Friday, October 22, 2021

Local journalists attract outsized attention when they quit or are fired for refusing to get a coronavirus vaccine

National Geographic map, adapted by The Rural Blog; to enlarge, click on it.
By the very nature of the business, local journalists command an outsized share of the community's attention. Some news outlets have used that platform to lead by example during the pandemic, as the Clinton County News in Southern Kentucky did in a recent house ad telling readers that the entire staff was vaccinated and encouraging readers to do likewise.

But that spotlight also means that when local television journalists quit or are fired for refusing to be vaccinated, the whole community is likely to hear about it. "These journalists aren’t much different from other workers who have opposed employee vaccination mandates, whether in health care, law enforcement, education or any other field — except for one thing: They’re among the best-known people in their communities as a result of beaming into homes for years or even decades," Paul Farhi reports for The Washington Post. "Because of their high profiles, the fired journalists have captured local headlines and in some cases have become heroic figures to local vaccine resisters."

That includes meteorologist Karl Bohnak, who was fired from Gray Television-owned WLUC in Michigan's Upper Peninsula last month. "His Facebook post about the termination received thousands of comments — many supportive; many not — and was shared across right-wing blogs. Viewers threw him a party to celebrate his decision after 34 years on the air," Farhi reports. "Bohnak now calls himself an 'activist' against mandatory employer vaccinations, which he calls a 'violation of human rights.'"

One of Bohnak's reasons for refusing to be vaccinated shows that journalists aren't immune from misinformation: He said he was worried the vaccine would cause blood clots. When Farhi told him that research shows such a side effect is extremely rare, he said, "Let's agree to disagree."

"The biggest concentration of vaccine resistance among journalists appears to be at Gray, an Atlanta-based company whose TV stations reach viewers in more than 100 cities," Farhi reports. "According to various news reports, the company has fired at least seven newsroom employees since its companywide vaccination requirement went into effect on Oct. 1. But the number may be higher than that; Bohnak said two journalists left his station in recent days over their opposition to the vaccine policy, but their departures didn’t attract public attention."

Southern Baptist Convention CEO resigns after committee votes for more transparency in sex-abuse investigation

Ronnie Floyd addresses the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which he headed. (SBC photo)
"Ronnie Floyd, the acting CEO of the business arm for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has resigned from his position as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee after a weeks-long internal battle over how the denomination should handle a sex abuse investigation," Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports for The Washington Post. "Floyd’s resignation comes after weeks of intense debates that played out on Zoom and Twitter over an internal investigation into how the Executive Committee has handled sexual abuse allegations."

The debate centers on a 2019 Houston Chronicle investigation that revealed hundreds of reports of sexual abuse. The SBC has cut ties with churches that hired pastors named in the report and created resources churches can use to help prevent sexual abuse, Bailey reports. But many survivors said the SBC hasn't done enough and must track abusers.

"Delegates to the Southern Baptists’ national meeting in June had approved the independent probe and voted for the committee to waive privilege if asked to do so by the investigating firm. The initial vote to defy their decision upset a huge swath of Southern Baptist leaders and lay members. As the controversy escalated, several church leaders had threatened to withhold funds, angry that the committee did not follow through on the will of the messengers," Bailey reports. "During Executive Committee meetings over the past several weeks, some members argued against waiving attorney-client privilege, which would have given investigators access to records of conversations on legal matters among the committee’s members and staff. They said doing so went against the advice of convention lawyers and could bankrupt the SBC by exposing it to lawsuits. Some committee members resigned over the issue."

The committee voted against waiving attorney-client privilege on Sept. 21, but passed the measure on Oct. 5. Floyd resigned on Oct. 14 through an open letter and said waiving attorney-client privilege put the SBC at too high a risk of liability. "Several Southern Baptist insiders said Floyd’s resignation was inevitable. Ahead of his resignation, 25 members of the Executive Committee had planned to call a meeting to discuss issues of leadership within the panel, according to a letter shared with The Washington Post," Bailey reports.

SBC President Ed Litton and many others in leadership supported waiving privilege, but Floyd was against it from the start, said committee member Dean Inserra, who also pastors a large Tallahassee church. "He won’t accept any blame whatsoever and has made this about his integrity," Inserra told Bailey. "He could’ve been the leader of doing what the messengers wanted and could’ve been a hero. Since he did not do that, there had to be a grass-roots movement to counter it."

New rural infections decline, but are still 80% higher than the metro rate; new rural vaccination rate barely budges

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Oct. 10-16
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Here's the latest data on rural vaccination, new infections, and deaths from the coronavirus:

"The proportion of rural residents who are completely vaccinated against Covid-19 rose by half a percentage point last week. But part of that gain came from previously administered vaccinations that were simply revised to record geographic information," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "As of Thursday, October 14, 43.2% of the nation’s rural population had completed a Covid-19 vaccination regimen (two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine)."

Vaccination rates as of Oct. 14, 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 click here for the interactive version.

"New cases of Covid-19 declined in rural counties last week, but rural areas continue to account for a disproportionate share of new infections and Covid-related deaths," Murphy and Marema report. "New infections in rural counties fell by 11% in the week ending Saturday, Oct. 16, from about 141,000 two weeks to 125,000 cases last week. Metropolitan counties had a slightly bigger decline of 12%. Covid-related deaths in rural counties fell by 6.1% last week, from 2,655 to 2,492. Metropolitan counties had a much sharper decline of 14.4%."
 
The Yonder has more charts, interactive maps and regional analysis on vaccinations, infections and deaths.

Quick hits: Advice for new farmers; USDA names several state directors; is coverage of minor crimes a public good?

Thriving crops grown under solar panels (Barron-Gafford Research Group photo)

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Here's a great example of "rural nice": Residents in Tappahannock, Va., raised over $4,200 to buy a car for a 60-year-old Burger King employee who has had to walk to work for seven years. Read more here.

A first-generation farmer has advice for people thinking about becoming farmers. Read more here.

A student journalist considers whether covering minor crimes contributes to the public good. Read more here.

Crops grown under solar panels—a practice called agrivoltaics—could be even more productive than usual, research shows. In a nutshell: they still get enough sunlight to thrive, but the added shade means the soil won't dry out as much, and can generally reduce stress to the plant. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department has announced the appointments of five Farm Service Agency state executive directors and seven Rural Development state directors. Read more here.

Shortage of opioid overdose treatment naloxone could trigger thousands of overdose deaths

A shortage of the opioid overdose treatment naloxone—commonly marketed as Narcan—could result in thousands of overdose deaths. 

In April, "Pfizer halted production of its single-dose injectable Naloxone, due to a manufacturing issue. This causes issues as buyers’ organizations distribute this Naloxone to many grassroots harm reduction coalitions across the state," Anna Mudd reports for North Carolina Health News. Experts "estimate the interruption would result in about 1 million fewer doses, which could lead to as many as 18,000 avoidable overdose deaths." Pfizer expects the shortage to continue through February.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Meteorologists and economic geologists join other earth scientists in believing humans cause most climate change

More than 99.9% of peer-reviewed scientific papers now agree that climate change is mainly caused by humans, according to a new survey of 88,125 climate-related studies, and the earth scientists who have been the most skeptical, meteorologists and economic geologists, are now firmly on board.

Research at Cornell University updates a 2013 paper which found 97% of studies published between 1991 and 2012 supported the idea that human activities are altering Earth’s climate. “It’s pretty much case closed for any meaningful public conversation about the reality of human-caused climate change,” said Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow at Cornell's Alliance for Science and first author of the study, which published Oct. 19 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Another paper in the journal reveals that very few meteorologists and economic geologists remain skeptical that humans have caused most climate change. The 2019 survey showed that geologists had the lowest level of consensus, with 84.1% agreeing, but that was way up from 47% in 2009. Likewise, meteorologists' agreement rose from 64% to 91% in the 2019 study.

"Scientific support for the link between human activity and climate change has strengthened to the extent that there is now near universal agreement," says the Institute of Physics. "In 1996, reports hedged statements with phrases such as 'the balance of evidence suggests'. This evolved to 'It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century' and the more recent observation that 'Human influence on the climate system is now an established fact'," as stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Of the 10,929 earth scientists invited to take the survey, 2,780 responded, and 91 said the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity. In 2009, those saying so were 80%. "All of the most actively publishing climate experts – those who had published 20 or more climate papers each between 2015 and 2019 – accept that global warming is human-caused," the Institute of Physics said.

"In spite of such results, public opinion polls as well as opinions of politicians and public representatives point to false beliefs and claims that a significant debate still exists among scientists over the true cause of climate change. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that only 27% of U.S. adults believe 'almost all' scientists agreed climate change is due to human activity, according to the paper. A 2021 Gallup poll pointed to a deepening partisan divide in American politics on whether Earth’s rising observed temperatures since the Industrial Revolution were primarily caused by humans."

Share of women in state police has flatlined in last 20 years

Stateline map; click to enlarge or here for interactive version.
State troopers are a key element of law enforcement in rural areas, and not too many of them are women. While many professions once dominated by men have seen increasing numbers of women in recent years, that's not true of state police, Lindsey Van Ness reports for Stateline.

Women made up 6 percent of the average state police force in 2000. By 2020 that number had risen to 7%, according to a Staeline's analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data. Fewer than 13% of full-time police officers in the U.S. are female. That matters on a practical level, as high-profile police violence cases have led to calls for reform, Van Ness reports.

"As a national reckoning over law enforcement practices unfolds, research shows that women are less likely to use force, are named in fewer complaints and get better outcomes for some victims. Some state agencies are looking to recruit more women to change not only who is doing the policing, but also how their departments police," Van Ness reports. "Policing experts attribute the low rate of women overall to reasons that include stereotypes about the profession, the demands of training, patterns of sexism and harassment, and the perpetual lack of women to serve as mentors."

Some rural hospitals fear vaccine mandate will make labor shortage so bad that they'll have to close or cut back more

A nurse in a Louisiana Covid ward (AP photo by Gary Hebert)
Requiring all health-care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus could worsen chronic staffing shortages at rural hospitals, because rural areas have low vaccination rates and many health-care workers have yet to be vaccinated.

The latest look at this issue comes from Aallyah Wright of Stateline, who notes, "In the broadest sense, President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirement for the more than 17 million U.S. health care workers will alleviate the strain on all health centers and clinics by boosting the country’s overall vaccination rate. . . . But the story may be more complicated in rural America, where resistance to the vaccine remains strongest."

Wright quotes rural hospital leaders who worry that the mandate will make the labor shortage so bad in some hospitals that they will have to close. "Dr. Randy Tobler, CEO and director of women’s services at Scotland County Hospital in rural Memphis, Missouri, said his hospital will abide by Biden’s mandate, but some staff members have told him they will quit rather than get vaccinated."

Brock Slabach, chief operations officer for the National Rural Health Association, told Wright, “I've talked with administrators of hospitals that have estimated anywhere from 3 percent to as much as 20 percent of their workforce may have to quit their jobs if they're required to have the vaccine as a condition of their employment. In a rural hospital, that could be two, maybe three nurses, which could cripple their ability to meet the demands of patient care.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hasn’t said when workers will have to meet the requirement, and there are other reasons for uncertainty. "At least 22 states plus the District of Columbia announced that state health care workers—or, in some cases, all health care workers—would need to be vaccinated or regularly tested, according to the nonprofit National Academy for State Health Policy," Wright notes. "But six states—Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Montana, Tennessee and Texas—have approved laws or have executive orders from their governors prohibiting vaccine mandates as a condition for employment. Hospital leaders say the conflicting guidance makes it difficult to know how they should proceed, though experts assert that federal law will supersede any conflicting state law or executive order."

The uncertainty adds to the stress of the pandemic, now in its 20th month. Some hospitals have "cut back, delayed or eliminated services such as elective surgeries, labor and delivery, and other inpatient care," Wright notes. "Nurses and other health care employees have worked double shifts, and many rural hospitals have had to create makeshift intensive-care units."

Series with rural impact win environmental reporting awards including one on dicamba herbicide in Midwest

Several stories and series with rural resonance won in the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual awards for reporting on the environment.

Reporter Johnathan Hettinger and editors Pam Dempsey, Sky Chadde and Brant Houston of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting won the Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting in a small market. Their project, "Dicamba on Trial," detailed how the Environmental Protection Agency ignored their own regulations and scientists' recommendations in reauthorizing the herbicide dicamba, even though internal documents showed they were aware of how much damage it did to farmers' fields.

The judges called it "exemplary investigative journalism. The clear-eyed writing provided readers with a masterclass in how to build a story with a foundation of sound research and documentation. The series should not be dismissed as regional reporting. The judges felt this story had relevance to environmental policy and agri-business on a global scale."

Daniel Rothberg of The Nevada Independent won third place in Outstanding Beat Reporting for small markets. His entry, "Water Reporting in the Great Basin," dug into the effects of the drought for farmers, policymakers and corporations in the state.

The judges said, "As a major drought tightens its grip on western North America, where a number of communities are experiencing record heat, Daniel Rothberg's stories about water, policy and rights in arid Nevada are prescient, timely and compelling examples of how writing about local issues can illuminate events of global magnitude. His stories frame an important but potentially dry subject as a gripping narrative told clearly and eloquently."

Sarah Vogelsong of the Virginia Mercury won first place in Outstanding Explanatory Reporting for small markets. Her series, "Virginia's Clean Energy Transition," explored how a new green-energy policy is playing out. The judges said, "In 2020 the Virginia Legislature adopted a set of laws aimed at establishing a carbon-free energy sector by 2050. To answer the question of how, exactly, the state could reach that goal . . .Vogelsong developed an extremely well done, comprehensive series covering the major issues in transitioning Virginia's power grid to a carbon-free system based on renewable energy. How do you balance the need for farmland with the need for open space for solar power generation? How do you establish offshore wind farms without interfering with the livelihood of fishermen? Vogelsong was diligent in having voices from all sectors. The writing style is engaging, making complex subjects easy to follow."

Pandemic roundup: Ad Council campaign features rural residents sharing stories about getting coronavirus shots

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

A new public-service ad campaign from The Advertising Council features rural residents sharing their personal stories about receiving coronavirus vaccinations in hopes of encouraging more rural residents to get vaccinated. Read more here.

A rural Oregon county has declared a state of emergency over concerns that statewide vaccine mandates for first responders might cause a shortage of volunteers. Read more here.

Most paramedics in Maine are vaccinated against the coronavirus, but rural first-responder agencies could see worker shortages. Read more here.

A series of new reports from local health agencies shows how they overcame vaccine barriers in minority communities, including an agricultural area in southeast Idaho with a large Hispanic population. Read more here.

The Biden administration has revealed how it plans to roll out the coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, when or if the shot is approved for that age group. Read more here.

Traveling nurses help rural hospitals, but at a high cost. Read more here.

As insurance companies stop full coverage for Covid-19, rural hospitals brace for a greater financial burden. Read more here.

In places without strict pandemic safety mandates, some citizens have created social media groups that grade businesses on safety measures. Read more here.

Though health officials have warned the public that ivermectin doesn't treat Covid-19, many are still taking the anti-parasitic, and reports of ivermectin poisoning are on the rise. Read more here.

Growing evidence links environmentally harmful farming practices and jumps of diseases from animals to humans

Growing evidence shows a link between environmentally harmful land-use and farming practices and new disease outbreaks that originate from animals. That's of particular interest as the coronavirus pandemic continues to infect millions worldwide.

"Of more than 330 diseases which emerged between 1940 and 2004, nearly two-thirds were zoonotic, meaning they were transmitted from animals to humans, as with, for example, HIV/AIDS and probably Covid-19," The Economist reports. "Of those over 70% originated in wildlife, as opposed to domesticated animals. And although many factors are involved in disease transmission, including population growth, migration and climate change, scientists are increasingly turning their attention to how altering land interferes with a pathogen’s journey from animals to humans."

For example, clearing forests for farmland increases contact between humans and disease-carrying wildlife. And when farmers destroy predators' habitats, prey such as rodents, mosquitoes and bats can flourish. That can lead to more disease transmission to humans since such wildlife commonly hang out near humans and livestock in hopes of a meal.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Democrats ditching biggest climate-change piece in their spending package, to get Sen. Joe Manchin's vote

Manchin talks with Rachel Scott of ABC News. (File photo)
The final shape of congressional Democrats' "transformational" spending package is becoming clear, and one outcome was easy to predict long ago: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has made the package much smaller, and seen that it no longer has a direct attack on the coal industry, 

The package will not contain a significant part of President Biden's agenda to fight climate change: the Clean Electricity Protection Program, The Wall Street Journal reports. CEPP would force electric utilities away from coal and other fossil fuels, PBS NewsHour reports: "This is Democrats’ attempt at moving toward a clean-energy standard for the country, without creating a strict mandate."

CEPP would require utilities to increase the amount of renewable fuel they use by 4 percent a year. "Those that meet that target would receive federal grants. Those that don’t would pay penalties to the federal government," PBS explains. "It is essentially a way to put a price on carbon use in electricity. . . . Critics lambast the idea as dangerous, arguing that the government is dictating business decisions for a critical industry."

The removal of the program will be a big disappointment to climate activists, because nothing else in the package would have as big an effect on carbon emissions, The Economist reports. Manchin argues that utilities are already moving toward renewable fuels and the program would be a waste of taxpayers' money, and his support is essential because the Democrats cannot afford to lose any votes in the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris breaks tie votes. 

"White House officials and some Democrats on Capitol Hill said they were becoming more optimistic that the party could soon unify behind a proposal, The Wall Street Journal reports, quoting Rep. Ro Khanna of California: “Overall, almost every priority is included.” Manchin told the Journal that a deal is possible by the end of the week. 

Analysis says public-health agencies need 80% more full-time workers just to meet everyday needs

Public-health agencies, especially in rural areas, have been chronically underfunded for years. A new data analysis reveals just how underfunded and understaffed such agencies are: State and local health departments nationwide need to add 80,000 full-time employees to reach adequate staffing levels, according to the analysis conducted by the nonprofit de Beaumont Foundation and the Public Health National Center for Innovations. That would be an increase of nearly 80 percent.

"Adding those employees would allow health departments nationwide to better deliver services like immunizations and preventive health measures—but not to prepare for or respond to emergencies, including outbreaks and pandemics," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "The analysis does not recommend hiring specific types of employees, nor does it estimate the cost of adding 80,000 positions—a scope that’s narrow by design, said Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which advocates for public health. It’s meant simply to provide a snapshot of staffing levels at state and local health departments, similar to the health professional shortage areas identified by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration."

From 2008 to 2019, the number of full-time employees at local and county public-health departments fell by 16%, and state health agencies lost nearly 10% of employees from 2012 to 2019, according to nonprofit Trust for America's Health. "Federal funding for public health preparedness and response programs decreased by nearly $40 million between the 2019 to 2020 fiscal years, and overall funding for those programs has been cut in half over the past decade,"Queram reports. "Those cuts became particularly noticeable in the early months of 2020, following a year of continuous public health issues—including outbreaks of measles and hepatitis A, a mysterious vaping-related illness, prolonged debates about the effectiveness of vaccines and historically high levels of sexually transmitted infections—that were then overshadowed by an emerging pandemic of a then-unknown virus."

It could be difficult to hire more public health officials even if the funding is available; many workers have quit amid the stress of the pandemic compounded by public animosity toward coronavirus vaccination—especially in rural areas.

Dollar stores' popularity spikes in pandemic, worrying some towns, but rising prices might bring more fresh foods

Dollar stores have experienced unprecedented popularity and growth during the pandemic. "Research suggests 88% of Americans shop at dollar stores at least sometimes. And about 4 in 10 new store openings in the country this year are for dollar stores," NPR reports. "But that proliferation has some communities concerned. Dollar stores have fewer choices for fresh food. And for some neighborhoods, the stores are their only place to shop." That is the case in many rural areas.

Dollar Tree is planning to raise prices and introduce more fresh foods. The retailer said it will "start selling products at $1.25 and $1.50 or other prices slightly above $1 in some of its stores, expanding current tests selling items at higher price points as supply-chain snarls, a tight labor market and inflation push costs higher," Sarah Nassauer reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The addition of more above-$1 items is a response to rising costs and positive consumer feedback on tests so far, Michael Witynski, chief executive of Dollar Tree, said in an interview. With the above-$1 price point, the company can offer new products such as more frozen meat or seasonal items, which could encourage shoppers to spend more per trip, he said."

The price increase could ultimately benefit shoppers: "Analysts say Dollar Tree's commitment to its $1 price point has led it to scrap certain items it could no longer afford to sell, such as bleach, or to stock lower-quality versions of some goods as prices rise," Mary Hanbury reports for Business Insider. "Its new flexibility on price could give it more room to expand its range for customers: more variety, more products, and more brands."

Incentive programs aim to bring in rural workers; amenities like broadband access can help them succeed

The coronavirus pandemic prompted many Americans to leave cities for a more rural life. Savvy rural areas have taken advantage of the trend by launching or reviving incentive programs to lure remote workers.

"While major cities, like Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Topeka, Kansas, may have the most notoriety when it comes to remote worker incentive programs, smaller, more rural communities from Curtis, Nebraska, to Greensburg, Indiana, are taking note," Kristi Eaton reports for The Daily Yonder. "In some cases, the programs have been around even longer than the more well-known programs, but have gone dormant and are now resurging due to the effects of the pandemic and workers’ interest in living outside large cities."

While urban or state programs tend to offer large cash payments as incentives, rural programs are more likely to offer reimbursements or free land for buyers to develop. "For example, in Newton, Iowa, The Newton Housing Initiative, approved by the City Council in 2014, allows for a $10,000 cash incentive for homes valued at $190,000 or more," Eaton reports. "And in Kansas, the Rural Opportunity Zones program offers student loan repayment assistance or state income tax credit."

Several key factors make for the most successful programs, according to assistant professor of research Emily Wornell at Ball State University's Center for Local and State Policy. Rural areas with reliable, affordable broadband access will likely do better since remote workers commonly rely on it. Amenities such as local grocery store also help bring in new residents, she said. "It’s going to be in the communities that have the kind of quality of life infrastructure already developed, or starting to be developed, that people are going to want to take advantage of," Wornell told Eaton.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Study: Rural residents are less trusting, less likely to wear masks or to be vaccinated against the coronavirus

Percent of respondents in each vaccine status/masking category by community type
(Covid States Project chart; click the image to enlarge it)

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans begin wearing masks in public again, regardless of vaccination status. Popular discussion tends to lump people into two categories: those who take steps to prevent the spread of the virus, and those who don't. But it's more complicated than that, and has a lot to do with what entities people trust. So says a new report from The Covid States Project. For instance, unvaccinated Americans are about 25 percentage points less likely to wear a mask than vaccinated Americans, but some unvaccinated people scrupulously wear masks, and some vaccinated Americans don't wear masks. "Understanding this complexity is significant in getting people vaccinated, and in getting people to wear masks — particularly those who are unvaccinated," says the report.

Here are some other findings from the report, which got its data through nationwide surveys of over 21,000 people conducted from late August through late September:
  • 19% of respondents said they wore masks but were unvaccinated; 10% said they did not wear masks and were unvaccinated.
  • 60% of respondents said they wore masks and were vaccinated, while 11% said they did not wear masks but were vaccinated.
  • African-Americans are disproportionately likely to be masked but unvaccinated, comprising 20% of that group but only 13.4% of the overall population. Whites are underrepresented, comprising 55% of that group but 60.3% of the overall population.
  • Masked but unvaccinated individuals also tend to be younger, less college-educated, lower-income, female, Southern, white, Republican or independent, and rural.
  • About 18% of the masked but unvaccinated individuals were rural, compared to 14% of the sample.
  • The unmasked but vaccinated respondents were much more likely to be Republican, rural, older, white, and live in the Northeast and Midwest.
  • Unmasked but vaccinated respondents were disproportionately likely to be college-educated and have higher incomes.
  • The masked and vaccinated crowd tend to be older, more educated, more liberal, more urban, and slightly more likely to live in the Northwest.
A final observation: the largest share of rural respondents were in the "not vaccinated, not wearing masks" category. The study's appendix shows what percentage of people in each of the four vaccinated/masked categories said they trusted various sources and institutions (including the news media in general). The unmasked/unvaccinated crowd was less trusting than other respondents across the board, with only one exception: they were more trusting of Donald Trump. Also, while the appendix included a few nationwide news media examples, such as CNN, Fox News, and The New York Times, respondents were not asked about trust in local news.
Percent of respondents who trust various groups "a lot" or "somewhat" regarding Covid-19.
(Covid States Project chart; click the image to enlarge it) 

The Covid States Project is a joint effort of Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities. It receives support from the National Science Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and Amazon.

10 papers died in S.C. last year; Post and Courier looks at one that's hanging on and at a town that lost one, its 'glue'

The Observer operated from this building in Ware Shoals. (Photo by Andrew J. Whitaker, Post and Courier)

The Post and Courier
in Charleston, South Carolina, began an ambitious, year-long project in February called "Uncovered," partnering with rural papers across the state to unearth corruption. Those rural papers play a critical role in their communities, but many have uncertain futures, Jennifer Berry Hawes and Stephen Hobbs report for the paper. They illustrate the trend with a spotlight on the Union County News, a weekly that serves a county of nearly 30,000 near Greenville, and The Observer in Ware Shoals, a town of 2,200, also in the state's northwestern quadrant.

"In a day when partisan warfare and Twitter taunts can define the day’s public discourse, local newspapers like this one provide something else. They bind people with the glue of shared community," Hawes and Hobbs report. "Obituaries tell readers who died in town. Legal notices alert them to public meetings and court proceedings. Sports stories announce whose kid caught the big pass Friday night. Or who fumbled it. Yet, increasingly, that community glue is drying up."

Post and Courier chart: Two towns in story; papers closed in 2020
The Union County News's chief competitor, The Union Times, was one of 10 South Carolina papers that closed in 2020. "Familiar antagonists — financial stressors, professional moves and retiring overseers — threw most of them over the precipice of viability. Their closures cut news coverage for people living in every corner of the state," Hawes and Hobbs report. "The glue that is lost doesn’t only bind readers. Without journalists shining light on public officials’ actions, corruption and misdeeds can thrive."

The Union County News is doing okay these days, but its two employees, Editor Graham Williams and Publisher Anna Brown, are getting on in years and don't have obvious successors. What will happen to the community when they retire and no one else will run the paper? One possible outcome might be seen in Ware Shoals. The local paper, The Observer, closed in late 2020 after Publisher Dan Branyon was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and he and his wife Faye could no longer keep it going.

A local funeral director told the Post and Courier that Faye Branyon kept local officials on their toes and called them out when necessary. Faye is no longer covering town-council and school-board meetings, and there is no one else to do it in the community of about 2,000. Lamar Smith, 90, lived in Ware Shoals for more than 65 years and kept track of friends and family through The Observer. "When the paper shut down,” he told Hawes and Hobbs, "it seemed like the whole town shut down with it."

When local papers shutter, it hurts communities in many different ways, including increased corporate misbehavior. "In 2018, researchers found that newspaper closures led to higher borrowing costs for local governments, plus increased taxes and deficits due to the loss of a community watchdog," Hawes and Hobbes report. "Jobs vanish, too. Since 2004, about half of print journalists have lost their posts, according to 'Vanishing Newspapers,' a research project at the University of North Carolina. But so much of what is lost cannot be calculated in jobs, tax dollars or corruption. It is measured in glue."

SNAP benefits have twice the impact on rural communities that they do on urban ones, new USDA study shows

Total annual regional output and employment impacts induced by
recipient households' annual expenditures of $71 billion in SNAP
benefit outlays from 2009-2014. (USDA chart; click to enlarge)
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits not only provide struggling Americans with food, but also disproportionately help rural communities' economies, according to a newly published study from the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.

SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, helped rural economies nearly three times as much as those of urban communities, researchers found after examining household expenses of SNAP recipients between 2009 and 2014 and extrapolating how the benefits affected local employment, income and more. 

SNAP is the largest anti-hunger program in the United States and provides nutrition assistance payments to low-income Americans for food purchases. Prior to the Great Recession, SNAP benefits totaled $34.7 billion. But after the recession, SNAP benefits, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, were increased to an average of $71 billion," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "The SNAP benefits can only be spent on food-at-home items – so farm produce and processed foods. Researchers said that providing low-income residents with food assistance freed up families’ grocery money for other purposes. For every dollar of SNAP benefits, researchers said, there was a dual benefit – about a dollar of food purchasing, plus spending on other goods and services with money freed up from the family food budget. Those extra dollars amounted to an estimated $44.3 billion in non-food purchases."

Feds pledge $100 million to support health-care workers; will help rural areas with chronic shortages of them

"As health care workers face increased pandemic burnout, some states — particularly in underserved areas — have had challenges retaining existing staff and recruiting new clinicians. The Department of Health and Human Services is now committing $100 million through the American Rescue Plan to help solve the problem," Deepa Shivaram reports for NPR. "The funds, which are now open for applications until April 8, 2022, are eligible 'for state-run programs that support, recruit, and retain primary care clinicians who live and work in underserved communities,' HHS says. The department hopes that being able to retain health care workers in underserved areas will help improve health equity."

The funds will especially help in rural areas, which have had a hard time finding and retaining health-care workers for years. "Since the beginning of the pandemic, surveys have shown a huge increase in stress, burnout, anxiety and depression among health care workers, particularly in women and people of color," Shivaram reports. "Some medical workers have expressed that the exhaustion among staff is affecting patient care, as well."

Your questions about the flu shots, answered

"With all the talk about Covid-19 vaccines and boosters, it's easy to forget that another dangerous respiratory virus is poised to strike — the flu," Fran Kritz reports for NPR. "Experts worry that we could be heading into a big flu season, especially if enough Americans do not get their annual flu shot, which is now widely available."

The flu could be especially dangerous this year: "Most years as many as 12,000 to 52,000 people die from the flu in the U.S. But the unusually mild flu season last year means that fewer people have immunity to strains likely to be circulating this winter," Kritz reports. "That could lead to anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000 additional hospitalizations for influenza."

Since hospitals are already short on beds because of the pandemic, it's more important than ever to protect yourself from the flu, health experts told Kritz. Click here for a list of commonly asked—and answered—questions about the flu shot this year.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Ga. publisher NeSmith takes over dying weekly, makes it a nonprofit to be maintained editorially by Univ. of Georgia

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Two strategies touted as ways to preserve community newspapers, the nonprofit model and university involvement, are combining to save a dying weekly newspaper in northeast Georgia.

Dink NeSmith with Ralph Maxwell at his Linotype
(Photo by Julian Alexander, Athens Banner-Herald)
Ralph Maxwell, who was planning to close The Oglethorpe Echo this month, is donating it to a nonprofit created by Dink NeSmith, who publishes 25 newspapers; and the journalism school at the University of Georgia has hired a part-time instructor to be managing editor, overseeing the work of journalism students.

The project could help guide similar efforts by other schools, said Charles Davis, dean of the university's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. "I'm really excited about it," he said in a telephone interview.

Davis said NeSmith approached him with the idea when he heard that Maxwell, for health reasons, was closing the only paper in very rural Oglethorpe County, where NeSmith has a home. It's just east of Athens-Clarke County, where the university is located.

Dean Charles Davis
"The proximity was a huge factor," Davis said. "It's 15 miles door to door" from the university to the paper's office in Lexington, population 170. Culturally, though, "It's a long way from Athens," and working in the agricultural county of 15,000 will be a good experience for students, most of whom come from suburbs.

NeSmith said he chose the nonprofit route because the Echo, circulation 2,200, would have been "the very, very smallest" enterprise of his Community Newspapers Inc., which publishes 25 papers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. He said he and co-owner Tom Wood recently stepped down as co-CEOs, which NeSmith said will give him more time to be active with the Echo. He said he has been writing a weekly column for Maxwell since making the county his primary residence several years ago.

NeSmith said the Echo will operate separately from CNI, but could get advertising through the company's salesperson for papers in the region, one in the county to the northeast. He said the Echo had gross revenue of about $100,000 last year, without much sales effort, and could gross $150,000, but "I never expect or intend to take a dime out of the cash register." 

The weekly's new editor will be Andy Johnston, a former sports editor of the Athens Banner-Herald, whom the Grady College has hired as a part-time instructor. Johnson, who was editorial adviser to the student newspaper in 2018-19 and just earned a master's degree, has hired an initial staff of six or seven students, who will be paid for their work in summers and bridge periods between semesters, Davis said. Next semester, the paper will be staffed by up to 20 seniors taking a capstone journalism course.

Oglethorpe County, Athens and Atlanta (Wikipedia map, adapted)
NeSmith said in a news release from the college, of which he is a graduate, “The Oglethorpe Echo has been the conscience and soul of the county for 148 years and we cannot let that legacy go away. I threw my heart in and my wallet followed.” 

The release said NeSmith will be initial chairman of the nonprofit and members of the Oglethorpe community and others will serve on the board. "A youth board of directors will also be established."
    
NeSmith told Wayne Ford of the Banner-Herald that he also plans a program in which volunteers can help the paper, "in ways ranging from paying the phone bill to manning the phones."

“We see how volunteer organizations help hospitals, schools, and here is a chance that people who love their community, love their newspaper, can contribute more than just dollars,” he said. “Maybe we can build a sustainable model that can be of benefit to other small towns and their newspapers.”

Maxwell, whose father bought the paper in 1956, said it's the best outcome for the county: “Every community needs a good newspaper and this is in the best interest of everyone involved.”

The news release said "Support from the community in terms of subscriptions and advertising will be important to its success. The paper will continue relying on written and photo submissions from local residents as well. . . . Despite the uncharted territory, NeSmith makes this one promise: 'We are all going to learn something.'"

UPDATE, Oct. 19: NeSmith's Echo column this week appeals for support from the community.

Churches could be key to beating vaccine misinformation, resistance to perceived coercion by 'The Man' in Eastern Ky.

Pastor Lewis (Photo by Jessica Tezak for Kaiser Health News)
In rural Eastern Kentucky, keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed by Covid-19, the flu and other illnesses this winter may depend on rural churches helping vaccination campaigns, Sarah Varney reports for Kaiser Health News.

Varney writes mainly from "Leslie County, in the foothills of the rugged Pine Mountain ridge that anchors the state's eastern coalfield," where "public health workers are trying to outsmart the fantastical tales spread on Facebook about the Covid-19 vaccines, while also helping residents overcome the everyday hurdles of financial hardship and isolation."

The region matches what national polls show tend to be the most adamant anti-vaccine part of the U.S. population, citing "tends to be disproportionately white, rural, evangelical Christian and politically conservative," The New York Times reports.

"Local health agencies have been eager to enroll churches in the all-hands-on-deck vaccination effort," Varney reports. "Some church leaders have refrained from encouraging vaccination, afraid of offending congregants in a state where mistrust of government intrusion runs deep." But not Billy Joe Lewis, pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ on Cutshin Creek, which drains much of the county.

"We've still got to use common sense," Lewis told Varney. "Anything that can ward off suffering and death, I think, is a wonderful thing."

He has seen both. "In recent weeks, Lewis held a funeral service for a 53-year-old unvaccinated former coal miner, suspended Sunday services after more members fell ill and, with a heavy heart, canceled Homecoming — a cherished yearly gathering of area churches that marks the fall foliage with a celebration of the gospel and shared faith," Varney writes.

Another big obstacle to vaccination is "the specter of coercion" in a region "where government directives have been met with derision," Varney reports, quoting Louisa nursing-home owner David McKenzie: "We do not like to be shoved. We resent it, and we shove back."

"They're fearful of 'The Man'," McKenzie told Varney. "The Man could be your employer, it could be the government, it could be a newspaper reporter." And there's another kind of fear, Varney reports, paraphrasing and quoting McKenzie: "People who boasted about refusing the vaccines cannot change their minds, or 'They'll look like they're weak, or they caved to The Man'."

Pandemic roundup: nearly 500 law enforcement officers have died from Covid-19; 'Long Covid' affects more than half of virus survivors; hospital vaccine mandates working

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

Nearly 500 law enforcement officers have died from Covid-19 in the U.S. The infection has become the leading cause of death among law enforcement. Read more here.

Because of the Delta variant surge, Americans from all walks of life say they're struggling more with education, finances, and well-being—especially households already on the financial edge and racial minorities. That's according to a recent poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Read more here.

Some Native American tribes are offering cash incentives for coronavirus vaccinations. Read more here.

About 41% of hospitals in the U.S. have a coronavirus vaccine mandate for employees. Though some employees have quit rather than get vaccinated, hospitals say the mandates haven't led to the widespread staffing shortages feared. Read more here.

Some small businesses, especially those nearing 100 employees, are having a harder time navigating vaccine mandates. Read more here.

More than half the people diagnosed with Covid-19 suffer lingering after-effects called "long Covid," according to a new study from Penn State. Read more here.

Breakthrough infections might not be as big a threat as previously though, new research suggests. Essentially, vaccinated people may transmit a weaker form of the virus that has been hobbled by antibodies. One writer posits that the milder form of Covid-19 should have a different name. That's appropriate, she writes, since Covid-19 isn't the name of the virus, but the disease that develops from the novel coronavirus, and a much milder disease should be identified as such. There are logistical problems with that notion—as the writer herself notes—but it's an interesting idea, and deserves notice for differentiating between the coronavirus and Covid-19.

Tennessee doctors who spread coronavirus misinformation can face disciplinary action, including suspension or having their medical license revoked, thanks to a new policy of the Tennessee Board of Medicine. Read more here.

Nearly one-third of parents surveyed—33%—say they are "very unlikely" to get their children vaccinated against the coronavirus if it becomes available for ages 5 to 11. Meanwhile, 28% said they were "very likely" to get their kids vaccinated, 18% were "somewhat likely" and 21% were either "somewhat unlikely" or "unsure." Read more here.

American adults age 65 and up have an 83.3% coronavirus vaccination rate nationwide, the highest of any age group. But they are also the most likely age group to be hospitalized or die from Covid-19, representing nearly 80% of all such deaths as of Sept. 29, 2021. A study has found that Covid-19 deaths among seniors during the Delta surge were higher in states with lower vaccination rates, adding to the wealth of evidence attesting to the vaccine's efficacy. Read more here.

Hundreds of thousands of the nation's 2.1 million troops remain unvaccinated or partially vaccinated against the coronavirus as mandate deadlines near. Read more here.

There is little evidence to suggest that ivermectin can treat Covid-19. But despite the lack of data, 4 in 10 Americans, and 7 in 10 heavy users of conservative news media, say they would take the drug if they had been exposed to someone with Covid-19, according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. How did people get the notion that ivermectin treats Covid-19? The Washington Post traces the phenomenon.

An essay from The Atlantic offers six principles to keep in mind as the pandemic enters its second winter, including: the people at greatest risk from the virus will keep changing. Read more here.

Media Literacy Week, Oct. 25-29, an opportunity to remind readers about vetting information sources


Media Literacy Week is coming up next week, Oct. 25-29. With misinformation rife on social media, it's the perfect opportunity for editors to remind readers about the importance of vetting sources.

The observance is hosted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. It differs from National News Literacy Week in January.

This year's theme celebrates one of the five components of media literacy’s definition each day: Access, Analyze, Evaluate, Create, and Act. Click here for more information.

Community newspaper publishers tell House panel that poor mail delivery is costing them 'subscribers by the droves'

Delayed mail delivery is costing newspapers time, money and subscribers, who are missing out on timely news, shopping opportunities, public notices and critical community activities, two community newspaper publishers told the House Subcommittee on Government Operations Friday.

John Galer, publisher of the Hillsboro Journal-News and nine other Illinois newspapers, and Dorothy Leavell, editor and publisher of the Chicago Crusader, provided comments to the panel, which is investigating mail delays in the Chicago in recent months.

Galer, whose mail to addresses outside his immediate delivery area is handled by postal facilities in St. Louis, told the subcommittee, “Newspaper delivery outside the delivery offices where our mail is entered has been a problem for many years. In the past 18 months, it has reached a crisis point and our publishers are losing subscribers by the droves.”

Leavell said, “Timeliness is critical and reliable mail delivery is an essential component of a successful newspaper like ours. Mail delivery, however, is a perpetual challenge for a newspaper like ours. It has never been as reliable as we need it to be. During the pandemic, it has been worse than ever.”

The publishers told of copies being delayed a week and sometimes several weeks. "Leavell said her office was required recently to send replacement copies to one reader who did not receive his newspapers at all for several summer months," the National Newspaper Association reports.

Galer, NNA's vice chair, said Congress shouldn't rely on the U.S. Postal Service’s periodic performance reports, which are based on scanning of mail in processing plants, because newspapers are sorted by hand. "Although the most recent report for Periodicals outside the county of mailing showed on-time delivery under 60%, the newspaper experience may be even worse," NNA said.

National Geographic wildlife photography contest winners a reminder of the importance of protecting wilderness

National Geographic has announced the finalists and winners of its annual wildlife photography contest. Here are the five featured and winning entries from the U.S., which serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting wilderness and wild animal habitats.

"Grizzly leftovers" (Photo by Zack Clothier)

Zack Clothier's "Grizzly leftovers" (above) won in the Animals in their Environment category. The remotely-triggered photo shows a curious grizzly bear in Montana looking at the camera as it approaches bull elk remains for a bit of lunch. The photo was taken in very early spring, when hungry bears attempt to bring their weight back up after hibernation.

"Storm fox" (Photo by Jonny Armstrong)
Jonny Armstrong's "Storm fox" was highly commended in the Animal Portraits category. Armstrong is a professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University, but the photo was taken at Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island, Alaska. He and a colleague followed the red fox around for several days, watching as it foraged berries, chased songbirds, and teased a brown bear cub. 





"River dance" (Photo by David Herasimtschuk)
David Herasimtschuk's "River dance" was highly commended in the Underwater category. The photo shows a school of longnose gar in Citico Creek, Tennessee, in the Great Smokies near the Virginia border. In spring, hundreds of them migrate upstream to spawn. Appalachian streams are some of the most biologically diverse in the world, but a recent study in nearby West Virginia showed that mining cuts aquatic species biodiversity by 40%.




"Drama at high water" (Photo by Mac Stone)

Mac Stone's "Drama at high water"
was highly commended in the Behavior: Mammals category. The image captures a raccoon rescuing its young from flooding caused by unusually heavy rains in the Everglades.

"Up for grabs" (Photo by Jack Zhi)






Jack Zhi's "Up for grabs" was highly commended in the Behavior: Birds category. The photo, shot in
Southern California, captures a young white-tailed kite reaching to grab a live mouse from its father. Juvenile white-tailed kites typically must master aerial food hand-offs from their parents until they can hunt on their own.