Friday, September 17, 2021

Pandemic hits firefighters harder than last year, as wildfires flatten rural towns

"As wildfires rage across Western states, flattening rural towns and forcing thousands of people to evacuate, coronavirus cases and pandemic-related supply chain problems have made it harder to deploy firefighting resources to where they’re needed, fire officials say," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline. "More firefighters appear to be falling ill with Covid-19 and quarantining this year than last year, the officials say, because of the highly contagious Delta variant and mixed adherence to Covid-19 safety measures such as masking, vaccinations and social distancing."

The increase in cases has alarmed officials in Western states, because fire-prone communities need as much help as possible to fight off the fires, Quinton reports. 

"Deploying enough firefighters, support staff and equipment to protect communities was always going to be tough this year, even without the delta surge. Fire risk has been high and many federal firefighting crews are understaffed, particularly in California,: Quinton reports. "More than 5.5 million acres have burned nationwide so far in 2021, slightly below the nearly 6.1 million acres that had burned by this time last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates nationwide firefighting efforts."

Opioid op-eds rail against drug laws, lack of access to treatment, and a legal system that let the Sacklers walk

Two recent opinion pieces examine different aspects of the opioid crisis.

The first concerns the recent bankruptcy case of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, which reached a settlement Sept. 1 after two years. Opioid victims were poorly served in the lawsuit, since the Sackler family was able to walk away from the bankruptcy still free and still wealthy, Ryan Hampton writes for The New York Times. Hampton is a recovering opioid addict who co-chaired the committee that represented plaintiffs in the case. He believes the legal system is devised to "protect extreme wealth and perpetuate social disparity," and that it must be reformed.

The settlement "comes at a pivotal time for the U.S. overdose crisis: 2020 was the worst year on record, with over 93,000 Americans losing their lives to fatal drug overdose," writes College of the Holy Cross sociology professor Emily B. Campbell for The Conversation. "The drug-overdose epidemic, now more than two decades long, has claimed the lives of more than 840,000 people since 1999. Current estimates suggest that some 2.3 million people in the U.S. use heroin and 1.7 million people use pharmaceutical opioids without a prescription."

Campbell, a sociologist who has studied the issue since 2016, writes that two major factors fuel the epidemic: drug-prohibition laws and lack of access to addiction treatment. Laws prohibiting drugs make the crisis worse by increasing demand, she writes, which causes illegal drugs to become cheaper and more potent over time.

Those who want to recover from addiction are often can't or are discouraged from getting help: "Roughly 70 percent of people who seek treatment are unable to access it. Barriers to treatment include health care costs, lack of available treatment options and social stigma. Research also demonstrates that some people are not ready for treatment or do not want to be sober," Campbell writes. "It is also well documented that fear of arrest and shame encourages people to hide their drug use in ways that increase their risk of a fatal overdose. This is because when people use alone, there is no one there to call 911 or perform CPR should an overdose occur."

Quick hits: Firefly tourism; gray wolves; potty-trained cows; right-to-repair laws; are hospitals publishing their prices?

Fireflies at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. (Washington Post photo by Travis Dove)

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

Researchers released the first-ever comprehensive study of firefly tourism this year. They found that about 1 million tourists across the globe travel to witness firefly-related phenomena each year. That includes the famous synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains; that's been getting increasingly popular for years, but the pandemic may have boosted its popularity even more this year as cooped-up tourists flocked to outdoor spots felt to be safer than indoors. Read more here.

The gorgeous but unwelcome spotted lanternfly
(Associated Press photo by Matt Rourke)
However, in news of less-desirable insects: A boy's bug collection at the Kansas State Fair last week
included a spotted lanternfly, which has triggered a federal investigation. The invasive species has been devastating trees and crops throughout the Mid-Atlantic states for years, but Kansas is more than 850 miles west from its nearest known location. Read more here.

Few hospitals in Maine, the most rural state by percentage of population, are complying with a federal rule requiring them to publish detailed prices of medical procedures for insured and uninsured patients. Are your local hospitals complying? Read more here.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administration may restore federal protections for gray wolves in the western U.S. after laws in some states have made it much easier to kill the predators. USFW has begun a year-long biological review to determine if such a step is necessary. Read more here.

In its first meeting last week, the White House Competition Council discussed advancing right-to-repair laws that would bar companies such as John Deere from blocking customers or independent repair shops from fixing tractors and other machinery. President Biden called for the formation of the council in a July order aimed at increasing economic competition. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department "accepted offers for more than 2.5 million acres from agricultural producers and private landowners for enrollment through this year’s Grassland Conservation Reserve Program signup," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "This is double last year’s enrollment and brings the total acres enrolled across all CRP sign ups in 2021 to more than 5.3 million acres, surpassing USDA’s 4-million-acre goal. Producers and landowners submitted offers for nearly 4 million acres in Grassland CRP, the highest in the signup’s history. The top submitters included Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, and New Mexico." Read more here.

Restaurants and businesses are asking Congress for more pandemic aid, but it could be a long shot since Congress is mostly occupied on hashing out the infrastructure package and a Democratic health-care, education and climate bill. Read more here.

As Republican lawmakers in Ohio work to limit drop boxes and early voting, rural voters in Ohio—and likely elsewhere—said in a poll that they want expanded voting options. Read more here.

Appalachian musicians are tackling the complicated topic of coal—and trying to inspire change—through song. Read more here.

Many rural regions that rely on tourism and drive-through visitors are finding it beneficial to install charging stations for electric vehicles. Read more here.

With 1.4 billion cows on earth, cow waste—from both ends—adds up to become a significant driver of climate change. But scientists in Germany and New Zealand have an innovative solution: potty-trained cows. A German herd has been successfully taught to relieve themselves only in a designated area nicknamed the "MooLoo." Read more here.

Wrestlers in Eastern Kentucky promote coronavirus vaccine

Tyler Matrix and Shane Mathews in an
Ohio Valley Wrestling match in 2016
(Courier Journal photo by Pat McDonogh) 
"Pro wrestlers are going to the mat to try to boost Covid-19 vaccinations in an Eastern Kentucky county with one of the nation's highest rates of new cases," Deborah Yetter reports for the Louisville Courier Journal. "Organizers, including local officials, state Senate President Robert Stivers and the Volunteers of America, hope it can become a model for other counties with lagging vaccination rates."

Ohio Valley Wrestling will host the match at Clay County High School on Friday. At the Monday press conference announcing the "Take One for the Team" effort, wrestler Brandon Espinosa said he plans to get his first shot during intermission. He said he's been "on the fence" about vaccination, but said he hopes others will be inspired to follow his example, Yetter reports.

"The goal is to boost vaccination in a county where low rates of vaccination and soaring rates of Covid-19 cases have put Clay County third in the nation in rates of new Covid-19 cases. Perry County, also in Eastern Kentucky, is first, according to a New York Times data analysis," Yetter reports. "Monday's news conference comes three weeks after Stivers said he and other local officials were planning a campaign to boost vaccinations in Clay County with incentives including pizza restaurant coupons, wrist bands, cash awards, sports equipment and basketball tickets."

Since then, vaccination rates in Clay County have increased from 33% to 40%, said a county health official, Yetter reports.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Rural residents in 4 of 5 countries studied, including U.S., are less trusting of the news media than city dwellers are

How the general trust in news media differs among four major nations.
Reuters Institute chart; click the image to enlarge it.
It's not just an American phenomenon: the Reuters Institute's latest Trust in News report found that, in four of the five countries studied, rural residents trust the news significantly less than city dwellers. But that distrust may be part of a larger pattern, since rural residents are generally less trusting (as are older people, those without college degrees, and whites, groups that are more prevalent in the rural U.S.).

In the U.S., 40 percent of rural residents were "generally untrusting toward news" compared to 16% of urban residents. Conservative political affiliation is an especially significant indicator of news media distrust in the U.S. as well, according to the report.

However, it's worth noting that most respondents said they trust some news sources more than others, and definitions of what qualifies as "news" vary.

Americans who generally don't trust news media were much less likely than other Americans to agree that familiarity with a news brand affects how much they trust it. In short, that suggests "that the generally untrusting as a group are somewhat less confident in their ability to differentiate between sources, and that may contribute to a lack of trust overall," the report says. "The untrusting not only say they pay less attention to journalists’ backgrounds and the editorial practices individual news outlets embrace, they also put less stock in the way brands present themselves or whether familiarity is even a useful indicator of trustworthiness. On average they trust few or no brands, not because they are particularly discerning but because they are less knowledgeable about what separates one brand from the next and may lack the motivation or interest to find out."

Pandemic roundup: Studies suggest how to hire more rural nurses; how to persuade the unvaccinated; issue is divisive

New York Times map; click the image to enlarge it.

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

Covid-19 hospitalizations are hitting crisis levels in the South, making it more difficult to maintain care or even find beds for the sickest patients. One in four hospitals now has more than 95% of its intensive-care beds occupied, up from one in five last month. In June, when cases were at their lowest level, fewer than one in 10 hospitals had dangerously high occupancy rates. Read more here.

One in 500 Americans have died from Covid-19. See how different states, ages, and ethnicities compare. Read more here.

A truck driver from rural Tennessee, now on last-resort life-support for Covid-19, urges others who are hesitant about getting vaccinated: "Before you say no, seek a second opinion." He says a daily diet of conservative talk radio that downplayed the pandemic and emphasized personal freedom helped convince him not to get vaccinated. But, he says, people should also consider personal responsibility, and how they don't want to infect loved ones. Read more here.

Bob Enyart, a conservative radio host who bashed the coronavirus vaccine, has died from Covid-19. He also had successfully sued the state of Colorado over mask mandates and capacity limits in churches last year. "Enyart is at least the fifth conservative radio talk-show host to have died of Covid-19 in the last six weeks after speaking out against vaccinations and masking," Timothy Bella reports for The Washington Post. "The Denver host’s comments are another example of talk radio being an often overlooked space for coronavirus misinformation. In the weeks and months leading up to their deaths, all five men had publicly shared their opposition to science-based health efforts when coronavirus infections were spiking." Read more here.

Related: "Politically motivated denial of Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness tracks with a dramatic politicization of trust in science itself," Wake Forest University philosophy professor Adrian Bardon writes for The Conversation. "In a survey conducted in June and July, Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans expressing a 'great deal' or 'quite a lot of' trust in science is down, shockingly, from 72% in 1975 to only 45% today. Over the same period, confidence in science among Democrats is up from 67% to 79%." Read more here.

A recent Harris poll found that one-third of vaccinated Americans surveyed reported cutting ties in some way with friends or family who remain unvaccinated. Only 12% of Republican respondents said they had done so, compared to 28% of Democrats. And 59% of Republican respondents said they had not done so because vaccination is a personal choice, compared with 25% of Democrats. A communications scientist who studies the effects of media and health campaigns suggests more effective ways to persuade the unvaccinated.

A Tulsa pastor is offering to write religious exemptions for cash. In just two days, more than 30,000 people have downloaded the form from his church's website. Meanwhile, an expert says religious exemptions for the coronavirus vaccine could be on shaky legal ground. Read more here and here.

Hospitals nationwide are struggling to hire more nurses, especially in rural areas. A study found that state laws mandating nurse-to-patient staffing ratios helps significantly, but two other popular approaches (mandating public reporting of nurse staffing levels and including frontline nurses on hospital staffing committees) have little or no impact on nurse staffing levels. Read more here.

Rural residents should get their flu shots to avoid stressing the local health-care infrastructure even more than it already is, writes Betsy Huber, president of the National Grange, the nation's oldest agricultural and rural advocacy organization. Read more here.

The coronavirus vaccines have been linked to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. But, a cardiovascular specialist says it's an extremely rare and often mild side effect associated with pretty much all vaccines, and that it's far more likely to happen when someone is infected with a virus of any kind (like influenza). Bottom line: unvaccinated people face a higher risk of myocarditis, as well as getting seriously ill or dying from Covid-19. Read more here.

Some have complained that wearing face masks and other personal protective equipment causes people to breathe in too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen. A newly published study found that, while PPE usage does increase your carbon dioxide intake, it's still well under federal safety limits. Read more here.

Rural Covid-19 death rate is twice as high as urban rate; new rural coronavirus infections fell 5% in past week

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Sept. 5-11
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

After approaching January's record high, new rural coronavirus infections fell by 5 percent during the week of Sept. 5-11. But deaths related to Covid-19 kept rising, and the rural Covid death rate is now twice as high as the urban rate, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

New rural cases fell by about 10,000 from the week before, bringing new rural infections to just under 200,000. And 24 of the 47 states with rural counties had all their rural counties in the red zone, meaning they had at least 100 new infections per 100,00 residents in one week. "More than 90% of the nation’s counties were in the red zone last week ... That’s nearly as high as the red-zone rate at the height of the winter peak of 2020-21," Murphy and Marema report.

Meanwhile, rural counties reported 2,210 Covid deaths, a 13 percentage point increase from the week before. "Rural residents accounted for about a quarter of all Covid-related deaths last week, even though they make up about 15% of the U.S. population," Murphy and Marema report.

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

EPA gives alarm at reports of injury from pesticide dicamba, may change labels; manufacturers may have withheld data

The Environmental Protection Agency "is actively reviewing how the new dicamba labels performed this summer and is alarmed at the levels of injury reports surfacing from some states, [according to] EPA Deputy Press Secretary Tim Carroll," Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. EPA could change product usage labels following the review, Carroll told DTN.

"In search of a clearer picture, the agency sent letters on Sept. 9 to Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and Corteva, demanding that they turn over more information on dicamba injury reports from the 2021 season. The letters suggest EPA believes companies are withholding certain reports, such as damage to seed production and research fields, or cupped soybean fields that companies believe should be attributed to other causes," Unglesbee reports. "The letters also mention allegations that companies are ignoring reports of cupped soybeans if the company investigators believe another source is the problem, such as drought or soybean genetics."

Bayer told DTN the letters were routine, but didn't address the alleged missing studies and injury reports. BASF told DTN the firm was already complying with EPA's requests, and Syngenta hasn't responded to requests for a statement, Unglesbee reports. Corteva discontinued its dicamba product earlier this year.

In addition to pesticide companies, "The agency also is communicating with the Weed Science Society of America, state extension agents, academics, the Association of American Pesticide Officials and USDA about off-target dicamba movement this summer, "Unglesbee reports.

Covid-19 toll on meatpackers may be worse than thought; House panel asks processors for data on deaths

"The toll the coronavirus has taken on the meatpacking industry may be greater than currently thought, said a House panel on Wednesday in asking Cargill and National Beef, two of the largest U.S. meat processors, to disclose how many of their workers had contracted Covid-19 and how many had died," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN). "South Carolina’s James Clyburn, chair of the panel, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said one study suggested that the infection rate for National Beef was three to five times higher than for other large processors."

At least 298 meatpacking workers have died from Covid-19 and more than 59,000 have been infected with the coronavirus, according to FERN's Covid-19 Mapping Project, which halted on Sept. 2 because it was so difficult to gather info. "Most meat companies never released information about Covid-19 in their workforces, public sources of that information withered over time, and there is no federal count," Abbott reports.

The hearing is part of a larger House investigation of major meatpackers. In February the sub-committee began it with letters to JBS USA, Tyson Foods, and Smithfield Foods. "Like the letters to Cargill and National Beef, those letters asked the companies how many of their employees had fallen ill or died of Covid-19 and what safeguards they had put in place to protect them. In addition, the subcommittee asked Occupational Safety and Health Administration what it had done to protect workers," Abbott reports.

The committee also apparently sought to uncover how much sway meatpackers had in an April 2020 order from President Trump declaring them essential and ordering them to stay open during the pandemic, Abbott reports. Besides information on worker illnesses and deaths, Cargill was asked for all communications with the administration regarding the order. Emails obtained by ProPublica in September 2020 showed that meatpackers essentially wrote Trump's order.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Because of federal pandemic aid, overall U.S. poverty fell in 2020, especially among children and rural residents

Census Bureau chart; click the image to enlarge it.
Thanks to direct federal aid prompted by the pandemic, overall poverty in the U.S. declined from 2019 to 2020 among every age group, racial and ethnic group, and educational level, according to the latest Census Bureau figures.

Rural poverty fell a full percentage point further than urban poverty, and rural incomes fell less, but one in seven rural Americans were still living in poverty when the census was taken last April, Chuck Abbott reports for the The Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Federal pandemic aid "is widely credited by economists and policy experts for preventing another Great Depression," Heather Long and Amy Goldstein report for The Washington Post. "The stimulus payments provided $1,200 cash payments to most low-income and middle-class Americans last year, moving 11.7 million people out of poverty, the Census [Bureau] said. Another 5.5 million people were prevented from falling into poverty by the enhanced unemployment insurance aid."

From 2019 to 2020, rural poverty rates fell 3.3 percentage points, from 11.6% to 8.3%, while urban rates fell 2.5 percentage points, from 11.8% to 9.3%, according to a supplemental report. During the same time period, median household income fell 2.1 percentage points to $51,616 in rural areas, while in urban areas it fell 2.6 percentage points to $70,956.

Poverty among children was substantially reduced, thanks to direct aid and the newly expanded child tax credit, part of a pandemic aid package, The Economist notes. But though poverty was down, hunger was up in nine states, more people used food banks and emergency kitchens, and more children went hungry last year than in 2019, according to a recent Agriculture Department report.

"The official poverty rate rose slightly in 2020 to 11.4 percent, up from a record low 10.5 percent in 2019, but that figure leaves out much of the government aid," Long and Goldstein report. "After accounting for all the federal relief payments, the so-called supplemental poverty measure declined to 9.1 percent in 2020 — the lowest on record and a significant decline from 11.8 percent in 2019."

Rural unemployment is lower than it was a year ago, but rural counties and women still have high jobless rates

Job gains and losses from July 2019 to July 2021.
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

According to the latest federal employment numbers, "only three out of 10 counties in the country had as many jobs this July as in July 2019, before anyone had heard of Covid-19. Rural and urban America are about the same on this measure. Only 30.8% of urban counties and 28.1% of rural counties have as many jobs now as they did two years ago," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "Things look better, however, when the employment figures from this July are compared to this time last year, after Covid-19 had hit. Only 18.5% of rural counties and just 2% of urban counties have fewer jobs this July than in July 2020."

But women are having a tough time, especially since federal supplemental unemployment benefits recently expired. "Government data also showed a drop in child-care employment and women’s participation in labor force — two areas that have been inextricably connected throughout the pandemic," Anne Branigin reports for The Lily, a publication of The Washington Post. "The dip was especially dramatic for women between the ages of 25 and 54."

Click here for more analysis from the Yonder, including an interactive map.

More states are requiring schools to teach more Native American history and culture, amid bumps in the road

Native Americans have tried for years to get grade schools to teach more about their history and culture, especially those of local tribes. But "new requirements have been adopted in Connecticut, North Dakota and Oregon and advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd," Susan Haigh reports for The Associated Press. "The legislation affecting schools has advanced alongside new bans on Native American mascots for sports teams and states celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Christopher Columbus Day."

Efforts to require more Native American history have met with challenges. Some state legislatures have declared new laws unnecessary, saying that such things are already in school curricula. "There also have been some steps in the opposite direction amid battles over how topics related to race and racism are taught in classrooms," Haigh reports.

However, efforts are widespread and ongoing: "A 2019 report from the National Congress of American Indians, which surveyed 35 states with federally recognized tribes, found nearly 90 percent of states said they had efforts underway to improve the quality and access to Native American curriculum," Haigh reports. "While a majority said it’s included in their schools, less than half said it was required and specific to tribal nations in their state."

Rural health leaders worry vaccine mandate could worsen staffing shortages in rural hospitals and other health facilities

Some rural health-care stakeholders worry that President Biden's vaccine mandate will exacerbate staffing shortages in rural hospitals and other health-care facilities.

Tillamook County, Oregon
(Wikipedia map)

They include David Yamamoto, a commissioner in Tillamook County, Oregon, pop. 27,688. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, he notes that vaccine resistance is high in Tillamook and other rural areas, and that many health-care workers would rather quit than get vaccinated.

On a recent conference call, the Oregon Health Authority urged county officials to simply hire more people if that happens, but didn't seem to understand how much harder it is to find trained personnel in rural areas, Yamamoto writes.

Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association, echoes Yamamoto's concerns, Adrianna Rodriguez reports for USA Today. When a large number of workers quit, "in a large health system or urban provider, you have that workforce ability to adjust," Morgan told Rodriguez. "You don’t have that flexibility in a rural context."

Some health-care leaders hope the mandate won't spark a mass exodus, and note that vaccination rates among nursing home employees have increased three percentage points since the Aug. 18 announcement that nursing homes would need fully vaccinated staff to continue getting federal funding, Rodriguez reports.

Meat prices fuel inflation; hikes don't always help producers

"Prices for beef, pork and chicken have surged during the pandemic, and the Biden administration believes it knows who's partly behind it: a handful of big meatpacking companies that control most of the country's supply. Beef prices alone jumped 12.2% over the last year, according to new consumer inflation data on Tuesday, making it one of the costliest items in the surging bills that consumers face today at the grocery store," Scott Horsley reports for NPR.

"The surge in meat prices is contributing to high inflation. The Labor Department reported Tuesday that consumer price index rose 5.3% in the 12 months ending in August. That's down slightly from June and July when inflation was running at 5.4% — but it's still near the highest level in nearly 13 years. Pork prices jumped 9.8% in the last year while chicken prices jumped 7.2%."

Market prices for lean hogs are slightly above where they were a year ago, after a long climb in the winter and spring that made them almost double the 10-year low they hit in January. Cattle market prices are slightly higher than a year ago, after several ups and downs, but are well below 5- and 10-year highs.

Farmers who raise meat animals have long complained that major meatpackers exert too much control over the market, with four processors taking more than 80% of production. The Agriculture Department is investigating whether such companies have colluded to raise beef prices by limiting supply. President Biden specifically addressed meatpackers in a July 9 executive order aimed at promoting economic competition.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

House Democrats maintain tax break used to keep farms in families; some ag-panel Dems seek info on climate outlays

The House Agriculture Committee approved part of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending bill Monday, minus Biden's plan to change a tax law that helps farmers keep land in their families.

The price tag of the package is $66 billion. It was to be $94 billion, but some Democrats on the panel balked at approving $28 billion proposed for land conservation and climate mitigation by farmers, saying the package lacked details of just how the money would be spent. Committee Chair David Scott, D-Ga., said he was confident that the conservation-and-climate money would get in later.

The tax issue is “stepped-up basis,” which reduces the capital-gains tax on inherited property. In April, Biden said the proposal would not increase taxes on heirs who keep the family farm running, but farm groups stoutly opposed the idea, and it "became a political lightning rod, potentially endangering passage of the so-called reconciliation bill in the narrowly divided House, and was omitted from the package of tax increases proposed by the Ways and Means Committee to help pay for the bill," reports Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming

The $66 billion expansion of spending on forestry, rural economic development, and agricultural research cleared the committee on a 27-24 party-line vote. It includes $14 billion for treatment of hazardous fuels in national forests and adjoining land; $9 billion for forest restoration; $10 billion to help rural communities and rural electric cooperatives transition to renewable energy; $2.25 billion for the Civilian Climate Corps, similar to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

"Along with finding revenue to offset the cost of the reconciliation bill, the Ways and Means Committee proposed extending the $1-a-gallon biodiesel tax credit and creating a $1.25-a-gallon tax credit for sustainable aviation fuel that reduces emissions by at least 50%," Abbott reports. "It also would provide tax breaks for the purchase of electric vehicles."

For details of the bill or to watch a video of its hearing, click here. A section-by-section analysis of the tax proposals by the Ways and Means Committee is available here.

Media roundup: Newsroom tax credit moving; Gannett shuts six N.Y. weeklies; apply for Report for America by Sept. 30

The House Ways and Means Committee has added a tax credit for employing local journalists, a key part of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, to President Biden's $3.5 billion spending plan. Under the "Payroll Credit for Compensation of News Journalists," news employers would get a five-year tax credit of up to $25,000 per journalist in the first year and up to $15,000 in the subsequent four years. The committee is expected to vote on the full bill this week. Read more here.

Newsrooms can still apply to host a Report for America journalist through Sept. 30. The initiative is especially seeking rural newsrooms as part of an effort to thwart news deserts. Read more here.

Community journalists need more mental-health resources because "every story, every loss and every trauma literally hits close to home," as a reporter for a California weekly writes for The Poynter Institute. Read more here.

Gannett Co. has announced that it will stop publishing several weekly newspapers that are satellites of its Daily Messenger in Canandaigua, an exurb of Rochester, N.Y., on Oct. 24. The papers are the Ontario Post, the Wayne Post, the Monroe Post (South, West and North editions) and the Wayne County Pennysaver. "The decision comes in the wake of the November 2019 merger of two newspaper companies — GateHouse Media and Gannett. GateHouse acquired Gannett; the merged company chose to retain Gannett as its name," reports the Daily Messenger, which was a GateHouse paper. Gannett owned the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. "The merger resulted in overlap of coverage areas, said Michael Kilian, New York state editor for Gannett and executive editor of the D&C."

Newsrooms across the globe will celebrate World News Day on Sept. 28. A plethora of resources are available for participating newsrooms. Read more here.

Over 18 million rural Americans are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but the pace slowed a little last week

Vaccination rates as of Sept. 9 compared to the national average, adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

More than 18 million rural residents are now completely vaccinated against Covid-19, despite a slight decline in the number of new immunizations that were completed, The Daily Yonder reports.

"As of Sept. 9, nearly 18.2 million rural Americans had completed their vaccination regimen. That equates to about 39.6 percent of the total rural population," the Yonder's Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report. "Nearly 300,000 rural residents completed their vaccinations last week, compared to about 318,000 two weeks ago. That’s a decline of about 6%."

In metro counties, the new-vaccination rate fell by 14% last week. The completed vaccination rate in metro counties is 51.4%, which is 11.8 points higher than the rural rate, Murphy and Marema report.

Click here for more charts, maps and regional analysis from the Yonder, including an interactive map.

Pandemic roundup: Small-town Ky. mayor urges unvaxed to stay home to help hospital; Idaho's pain affects Washington

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

Only one in four of the nation's 15,600 nursing homes are confident they can stay in business in the coming months, according to a recent survey, Mariel Padilla reports for The 19th. Such closures could be especially devastating in rural areas, where other resources are hard to find. Read more here.

In a Facebook video, the mayor of Corbin, Ky. (pop. 21,000), urged locals to get vaccinated, and asked the unvaccinated to stay home so they don't get infected and overwhelm the town's regional hospital. Baptist Health Corbin has had to contact facilities as far away as Pittsburgh to find intensive care unit beds for patients. Over half the patients at the 273-bed hospital have Covid-19. Read more here.

Idaho's hospitals are so overwhelmed with Covid patients that they are rationing care, but many locals remain skeptical of vaccines. Read more here. That is affecting Washington state, where the governor has implemented tough pandemic-control measures, is already strained from in-state patients. Some that has fostered resentment among many hospital workers in Washington. Read more here.

Vaccine misinformation isn't just coming from Russian bots and rightwing forums. It also frequently comes from "wellness" influencers on social media who exhort followers to eschew "chemicals" and embrace a more "natural" lifestyle. Read more here.

What is ivermectin, and how did people get the idea it can treat Covid-19? Read more here.

Coronavirus cases are nearing record levels in West Virginia. Seven months ago the state had one of the best vaccination rates in the country, but since then vaccination levels have dropped off. Now the state has an over-18 vaccination rate of 48%, the lowest of any state, leaving its residents more vulnerable to the Delta variant. Soaring coronavirus infections illustrate the challenges facing it and other states with low vaccination rates. Read more herehere and here.

A hospital CEO in rural North Carolina has become known for blunt Facebook posts defending the coronavirus vaccination and criticizing misinformation, conspiracy theories and the politicization of the pandemic. Read more here.

Though a rural Texas county has one of the state's highest vaccination rates, they're still struggling to reach herd immunity. That's because nearby counties have very low vaccination rates, highlighting the need for higher vaccination rates across the board. Read more here.

A hospital in rural Georgia is overwhelmed with Covid patients, so county leaders came up with a creative solution: they negotiated an agreement where county employees will help out at the hospital when they're not doing work for the county. A number of law-enforcement personnel and firefighters have expressed interest. Read more here.

Retired, award-winning editor and Gish Award nominee Kathy Spurlock dies; led several papers in La. and Miss.

Kathy Spurlock
Award-winning editor Kathy Spurlock, 67, passed away Sept. 10 at her Monroe, La., home after a long illness.

Spurlock worked two stretches at the Monroe News-Star, including 21 years as the paper's top editor before retiring in 2016, Greg Hilburn reports for the News-Star. On Facebook, many of Spurlock's former Gannett Co. colleagues praised her as an outstanding community journalist.

But even retirement didn't take her far from the newsroom, said Barbara Leader, whom Spurlock mentored and who is now the top Louisiana editor for Gannett: "Long after she retired from The News-Star, she stayed involved in our work. Always a journalist, she sent us news tips through social media, texts and phone calls. She will be greatly missed," Leader told Hilburn.

Spurlock began her career at The News-Star and the former Monroe Morning World after graduating from Louisiana Tech University in 1975, Hilburn reports. After editing stints at the Louisiana Suburban Press and the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, Spurlock served as metro editor and eventually publisher of weeklies and new ventures at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., then returned to The News-Star in 1995 as executive editor. In 2014 she also began serving as the paper's general manager.

"Under Spurlock's tenure, the news department was transformed from a once-daily print publication to a multiplatform digital and print information center," Hilburn reports. "The News-Star was recognized locally, regionally and nationally for its freedom of information, investigative reporting, commentary, innovation, economic development, public service and community service work under her leadership. She also was an award-winning writer for editorial commentary and columns."

Spurlock was nominated for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues' Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Religious exemptions for vaccinations were on the rise even before Biden mandate, which will take months to implement

"Religious exemptions are becoming another major flashpoint in the Covid-19 vaccination debate. Even though the world's major religions generally support the use of vaccines to control infectious disease, some religious-liberty advocates maintain that vaccine mandates must accommodate people who refuse because of deeply held religious beliefs," Jay Tokasz reports for The Buffalo News. "Others say the religious exemption threatens public-health efforts by giving people who disagree with vaccine mandates for political reasons an easy loophole."

The notion is becoming particularly popular among conservatives and evangelical Christians, two frequently overlapping demographics that are among the most resistant to the coronavirus vaccine. "Mat Staver, the founder and chair of Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal organization, said his group had received more than 20,000 queries on religious exemptions in recent weeks," Ruth Graham reports for The New York Times. "In rural Hudson, Iowa, Sam Jones has informed his small congregation at Faith Baptist Church that he is willing to provide them with a four-paragraph letter stating that 'a Christian has no responsibility to obey any government outside of the scope that has been designated by God.'"

Major religions almost unanimously support coronavirus vaccination. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, gave Christians the green light to get vaccinated when vaccines were released in December, and offered seven points to consider as they decide whether to get the shots, generally encouraging vaccination.

Anecdotally, the resistance seems to come largely from resentment toward a Democrat-issued mandate like the one President Biden issued Friday, one that will take months to implement. The same groups resisting the vaccine in Mississippi have made little fuss in recent years over state vaccination mandates for routine childhood maladies such as measles, polio and chicken pox, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for the Times. The Republican-led state has some of the strictest vaccine mandates, with no exceptions for religious or philosophical objections.

The widespread resistance to the coronavirus vaccine mandate is already causing trouble, Timothy Bella reports for The Washington Post. Lewis County General Hospital in rural New York will no longer deliver babies because it's too short-staffed; at least six maternity ward employees quit over the mandate.

FOLLOW-UP: A Tulsa pastor is offering to write religious exemptions in exchange for cash. In just a couple days, more than 30,000 people have downloaded the form from the church's website.

Trusting News founder Joy Mayer, to be at Radically Rural Sept. 22, says newsrooms must build trust or lose readers

Lack of trust in news organizations is a major challenge for journalism these days, and newsrooms must figure out how build trust with readers, listeners and viewers or lose their place in the community, says a key speaker for the Community Journalism track at next week's Radically Rural conference in Keene, New Hampshire.

"You can’t change what people think in general about journalism, but you can recognize that peoples’ suspicions about and frustrations with national journalism are often valid," longtime journalist and professor Joy Mayer. told Annika Kristiansen of the Keene Sentinel, an annual summit of rural stakeholders. It will be held online and in-person in Keene Sept. 22-23. Mayer will kick off the community journalism track at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 22. 

Meyer organized Trusting News, a collaboration of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute that seeks to increase trust between newsrooms and readers. "During her extensive years working in newsrooms and talking to her students, Mayer has watched as the narratives surrounding the media became more and more muddled in the minds of consumers across the country," Kristiansen reports. "The national political landscape and perception of national media have become increasingly polarized and tense. As a result, the burden has fallen on local journalists to take into account and be responsible for what their readers, viewers and listeners think about what journalism is."

Webinar this evening on stigmatizing language re addiction

Reporting on Addiction, a collaborative project of the Opioid Policy Institute and 100 Days in Appalachia, will host a webinar at 7 p.m. ET tonight to discuss how news reporting sometimes perpetuates stigmas surrounding addiction, and how community journalism can do better. Reporting on Addiction aims to decrease stigma and discrimination in news reporting about addiction, and provides free, evidence-based resources for journalists. Click here for more information or to register.

West Virginia University reports: "'Tackling Addiction Stigma by Working with the Media,' held on Zoom, will evaluate the responsibility of journalists, both local and national, when reporting on addiction and the real-world impacts that reporting has in the communities they cover, such as decreased access to addiction treatment and an increase in discrimination against people who use drugs. Panelists will also discuss the ways communities can respond and overcome that stigma, starting with improving the ways journalists report on addiction, as well as the resources that are currently available."

Reporting on Addiction co-founders Jonathan J.K. Stoltman and Ashton Marra will moderate. Stoltman directs the Opioid Policy Institute and Marra is the executive director at 100 Days in Appalachia and a teaching assistant professor in WVU's Reed College of Media. The panelists include:

  • Abby Spears, outreach and policy coordinator at River Valley Organizing, "a multi-racial, multicultural working-class organization that radically builds community throughout the Ohio River Valley," WVU says.
  • Caity Coyne, a health reporter at the Charleston-Gazette Mail.
  • Laura Lander, associate professor in the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute’s Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry.
  • Carlos Blanco, director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a component of the National Institute of Health.

Next week is National Farm Safety and Health Week

It's time to start planning coverage of National Farm Safety & Health Week, coming up Sept. 19-25. The observance was formerly Farm Safety Week, but now includes health issues, and one of this year's sessions is about the overall health of farmers. This year's theme is "Farm Safety Yields Real Results."

Each day has a more specific theme:
Monday, Sept. 20: Tractor & Rural Roadway Safety
Tuesday, Sept. 21: Farmer Health
Wednesday, Sept. 22: Safety and Health for Youth in Agriculture
Thursday, Sept. 23: Agricultural Fertilizer and Chemical Safety
Friday, Sept. 24: Safety and Health for Women in Agriculture

The annual observance is organized by The National Center for Agricultural SafetyClick here for more information.

Ivermectin story that journalists fell for is a lesson for others

"Journalists fell victim to an incorrect story last week about rural Oklahoma hospitals becoming overwhelmed by victims of ivermectin poisoning," the Society of Professional Journalists reported in its newsletter to members.

"Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug some Americans are taking to treat Covid-19 even though it is not approved or proven for that purpose," SPJ notes. For more details about that, click here

The story was first reported by Oklahoma City's KFOR "and quickly picked up an amplified by national media outlets," SPJ reports. "The central claims were attributed to an Oklahoma doctor; however, the local outlet did not provide context surrounding the doctor’s quote, and other news outlets didn’t fact check or do further reporting. The flawed story was widely shared anyway, and amplified by liberals eager to demonstrate that right-wingers had gone off the deep end in their growing fondness for ivermectin. Conservatives also amplified the story, jumping to the conclusion that the doctor was a liar who had made the whole thing up."

SPJ notes that Robby Soave, senior editor for Reason, wrote, "Additional reporting was sorely needed here, and has now completely undermined the central point of the story."