in metropolitan counties rose about 22% last week, Murphy and Marema report.

"The number of rural red-zone counties also surged last week, climbing by more than two-thirds to 945," they report. "That means nearly half of all the nation’s 1,976 nonmetropolitan counties are in the red zone, a three-fold increase in the past three weeks." Red zones, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have 100 or more new infections per 100,000 residents in a week.

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

Meanwhile, new vaccination rates in rural areas remained steady overall last week, but 19 states, "including several with rising rates of new Covid-19 infections, saw gains in the pace of rural vaccinations last week," Murphy and Marema report. "Increases in vaccination numbers in states like Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana confirm anecdotal evidence that rising infection rates in those states are creating renewed interest in vaccinations."

Nationwide, 150,205 rural residents completed coronavirus vaccinations last week. "That brings the percentage of the total rural population that has completed vaccination to 36.2%, an increase of about 0.3 percentage points from two weeks ago," Murphy and Marema report. The metropolitan vaccination rate, now at 47.3%, is 11.1 percentage points higher than the rural rate. The metro rate continues to grow more quickly; last week the gap widened by 0.1 points.

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

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of July 29, compared to the national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

Gov't watchdog report: FEMA not doing enough to convince homeowners in high-risk areas to buy flood insurance

"The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been collecting a lot of information about flood risks across America, including the increased risk of flooding linked to climate change. But the agency has not effectively used that new knowledge to persuade more Americans to buy flood insurance, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office," James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News. "As a result, homeowners are at increasing risk of costly damage from floods, and the government is facing rising costs for disaster relief assistance, the report found. The report called on Congress to consider requiring FEMA to evaluate how the agency can use the 'comprehensive and up-to-date flood risk information' it has been collecting to determine which properties should be required to have flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program."

Many rural areas, particularly those near water and some mountainous areas, are at a higher risk for flooding. After disasters, those without flood insurance have a hard time rebuilding without flood insurance, especially in poorer areas.

Trusting News: Reporters should stop 'journalismplaining,' which is using jargon, being defensive, getting on a pedestal

News research project Trusting News has some advice for journalists who want to help skeptical readers understand the reporting process: stop "journalismsplaining."

Lynn Walsh writes in their latest newsletter: "Talking about ourselves in a story is not something that comes easily to most journalists. But we know that people have questions about what makes our reporting credible. And we know that when those questions aren't answered, users make their own (usually negative) assumptions. It's better to be proactive, and that means talking about ourselves and our reporting process."

But, she continues, journalists should steer clear of "using a lot of industry jargon, being defensive or putting ourselves on a pedestal. Let's all try to avoid what we are calling 'journalismsplaining.'"

She suggests journalists answer questions such as why they chose to write a story, why readers should care about it, whether they were fair and respectful of sources, and more.

Click here for more tips on avoiding journalismsplaining. Trusting News is a collaboration of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

CDC extends eviction moratorium extended for counties where pandemic is most active; see county-level map

Level of coronavirus transmission: non-metropolitan counties on the left, all counties on the right. CDC maps, adapted by The Rural Blog. Click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

"Days after a national eviction moratorium expired, the Biden administration on Tuesday issued a new, more limited freeze that remains in effect through Oct. 3. Like the previous order, the two-month moratorium issued Tuesday comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Barbara Sprunt reports for NPR. "The new ban on evictions covers parts of the United States that are experiencing what the CDC calls 'substantial' and 'high' spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday afternoon, that's the vast majority of U.S. counties."

The last-minute order has caused widespread confusion, The Washington Post reports. The order is not retroactive, and so does not ban or stop evictions that were filed last week. It is likely to be challenged in court, under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. Legal information site has specifics on who qualifies for the extension and a searchable database of tenant protections by state. Surgo Ventures has county-level estimates of people who are behind on rent.

All Tyson employees must get a coronavirus vaccination by Nov. 1; vaccinated front-line workers will get $200 bonus

Tyson Foods will require its 120,000 U.S. workers to be vaccinated by Nov. 1, "making it the largest food company to mandate vaccinations in an industry beleaguered by coronavirus outbreaks,"  Taylor Telford and Abha Bhattarai report for The Washington Post. "Less than half of Tyson’s workforce is vaccinated, chief executive Donnie King said Tuesday in a memo to employees. Tyson leadership will have to be vaccinated by Sept. 24, while other office workers will have until Oct. 1." Front-line Tyson workers who present proof of vaccination will get a $200 bonus.

The nationwide rise in infections, driven by the Delta variant, has prompted many companies to mandate vaccinations and other distancing measures. But that's mostly been among white-collar employers such as Google and Facebook. Walmart, the nation's largest private employer, mandated vaccines for corporate employees; it increased its cash incentive for vaccinated store and warehouse workers rather than requiring a shot, Bhattarai and Erica Werner report for the Post. Ford Motor Co. employees don't have to get a shot but have to mask up in states where such mandates are allowed.

"Tyson’s sweeping mandate marks a shift in how some companies with employees who work in proximity to one another may be reconsidering their role in preventing the spread of the virus," Telford and Bhattarai report. "Mandates from companies like Tyson — whose employees work in conditions more conducive to virus spread — are more likely to have an impact on nationwide vaccination rates, according to Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia Business School."

A representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 24,000 Tyson employees and 250,000 food-processing workers nationwide, said it is seriously concerned about the mandate and wants employers to provide paid leave so workers can get vaccinated without worrying about missing work.

Infrastructure bill has funds for Appalachian highways, wildlife corridors, rural weather-resilience grants, more

The Rural Blog has already listed some of the rural-interest features in the bipartisan infrastructure package, but here are some more, as noted by PBS NewsHour. The 2,700-page bill is a daunting meal for journalists to digest, so more details will undoubtedly come to light.

Here's what reporter Lisa Desjardins found in the bill, along with the page number so you can read more:

  • Resilience improvement grants (p. 356) to help communities upgrade infrastructure to better prepare for climate-change fueled disasters such as flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. At least 25 percent of the funds must go to rural areas, and at least 2% must go to Native American tribal areas.
  • Full funding for what the federal government owes in dozens of lawsuits over water rights of Native American tribes. (p. 2192)
  • A $350 million pilot program (p. 34) to make safe corridors for wildlife to pass through private lands.
  • Funding to potentially complete the Appalachian Highway System (p. 81), a network of roads and bridges begun in 1965 to connect some of the most remote parts of Appalachia.

Lawsuits from conservative groups drive up price tag, timing of Biden minority-farmer relief program, now at risk

"A string of legal defeats for a groundbreaking program to forgive the debts of minority farmers is presenting the Biden administration with a stark choice. It can continue the fight and risk further setbacks or give up and disappoint activists and lawmakers who have championed the cause," Josh Gerstein and Ximena Bustillo report for Politico. "The estimated $4 billion program is under siege by conservative legal groups — including one founded by close aides to former President Donald Trump — who have filed at least 13 lawsuits arguing the debt relief effort unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of race."

Preliminary injunctions from three judges have blocked the program nationwide until the lawsuits are resolved. The Justice Department usually appeals in such cases, but hasn't yet. "Legal experts say the Biden administration’s best move at the moment might be to huddle with congressional allies and come up with a program more likely to pass muster," Gerstein and Bustillo report. "Otherwise, they say, there’s a danger of provoking court rulings that might undermine other programs aimed at remedying past discrimination." Several legal experts told Politico the program would be overturned if a case reached the Supreme Court.

Job gains, especially rural, stagnate over past three months; most counties are still below pre-pandemic levels

Employment in June 2021 compared to June 2021, by rurality and relative gain or loss.
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

Nationwide employment numbers have stagnated over the past three months and barely inched up in June, especially in rural areas. "Between May and June, the nation’s net gain in employment nationally amounted to just 0.3 percent. Rural America added about 93,000 jobs in June, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was an increase of just one half of one percent over May," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "And, as the map above shows, most U.S. counties had fewer jobs this June than June of 2019, before the Covid pandemic began." Nationwide employment in June 2021 was at 96.7% of June 2019 levels.

Metro counties lost a greater share of jobs in the early months of the pandemic, but have bounced back more quickly than rural areas. Twenty Republican-led states reduced unemployment benefits in June in an effort to force more people to return to work, The Washington Post reports. Those states did see more workers over age 25 return to work, but didn't really gain net jobs because those workers essentially elbowed out teen workers. Health concerns and childcare difficulties are probably the biggest reason people still aren't coming back to work, one expert said.

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

Old coal plant now powers Bitcoin 'mine' in upstate N.Y.

From the BBC: "Bitcoin mines require a lot of energy to power the computers inside. Greenidge Generation in New York has converted a former coal plant into a gas-fired Bitcoin mine. Facing criticism from environmentalists, the company argues it offsets its emissions, is 100 percent carbon neutral, and has plans to invest in solar energy." BBC's North America technology reporter, James Clayton, takes viewers on a visit to the mine on Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes.

What is Bitcoin mining? CNet's Oscar Gonzales explains: "When Bitcoins are traded, computers across the globe race to complete a computation that creates a 64-digit hexadecimal number, or hash, for that Bitcoin. This hash goes into a public ledger so anyone can confirm the transaction for that particular Bitcoin happened. The computer that solves the computation first gets a reward of 6.2 bitcoins, or about $225,000 at current prices.

All that computing makes Bitcoin mining a notorious energy hog. "The Digiconomist's Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index estimated that one Bitcoin transaction takes 1,544 kWh to complete, or the equivalent of approximately 53 days of power for the average US household. To put that into money terms, the average cost per kWh in the US is 13 cents. That means a Bitcoin transaction would generate more than $200 in energy bills," Gonzales reports. Bitcoin mining uses more electricity each year than Argentina, "according to an analysis from Cambridge University in February. At 121.36 terawatt-hours, crypto mining would be in the top 30 of countries based on energy consumption."

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Rural clinics have grants to persuade locals to get vaxed; they could collaborate with other providers and newspapers

The Biden administration recently announced it's sending $100 million to rural health clinics for outreach efforts to increase locals' confidence in the safety of coronavirus vaccines, but that leads to the question of how such efforts can be effective. Many rural health leaders say it's is a delicate business, and say it's counterproductive for advocates to be too assertive about vaccines, seem as if they invade their privacy, or send in outsiders to help, Erin Banco reports for Politico. What will rural public health clinics do with the money if they're reluctant to press locals on the issue?

"Well, they could collaborate with local newspapers and health-care providers," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of The Rural Blog. "Community newspapers are generally trusted sources, and these funds could be used to finance sample-copy editions to reach every household with information from local doctors and other health providers."

In many rural areas, people rarely discuss the vaccine in public, and health leaders worry about alienate friends and family if they push too hard or even broach the subject. Officials Alabama and Louisiana "say their governments have in the past shied away from door knocking, trusting that if they put up enough flyers and promote the safety of the vaccine through the media, people would sign up," Banco reports. "But that strategy is not working. Vaccination rates have declined in recent weeks."

The biggest roadblocks are mistrust of the government, partisan sentiment, and social-media misinformation. "Almost every public-health official, local vaccine volunteer and physician in Alabama and Louisiana who spoke to Politico pointed to social media and the media as the main reason people in their neighborhoods are still holding out on the vaccine," Banco reports. "Their only hope for getting people vaccinated is if the media outlets that message to these areas, primarily Fox News, start advocating people get the shot, instead of pushing them away from the jab." Fox hosts and many Republican lawmakers have recently begun promoting the vaccine, but after months of aggressively questioning its safety and, in some cases, promoting conspiracies, it may be too late to change some people's minds.

Having more single-dose vaccines on hand could help, said one public-health official in rural Fayette County, Ohio, just south of Columbus. County immunization coordinator Amy Friel staffed a tent at the county fair to answer questions and get people scheduled for vaccines, but said it was a tough sell, Nick Evans reports for NPR affiliate WOSU Public Media.

It's difficult to administer vaccines at pop-up events because the multi-dose vials must be refrigerated, and doses end up getting wasted. "If there was a way for us to put it in a single-dose vial, and get out there, oh we’d be all over it," Friel told Evans. "I’d be all over the place, just 'hey do you want your vaccine? I’ve got it right now.'"

Pandemic roundup: Indoor masking advised in most counties; debates on school masking stir confusion, anger

Levels of coronavirus transmission by county from July 26-31, 2021. NPR map based on CDC data. Click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

Here's a roundup of recent news about the pandemic and immunization efforts:

The number of welfare recipients increased in most states during the pandemic, but declined in 10 of the 13 states that refused to drop rules requiring residents to work or look for a job to qualify for assistance. The decline is likely because it was more difficult to meet such requirements amid widespread shutdowns. Read more here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising vaccinated people to wear a mask indoors in counties with substantial coronavirus spread. See whether it's recommended for your county (above). Read more here.

State-level CDC data show that breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are relatively rare, and that the vast majority of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are unvaccinated people. Read more here.

According to an internal CDC document, the Delta variant is more likely to infect vaccinated people, and may cause more severe illness, than other coronavirus variants. It's also as contagious as the chicken pox, and more contagious than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu and smallpox. Read more here.

The hype—and controversy—surrounding messenger RNA vaccines is distracting people from discussing other ways to end the pandemic, including more traditionally formulated coronavirus vaccines such as the Novavax. scientist Hilda Bastian writes for The AtlanticRead more here.

As the new school year looms, debates over mask mandates stir anger and confusion. Read more here.

Covid-19 outbreaks are on the rise in nursing homes. Read more here.

Vaccination rates are surging in areas where the Delta variant is running rampant. Read more here.

Walmart and other major employers are strengthening masking and vaccination requirements and/or incentives for employees. Read more here.

Another coronavirus variant is spreading in Florida. Read more here.

FCC plugs loopholes that let telecoms companies use rural broadband subsidies for urban areas

The Federal Communications Commission told SpaceX and other companies recently that "that the billions in rural broadband subsidies it doled out last year can’t be used in already connected areas like 'parking lots and well-served urban areas,' citing complaints," Joey Roulette reports for The Verge, a publication of Vox Media. "The commission, in an effort to 'clean up' its subsidy auction program, offered the companies a chance to rescind their funding requests from areas that already have service. The companies that got the subsidies must do the work to determine they qualify for the money."

SpaceX’s satellite internet network Starlink won $886 million last December as part of the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $9.2 billion auction meant to expand rural broadband. But the auction was riddled with wasteful spending and widespread data flaws, according to reports from the Competitive Carriers Association and consumer-advocacy group Free Press, Roulette reports. 

The Free Press report found that over $700 million in RDOF funds had been awarded to areas that already have broadband access. In particular, $111 million of SpaceX's share was going to "well-served urban areas and random patches of land with no infrastructure, from thin highway medians and empty patches of grass to New York City parking lots and big-box stores," Roulette reports. "The RDOF subsidies were announced under former FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who left office when President Biden became president."

Monday, August 02, 2021

Senate unveils details of infrastructure bill; Appalachian Regional Commission's budget would more than double

"Senate Democrats and Republicans unveiled on Sunday a roughly $1 trillion proposal to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections, setting in motion a long-awaited debate in the chamber to enact one of President Biden’s economic policy priorities," Tony Romm reports for The Washington Post.

One interesting tidbit: Funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission would more than double under the bill, receiving an additional $1 billion over the next four years. That's a significantly larger increase than other federal regional commissions would get from the package. The federal agency, responsible for promoting economic development in Appalachia, is led by Gayle Manchin, the wife of Senate swing voter Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Haris Alic reports for The Washington Times.

The bill calls for $550 billion in new spending over five years above projected federal spending levels, but the other half will come from existing, planned spending. It includes $73 billion to upgrade the nation's energy grid and $21 billion for environmental issues such as pollution. It also has an additional $65 billion to build out broadband internet and make sure it's affordable for the poor, but only $2 billion of that will go through the Agriculture Department. "The measure would also spend billions on carbon removal, firefighting and forest management resources, tree planting and more," Ximena Bustillo reports for& Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

Now the bill goes through Senate debate and a lengthy amendment process. But its future seems bright: "Last week, 17 GOP senators joined all Democrats in voting to start work on the bipartisan bill," Kevin Frekin and Lisa Mascaro report for The Associated Press. "That support largely held, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voting yes in another procedural vote to nudge the process along in the 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster and advance legislation.

"The legislation will face a more complicated path in the House, which Democrats control narrowly," Andrew Duehren reports for The Wall Street Journal. "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has repeatedly said that the chamber won’t take up the infrastructure agreement until the Senate approves a separate antipoverty and climate package that Democrats expect to pass through a budget process called reconciliation without GOP support."

More support secession, especially Southern Republicans

Support for secession from the U.S. to join new, regional unions (Bright Line Watch map; click to enlarge it.)
Six months after the Capitol riot, surveys show Americans more deeply divided than ever, and most Southern Republicans want their state to secede to a new nation of the South. That's according to June polling from Bright Line Watch, an initiative to monitor the strength of democracy. It polled 2,750 Americans and 327 political scientists. Secession support increased from a February survey.

Overall, the report says: "We find deep partisan polarization in perceptions of what is right and wrong with American democracy and the steps that should be taken to fix it. In addition, experts express reservations about current changes to election law at the state level. Still, we find some signs that Americans regard partisan attacks on election administration with skepticism."

Some other key findings:
  • The public and experts don't generally approve of tactics like gerrymandering, packing the Supreme Court or blocking nominees, voter suppression, abolishing the filibuster, adding new states to the nation, or refusing to certify election results. But, when elites carry out such actions, voters don't usually punish them at the ballot box.
  • Experts believe such tactics will become more common, especially extreme partisan gerrymandering. But they think Democrat-favored tactics such as adding states or abolishing the filibuster are less likely.
  • Bills that reduce the political independence of local elections officials or restrict mail-in voting are dangerous to democracy, experts say.
The report is long and dense, with plenty of charts and maps, and it's worth the time to explore it.

Eviction moratorium extended for those with federal loans; estimates show how many renters are behind in your county

Estimated percentage of renting households in arrears, June 23 to July 5, 2021. Based on Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey Wave. Surgo Ventures map; click the image to enlarge, or click here for an interactive version.
Though the federal government's eviction moratorium expired on Friday, President Biden has asked the Agriculture Department and other agencies to extend it until Sept. 30 for those who have real-estate loans through federal agencies, Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Biden to extend the whole program, saying that the administration must take action, but Biden insisted that only Congress has that power, citing a Supreme Court ruling in June that said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority in creating the policy. "The moratorium, put in place during the pandemic, was credited with keeping more than 2 million renters in their homes. Two days before it ended – and just one day before the House adjourned – the White House made its first public appeal for Congress to take action to extend the policy," Joey Garrison reports for USA Today. "The Democratic-controlled House adjourned for recess last week without taking action on a bill that would have renewed it."

Meanwhile, renters and landlords nationwide are struggling. An NBC investigation revealed last week that many states had, for a variety of reasons, distributed only a fraction of the aid meant to keep tenants from being evicted and unpaid landlords able to cover their own costs. A laid-off Phoenix woman, for example, told The Arizona Republic that the state said it was processing her application in early April, but despite numerous calls hasn't been able to get an update, a human voice on the phone, or a check. And in Georgia, only about 6% of the $710 million the state received has been paid out as of July 20, while 160,000 to 344,000 Georgians are likely to be evicted, according to Census Bureau estimates. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the culprits are "slow rollouts, cumbersome paperwork for both renters and landlords, and landlords who decline to accept payments have left government programs sitting on piles of unspent aid just as renters need it the most."

About 6.2 million American households are behind on rent, according to a new report by humanitarian data science outfit Surgo Ventures, an initiative of the Surgo Foundation. Households in arrears represent 14.7% of all renting households and owe an average of $3,700, or $23 billion nationwide.

A county-level map from the report shows that Southern renters are especially likely to owe money, with 16% of all households in arrears and owing $8.4 billion as of July. It's important to note that county-level figures are estimates based on Surgo's extrapolation of state-level data from the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey and cross-referenced with the 2019 American Community Survey; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Surgo's work careful enough to use its Covid-19 Community Vulnerability Index as a resource. Read more about its methodology here.

National Farmers Market Week begins today

This is National Farmers Market Week, an Agriculture Department celebration in its 22nd year.  

In his proclamation affirming the observation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that farmers' markets "serve as significant outlets for small-to-medium, new and beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran agricultural producers to market agricultural products, in turn generating revenue that supports the sustainability of family farms and the revitalization of rural communities nationwide."

According to the 2019 National Farmers Market Managers survey, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S.  Farm vendors benefit in a number of ways, including:

  • 67% increased overall production.
  • 33% increased the number of workers employed on the farm.
  • Nearly 40% were able to sell imperfect products that would otherwise go unsold.
  • 77% diversified the types of agricultural products they grew.

A blog post from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has links to farmers' markets data and programs meant to help them.