Friday, November 05, 2021

Meatpacking deaths from Covid-19 are three times worse than thought; new OSHA rule requires vaccination or testing

new federal rule will mandate that employers of more than 100 must "require vaccinations or test everyone regularly and enforce mask-wearing includes meatpacking plants, which have been linked to tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases and hundreds of deaths," Sky Chadde reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The rule "is the kind of enforcement that advocates of meatpacking workers and unions representing plant employees had been asking for since the early days of the pandemic." The rule is set to take effect Jan. 4.

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis obtained data from the five largest meatpacking companies and discovered far more infections and deaths among workers than previously known, Chadde reports: "In roughly just the first year of the pandemic, 269 people who worked for Tyson Foods, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef died due to complications from the coronavirus . . . Combining the subcommittee’s data with Investigate Midwest’s tracking shows that, across the industry, about 86,000 workers tested positive during the pandemic and that 423 died."

Meatpacking workers have received little mandatory protection during the pandemic. President Trump declared meatpackers essential to keep them open during the pandemic, but his administration did not require the industry to take specific precautions to protect workers, Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. And though President Biden asked OSHA to better protect workers earlier this year, meatpackers were exempted from workplace safety rules published in April.

Labor unions applauded the new rule, though they worried it doesn't go far enough, Abbott reports. However, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives denounced it, saying that, though the Jan. 4 deadline "does take farmer co-ops past harvest and does exempt employees working exclusively outdoors, implementing this standard will be disruptive, and it contains no provisions included to help ensure the integrity of the food and agriculture supply chain."

Why do anglers prize bass but shun gar? Scientists say we need a paradigm shift to help ecosystems, save species

Study co-author Solomon David of Nicholls State University in Louisiana holds a bowfin, a bony fish related to gars.
Avid bass fisher Eric Matechak writes that he loves bass fishing
because the species is challenging prey. Bowfin are fighters too.
An article recently published in Fisheries magazine, a peer-reviewed journal for fisheries scientists and managers, argues that certain types of fish, such as bass and salmon, are preferred to "rough" or "trash" fish because "European and white males have overwhelmingly dominated fisheries science and management in the USA."

From the nation's early days, such officials tended to place lower value on fish commonly eaten by indigenous tribes, immigrants, and people of color, Lela Nargi reports for The Counter. And while attitudes and regulations about fish species have "shifted substantially" over the past century, policies for many rough fish species haven't.

Anglers and consumers should look at rough fish differently, the study says, because such fish are critical to ecosystems and are vulnerable to overfishing and decline when fishing policies don't set bag limits. One study contributor, Matthew Miller, director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy:, told Nargi: ""All fish have value."

Nargi notes that half of the world's fish species "Live in freshwater, which accounts for a mere 1 percent of the surface water on our planet. Many of those species are in decline. In places like California, which has a variety of endemic fish that only occur in that state, '83 percent are in some form of decline,' said the study’s lead author, Andrew Rypel, a professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology at the University of California, Davis."

Quick hits: 3G phones will die next year; legal battles have little impact on N.C. hog farms; Wisconsin wolf hunt halted

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.

Phones on 3G networks will stop working next year, which will disproportionately affect rural Americans. The Washington Post has the rundown of what will happen, when it will happen, and what consumers need to know. Read more here.

Years of legal battles over hog-farm pollution in North Carolina has changed little for nearby residents. Read more here.

A Wisconsin judge issued a temporary injunction to block the state's fall wolf-hunting season, agreeing with advocacy groups that holding the hunt would be unconstitutional. A judge presiding over a similar lawsuit at the federal level declined to issue an injunction because the first one is already in place. So the details of the hunt, meant to start tomorrow, are still up in the air. The state held a wolf-hunting season in January with a limit of 119 kills, but hunters killed 218 in just four days. 

The National Park Service could soon have its first Native American director, if Charles "Chuck" F. Sams III is confirmed. Read more here.

The Biden administration has promoted Fish & Wildlife Service principal deputy director Martha Williams to head the agency. Read more here.

Vultures descended on a North Carolina town a year ago. They won't leave. Read more here.

The South Dakota Department of Education has resumed its review of social-studies curriculum standards after protests that a local Native American tribe's history was deleted. The department will review the new standards over three years, providing more chances for the public to weigh in, and will publish lesson plans on the Oceti Sakowin tribe for teachers who want to use them. Read more here.

Nov. 17 virtual summit to explore bridging the digital divide

Broadband advocacy group Connected Nation will hold a virtual summit Nov. 13 to look back on the journey to bridge the digital divide and outline next steps to continue the work. Panelists will speak live from three communitiesand bring stories from schools, libraries, doctors' offices, rural communities and more. Students from the Fort Bend Independent School District in Texas will host a live panel discussion. The free event runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET. Click here to register or for more information.

Amazon founder pledges $2 billion for land restoration, sustainable agriculture and food consumption

At the global climate change summit in Glasgow this week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos pledged "$2 billion over 10 years from his Bezos Earth Fund to support land restoration and encourage greater sustainability in agricultural production and food consumption," Michael Kavate reports for Inside Philanthropy. Though a lot of it will be spent in Africa, part of it "will focus on the United States, specifically landscapes key to carbon storage, biodiversity and local communities."

Though $2 billion sounds like a lot, it's about the same amount Bezos pledged in January just to address an affordable housing crunch in three cities where it operates major employment hubs. He also pledged $2 billion in 2018 to fight childhood homelessness and develop more preschools in low-income areas.

Bezos, who donated $10 billion to the Bezos Earth Fund last year, "also announced that Amazon in collaboration with Norway, the UK, and the U.S. would mobilize $1 billion to end deforestation by 2030," Marc Santora and Nicholas Kulish report for The New York Times.


Thursday, November 04, 2021

Referendum roundup: New York state rejects looser voting rules; Maine adopts vague 'right to food' amendment

Off-year elections are usually pretty quiet, but voters are often asked to decide questions large and small. This week there were 24 statewide refernda in six states. Here are a few with rural resonance:

In Maine, by share of population the most rural state, two-thirds of voters approved a first-in-the-nation constitutional amendment establishing a "right to food," even though there's considerable confusion over what it means. "Described as an outgrowth of the food sovereignty movement, the amendment says Mainers have a right to grow and consume food of their choosing," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food and Environment Reporting Network. That extends to popular issues such as raw milk and the right to save and exchange seeds as long as it doesn't violate laws or exploit natural resources.

"Supporters used the campaign to make the case the amendment would ensure the right to grow vegetables and raise livestock in an era when corporatization threatens local ownership of the food supply," Patrick Whittle reports for The Associated Press. "They positioned the amendment as a chance for Mainers to wrestle control of the food supply back from large landowners and giant retailers with little connection to the community."

Abbott reports, "Opponents said the amendment was so broadly written that it could override animal cruelty laws or open the gate to domestic livestock in urban backyards. The Bangor Daily News said the ambiguous wording would put judges in charge of interpreting what the amendment means at the practical level." The paper also noted that the amendment doesn't expressly mention hunger.

In Colorado, 54 percent of voters rejected a measure that would have raised $150 million to partially fund private, out-of-school learning for children by raising the marijuana tax five percentage points to 20%, Jenny Brundin and Bente Birkeland report for Colorado Public Radio.

Proposition 119 aimed to help children falling behind because of the pandemic by providing tutoring, enrichment opportunities in the arts, career and technical training, physical therapy, mental health services, support for students with special needs, and mentoring. However, "opponents of the measure said it would have taken dollars away from public education and would have instead funded private companies to provide services," Brundin and Birkeland report.

In Texas, voters approved two constitutional amendments by broad margins. "Proposition 3, which was approved 63% to 37%, bars governments from taking any action that "prohibits or limits religious services," Asher Price reports for Axios Austin. "The proposition is part of a much broader national Covid-19 debate that pits public health officials bent on stymieing the disease's spread against pastors who say they were protecting their practice of religion."

And Proposition 6, approved by nearly 88% of Texas voters, "gives residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities the right to designate an 'essential caregiver' who could not, under most circumstances, be barred from in-person visits," Price reports. "The proposition comes after stories of elderly people enduring months of isolation as part of the fight against Covid-19." It's unclear whether nursing homes could bar essential caregivers who are unvaccinated or unmasked. Since nursing home workers must be vaccinated, it stands to reason that visitors would be more likely to infect residents. That could be particularly deadly, since nursing home residents are far more likely to die from Covid-19 than others.

Voters in New York rejected three amendments that would have broadened voting access by allowing same-day registration without proof of residency, let voters get absentee ballots without needing an excuse, and requiring that incarcerated New Yorkers be counted as living at their last place of residence in redistricting, Dana Rubinstein reports for The New York Times. Broadened voting access measures tend to benefit urban—and therefore more liberal—voters. And rural areas generally gain more political clout when prisoners are counted as local residents in redistricting.

Analysts say the measures were defeated because the language on the ballot was hard to understand, and because the Democratic party made little effort to boost the propositions, while the state Republican party used the ballot issues as lightning rods to turn out their base in an otherwise quiet election cycle, Rubinstein reports.

Following Landmark Community Newspapers sale to Paxton Media, one former Landmark editor-publisher isn't happy

Map by The Rural Blog; to enlarge, click on it. The Grayson County papers have since been consolidated into one.

For decades now, rural weekly newspapers have been bought by corporate chains. Sometimes that's been good; chains can set standards, provide capital, training and insulation from pressure by advertisers and others, and money to fight legal battles for records and open meetings. But they can also aim for a return on investment that makes good journalism more difficult to do.

One chain that was generally viewed as good for journalism was Landmark Community Newspapers, which once owned almost 60 papers, almost all weeklies, in 10 states. In May it was sold to family-owned Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Ky., giving Paxton about 120 publications in 14 states and about a third of the newspapers in Kentucky. It was one of the largest recent sales of rural papers, and has come under scrutiny from The Daily Yonder, an online rural news site.

Yonder reporter Liz Carey's object example is The Lebanon Enterprise, which was one of Landmark's better papers and was run by Stevie Lowery, who won the 2018 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Stevie Lowery (2018 photo)
Lowery told Carey that when the sale was announced, “I was like, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt. I thought this could be a good thing.” But by Aug. 20, she and the rest of her staff had quit. “We didn’t want to stay here with the mess that this was becoming,” she told Carey.

Carey writes, "Advertising clients couldn’t sit down with their ad reps and talk about their ad. Laying out the paper, one of Lowery’s favorite aspects of the job, moved to a graphics hub . . . and as the company switched the paper to their new billing system, some customers received duplicate bills or their gift subscriptions ceased entirely. To make matters worse, she said, Paxton eliminated the papers’ voice-mail system, leaving customers with limited ways to get in touch with newspaper staffers. Changes affected some staffers’ roles, as well. One 43-year employee opted to leave rather than take on a different role when her position was eliminated. When she left, another 43-year employee left too. Without them, Lowery said, the changes to the paper were just too much."

The Enterprise's editor and general manager is now Denis House, a veteran community journalist who came from The Kentucky Standard, a larger Landmark-to-Paxton paper in nearby Bardstown. Group publisher Mike Weafer told The Rural Blog, "Paxton Media purchased the Landmark papers with the expectation that all the local news staff would remain on staff. No local editorial positions were eliminated. Paxton believes in local journalism and gives the local editor the authority to decide what is news for each local newspaper. The changes that are implemented are predominantly back end processes around production and business office functions that are far more efficient if done in a consolidated manner. These changes are necessary to offset reduced revenues local newspapers are experiencing. Any reduction in local reporting noticed has been because of the labor shortage every industry is facing now. We have many open positions we are struggling to fill. We are sorry to see any employees leave because of necessary back end process changes. But Paxton Media Group remains committed to local journalism."

Lowery still lives in Lebanon, where she grew up and her father was publisher of the paper under Landmark, but “I can't bring myself to look at it. It hurts too much,” she told Carey. “The Lebanon Enterprise that it once was is gone.”

Carey writes, "Similar situations are happening across the country as some rural newspapers are being bought by corporations. . . . While these purchases may keep local papers running for the short term, they can damage the journalism that comes out of them."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, told Carey that the overall impact of the Landmark sale isn't clear, but departure of staffs in Lebanon and another former Landmark paper “is very concerning, because it's difficult to publish a good weekly newspaper without local staffers who are invested in the community and have enough experience, courage, and integrity to make the tough calls that are often necessary in community journalism: what to cover, how to cover it, how much risk to take and how to deal with the fundamental challenge of community journalism: managing the ever-present conflict between journalistic obligation to public service and personal preferences for friendships, lack of conflict, business success and other pleasures.”

Pandemic roundup: Some prisons may be hiding infection, death data from public; school-nurse shortage worsens

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

"Breakthrough" coronavirus infections of vaccinated people are fairly uncommon, and most people who developed Covid-19 were unvaccinated, according to newly released federal data from 14 states and two cities. The New York Times has more details and a bevy of charts here.

The Biden administration will release Friday the final language of a rule requiring coronavirus vaccinations or regular testing for workers at companies with more than 100 employees. Conservative and libertarian activists and politicians have voted to challenge in court the rule, which the Labor Department will implement on an emergency basis. Read more here.

How vaccinated rural seniors navigate life in mostly unvaccinated rural America: Read it here.

File under silver linings: the pandemic may have made extinct a once-common influenza strain. Study shows how much more transmissible the novel coronavirus is than most flu viruses. Read more here.

Some states are cloaking prisons' Covid data, reporting infections and deaths to state authorities while failing to update public-facing sites, leaving the impression that there have been fewer cases. That matters when prisons and jails are major drivers of infection in rural areas. Prisons have characterized the lag as accidental, a product of lower pandemic staffing numbers, but others believe prisons have done it deliberately to avoid public blowback. Read more here.

The school-nurse shortage deepens as states seek relief. Read more here.

The wave of Covid-19 patients is overwhelming rural Minnesota hospitals short on intensive care unit beds. Read more here.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Rural voters spoke loudly Tuesday, helping GOP candidates in Virginia and New Jersey; Democrats mull 2022 strategy

Red shift: Chart of Virginia counties and independent cities' vote by The Washington Post; click on it to enlarge.

Rural voters' voices were plainly heard in statewide elections Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey.

"Rural America roars again," read a subhead on a Politico story that gave rural voters' strong turnout part of the credit for Republican Glenn Youngkin's 2.5-percentage-point defeat of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the governor's race. "In counties throughout rural Virginia, Youngkin ran even with or, often, ahead" of Donald Trump's performance last year, Steven Shepard and David Siders report.

The standout example of that was Bedford County, between Roanoke and Lynchburg, where Youngkin got 79 percent of the vote, 6 points better than Trump. "Moreover, turnout in many of these counties easily surpassed the last governor’s race four years ago, a sign that Trump’s base was motivated to turn out without Trump on the ticket himself, or even an in-person Trump rally," Politico reports. "The other side of that coin: Democratic candidates continue to sink to new lows in rural areas, especially among white voters. According to exit polls, Youngkin won white voters without a college degree — who are overrepresented in rural areas — by a 3-to-1 margin, 76 percent to 24 percent." Trump's 2020 edge among them was 62-38..

Anecdotal evidence showed voters punished McAuliffe for saying "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," but the result -- and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's narrow escape in a race that wasn't rated as close -- sparked analysis and recriminations.

"I don't think Democrats are comfortable campaigning in rural America, and they don't go, and it becomes self-fulfilling," NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd told House Democratic Whip James Clyburn on "MTP Daily."

Clyburn told Todd that the key for Democrats to regain rural traction is to do something for them, such as the $65 billion for broadband in the House spending bill: "If people knew they had this coming, and felt comfortable with it, we would have a better message to deliver in rural America."

Rural Voices USA, a network that says it is "working to advocate, communicate, and hold policy makers accountable for rural issues," said likewise: “The disconnect between rural America and Washington, D.C. only continues to widen. The divide is evident in one-sided election results in rural counites that are increasingly frustrated they are not being heard and that lawmakers are not delivering on their priorities. . . . After passing those key pieces of legislation, lawmakers must get out into rural communities and actually talk about what those bills do. We need meaningful engagement on how universal preschool will create opportunities for rural parents and kids, how construction projects will create good jobs locally, how broadband will expand in their communities and more. The only way smart rural policy beats cynicism about government and far-right-wing talking points is if rural folks can feel and see it in their everyday lives.”

But longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield wrote for Politico that Youngkin won on the school issue, and the "real lesson for Republicans on Tuesday" is that "One of their most powerful political assets is alive and well: the power of cultural issues over policies."

In a similar vein, Clyburn also said his party is perceived as too cosmopolitan, and Democratic strategist James Carville said that much more strongly on PBS NewsHour. He said Youngkin never mentioned Biden, and voters are reacting to "left-wing nonsense" by "woke" progressives. "What went wrong is this stupid wokeness," Carville said. "Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something. . . . They're suppressing our vote."

Former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican, agreed, saying rural and suburban women liked the optimistic Youngkin better than Trump, "the surly sore loser who hopefully is in the rear-view mirror now." She might be accused of wishful thinking.

ProPublica has a first-of-its-kind interactive map to show cancer-causing air pollution up close; rural areas have some

Overall map of carcinogenic air pollution hot spots. Click here for the interactive version, including features on the 20 worst.
ProPublica reports, "Air pollution from industrial plants is elevating the cancer risk of an estimated quarter of a million Americans to a level the federal government considers unacceptable," but many people don't know they're living in such areas.

So, ProPublica undertook a first-of-its-kind analysis to develop a map showing where more than 1,000 places where polluters spread carcinogenic chemicals through the air from 2014 to 2018. "The result is an unparalleled view of how toxic air blooms around industrial facilities and spreads into nearby neighborhoods," ProPublica reports. Click here for the interactive map.

Former Environmental Protection Agency scientist Wayne Davis told ProPublica after reviewing its map: "The public is going to learn that EPA allows a hell of a lot of pollution to occur that the public does not think is occurring." The story was reported and written by Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw, Lisa Song and Maya Miller.

Almost all the top 20 hotspots are in Southern states that have weaker pollution laws, and about a quarter are in Texas. The analysis says ethylene oxide is the biggest contributor to cancer risk. "Corporations across the United States, but especially in Texas and Louisiana, manufacture the colorless, odorless gas, which lingers in the air for months and is highly mutagenic, meaning it can alter DNA," ProPublica reports.

Election officials stressed or quitting because of threats

Election officials say they're receiving threats to their lives and their children's lives, and many are quitting, Stephanie Sy and Geoffrey Lou Guray report for PBS's "NewsHour."

Many are in rural areas, including Joseph Kirk, the election supervisor of Bartow County, an Atlanta exurb. He told PBS: "I had a phone call after the 2020 presidential election before the January runoff from someone from a different state, who called to inform me how horrible of a person I was, how I was letting the country down, because she wasn't happy with the results of the election in a county that her candidate won by a large margin."

Michelle Carew, the outgoing elections administrator of Hood County, Texas, pop. 62,000, said she's quitting after doing elections work for 14 years because she can't take it anymore. "While attending the Election Commission meeting back in July, it was a two-hour-long meeting. The public was allowed to come in and speak and talk about things that they felt like I was not doing correctly as an elections administrator. They questioned my integrity," she told PBS. "I just don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to be a part of these unfounded truths, these constant lies, the constant scrutiny."

Natalie Adona, the assistant county clerk recorder for Nevada County, California, said a voter called her, upset that state laws don't always require photo ID for voting. When she listed for him the safeguards in the law to thwart fraud and told him her job was to follow the law, he told her that Nazis also followed laws blindly and asked her how she could live with herself. "That was really hard to hear."

Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to The Democracy Fund's elections program and a former elections official in Maricopa County, Arizona, told PBS that the threats are "exemplary of what I’m hearing from all across the country," from both Trump and Biden counties. "we’re seeing a systemic rise in the number of vacancies . . . because of the pressure and the mental toll it’s taking on them." Republican candidates, including incoming Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, now routinely question the legitimacy of an election if they were to lose, even in local races, Patrick said.

"Across the country, officials are noting 'an unusually large number of retirements,' as Kentucky Secretary of State Michael G. Adams (R) said of the departure rate of county clerks in his commonwealth," Talking Points Memo reports. In testimony to the Senate Rules Committee last week, Adams said two of the state's 120 clerks resigned last year, not because they were threatened or harrassed, but because "they had had enough; they were exhausted." This year, 15 clerks are retiring an "unusually large number. . . . It’s a harder job now to run an election," partly because of changes made during the pandemic to make voting easier.

The high turnover rate is "a double-edged problem," legal scholar and law professor Rick Hasen told TPM: "On the one hand, you’re losing the competent people, on the other hand, you’re potentially bringing in more people who are not committed to the fairness of the process, but have an allegiance to a particular candidate."

Nine justice-reform programs for rural areas will get extra support and provide inspiration to other programs

Justice reform programs in nine rural communities have been identified as innovation sites under the "Reaching Rural Initiative" and will receive extra support to further their goals and provide inspiration to other emerging programs, says The Crime Report, published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

The Rural Justice Collaborative and the National Center for State Courts launched the initiative last year because rural areas have complex justice issues that urban models often can't address, TCR says: "Although the problems of the justice system in urban areas have received the lion’s share of attention in the media, rural America is reeling from underfunded court systems, overcrowded jails―and has been especially hard hit by the opioid epidemic. Rural Americans are more likely than urban residents to be jailed, and to lack professional help for substance use and mental health issues. But efforts to export strategies that have worked in urban settings often fail in small communities or rural areas, where public health resources are strained."

Tara Kunkel, executive director of Rulo Strategies, which organized the collaborative, told TCR: "Before this, there has been no nationally concerted effort for justice leaders and their collaborators in other sectors to share what they know. The innovation sites provide a framework that others can build from." Selected sites will host leaders from other rural communities, discuss their strategies in webinars, and will get travel expenses for up to two regional trainings. The winners are:
  • The Rural Incubator Project for Lawyers, in Montana, which has a 24-month fellowship program that trains and supports small legal practices that provide services to the poor.
  • The Center for Empowering Victims of Gender-based Violence in Kansas, a research and collaboration center that puts domestic violence and human trafficking survivors on the road to economic freedom through social entrepreneurship.
  • Texas Dispute Resolution System: Rural Mediation, which provides in-person and virtual mediation services for rural Texans as a dispute resolution alternative to the court system.
  • South Carolina Victim Assistance Network Reaching Rural Initiative, which provides resources to crime victims remotely and in their own communities.
  • Lazarus Recovery Services in North Carolina, which provides prevention and recovery support to people with substance-use disorders.
  • Rural Attorney Recruitment Program in South Dakota, which recruits lawyers to practice for five years in rural counties where older attorneys are retiring with no replacements available.
  • Public Defender Corporation Recovery Coach Project in West Virginia, which connects indigent criminal defendants with substance-use disorders to certified peer recovery coaches who arrange for substance use treatment opportunities immediately after a client is released from incarceration.
  • Scott County Coordinated Community Response Team in northeast Tennessee, a multi-agency effort that provides various services and support to victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, human trafficking and sexual assault.
  • Family Accountability and Recovery Court in North Carolina, which serves families involved in the child welfare system due to allegations of child abuse, neglect, or other parenting issues related to substance dependence.
The Rural Justice Collaborative is accepting applications for Innovation Sites through Jan. 17. Click here for more details or to apply.

Rural coronavirus vaccinations fall for second straight week

Vaccination rates as of Oct. 28, compared to 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.

Rural coronavirus vaccinations were down slightly last week, for the second week in a row. From Oct. 22 to 28, "Rural counties reported about 207,000 people completed their vaccination regimen last week," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "That’s down about 10 percent from the previous week’s tally of 229,000. The pace of new rural vaccinations is less than half the rate it was in mid-September, when rural counties reported nearly 450,000 newly completed vaccinations. The rural vaccination rate grew by 0.4 percentage points last week and now stands at 44.1% of the total rural population of about 46 million."

Meanwhile, metropolitan counties saw about 1,371,000 newly completed vaccinations, a 4% increase from the week before that brings the overall metro rate to 56%. That's 11.9 percentage points higher than the rural vaccination rate, Murphy and Marema report.

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

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Tax break for local news taken out of House Democrats' bill, leaving Senate as last hope; newspaper lobby seeks help

The proposed tax break for paying local journalists is no longer in Democrats' "Build Back Better" bill pending in Congress, says lobbying group America’s Newspapers, which has been spearheading the effort with other leading news-media groups.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act was removed "as the White House and Congress sought compromise language that would meet President Biden’s objectives and calls for a significantly reduced price tag, the group said. "While there is still an opportunity to get the LJSA back in the reconciliation bill, there are many competing interests and not enough money to go around."

The tax break is estimated to cost $1 billion, "tiny compared to big ticket items like clean energy and child care," writes Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute. "Even with bipartisan support and 78 co-sponsors, however, it fell in the category of a lesser priority when crunch time came . . . That leaves the Senate, where the bill was late getting sponsors and has not passed, as the best hope."

The proposed tax credit would pay half the salary of local journalists earning up to $50,000 for one year and 30% of salary for four subsequent years.

"That money would provide big and timely help after advertising declines during the pandemic, which worsened already shaky finances for newspapers and some digital startups," Edmonds writes. "Its passage would be a precedent, breaking through the American tradition of First Amendment concerns that government and journalism enterprises should be kept entirely separate. (Subsidies for news are common elsewhere in the world)."

America's Newspapers asked "members who are able to help with a last-minute push of the bill" to contact their members of Congress, "particularly if they are a Senate co-sponsor of the LJSA," and ask them to let Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "know how important it is to include the LJSA in the reconciliation bill."

New rules would limit methane emissions from oil and gas

A pipeline moves methane gas from a landfill to a power
plant in Irvine, Calif. (Photo by Mike Blake, Reuters)
"The Biden administration unveiled a sweeping set of policies Tuesday to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations," The Washington Post reports. It marks "the first time the federal government has moved to comprehensively tackle the seepage of methane across U.S. oil and gas infrastructure." 

Dino Grandoni and Steven Mufson of the Post provide background: " Methane, a main component of natural gas, is the world’s second-largest contributor to climate change among greenhouse gases. Although it dissipates more quickly than carbon dioxide, it is 80 times more powerful during the first 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere."
 
The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rules, which could become final at the end of 2022, would "establish standards for old wells, impose more frequent and stringent leak monitoring, and require the capture of natural gas found alongside oil that is often released into the atmosphere," the Post reports. "The oil industry has opposed federal methane regulations in the past, but many major companies have come to embrace them rather than face a patchwork of state rules."

The rules would require most operators to use infrared cameras or other instruments four times a year to spot and plug leaks of invisible methane from compressor stations, "as well as sites the agency suspects are leaking more than three tons of methane annually," the Post reports. "The EPA is also set to restrict the venting of natural gas found in oil wells, known as associated gas, requiring operators to route the gas to a pipeline when possible. . . . For the first time, older oil and gas wells, which are most prone to leaks, will have to curb methane. The new proposal will require states to develop their own methane rules for existing wells that are in line with federal guidelines, while the EPA will regulate all new wells."

At the global climate summit in Scotland, more than 80 nations said they had signed a pledge to limit methane, "but some of the largest methane emitters still haven’t signed the pledge, including Russia and China," the Post notes. "Climate scientists say the world desperately needs drastic cuts in methane emissions to prevent catastrophic warming. . . . Plugging methane leaks is not just good for the health of Earth’s climate system. It also decreases the accumulation of toxic and smog-forming chemicals around oil drilling sites that makes the air difficult and dangerous to breathe."

Monday, November 01, 2021

America's high obesity rates made the pandemic deadlier, but Vilsack is only high-level Biden official voicing concern

Percentage of obese adults, 2019 (Politico map, CDC data) 
High rates of diet-related issues such as obesity and diabetes have made the pandemic deadlier in the U.S., especially in rural America, where such diseases are more prevalent. "Yet there has been very little attention to the connection at the highest levels of government," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "The problem is deeply entrenched and staggering in scale: More than 42 percent of American adults — about 100 million people — had obesity before the pandemic began, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly three-fourths of American adults are overweight or have obesity, and roughly one in five children now have obesity. Researchers estimate that nearly two-thirds of Covid-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. were related to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart failure."

But the federal government has "no national strategy, no systems-wide approach, even as researchers increasingly recognize that obesity is a disease that is driven not by lack of willpower, but by a modern society and food system that’s almost perfectly designed to encourage the overeating of empty calories, along with more stress, less sleep and less daily exercise — setting millions on a path to poor health outcomes that’s extremely difficult to break from," Bustillo reports. "The only high-level Biden administration official who routinely talks about the issue is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — and he brings it up often. Vilsack likes to point out in his speeches, for example, that the government now spends more treating diabetes than the entire budget of the USDA, which is about $150 billion."

Spending bill would waive loans of limited-resource farmers, fund climate mitigation, extend nutrition programs and more

The $1.75 trillion spending bill House Democrats proposed Thursday has much for farmers, reports Chuck Abbott of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. It includes:

  • A program that seeks to mitigate climate change by paying farmers up to $25 an acre to grow cover crops during fallow seasons.
  • $22.3 billion in additional funding for four U.S. Department of Agriculture land-stewardship programs, "with an emphasis on building soil carbon, reducing nitrogen loss, and limiting or capturing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a summary of the legislation."
  • "$960 million in grants for equipment to dispense biofuels, a four-year extension of the biodiesel tax credit, and a new tax credit for developing sustainable aviation fuel."
  • The current summer nutrition program for children would continue until September 2024.
  • The Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools to serve free meals to all students, would not end until October 2026.
  • The wildly popular expansion of the child tax credit would be extended for another year. "In addition, full refundability — a recent change to the credit that allows children in the poorest families to get the money — will be made permanent," says CNBC. 
  • "Stymied by lawsuits that contend USDA debt relief for farmers of color is actually reverse discrimination, House Democrats proposed an alternative: full or partial forgiveness of USDA loans to limited-resource farmers. The multi-billion-dollar proposal, which does not mention race, is directed toward economically distressed farmers and ranchers in high-poverty areas," Abbott writes. The $6 billion fund "also allows payments of up to $500,000 apiece to farmers, ranchers, and forest owners who were victims of bias in USDA lending programs, as well as allotting funds to resolve heirs’ property issues and for equity commissions to explore racial equity at USDA and in its programs."

New rule, to take effect Jan. 1, will limit surprise billing from air (not ground) ambulances and other emergency providers

On Jan. 1, the Biden administration will finally implement new rules that limit so-called surprise bills from out-of-network medical providers —including air ambulances — needed in an emergency.

"Passed as part of the omnibus legislation to fund the federal government in 2021, as well as provide Covid-19 pandemic relief funds, the No Surprises Act’s new rules and requirements would protect consumers from out-of-network bills and balance billing," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "Currently, when an insurance plan doesn’t cover out-of-network care, the insurer may deny a patient’s bill entirely, or only pay a portion of the bill. When this happens, it leaves the patient liable for the balance of the bill – the difference between the undiscounted fee charged by the provider and the amount reimbursed to the provider by the insurance plan. Balance billing can leave patients on the hook for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars."

But "under the new rules, in emergencies, out-of-network providers would only be allowed to bill what in-network providers would bill, and they would be prohibited from billing the patient for whatever insurance doesn’t cover," Carey reports. "The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimated the median cost for air ambulance transportation at between $36,000 and $40,000. While air ambulance providers are not allowed to send surprise bills to Medicaid or Medicare patients, patients with private insurance often find that their air ambulance trips are out-of-network, leaving them with surprise bills in the tens of thousands of dollars." The 2021 law does not apply to ground ambulances, which have the highest out-of-network billing rates of any medical specialty, according to The New York Times.

Redistricting could obscure rural voices, crack some urban Democratic control, and cause more political polarization

Most rural areas lost population from 2010 to 2020, so they will lose some legislative representation.

Some legislators in Colorado complained that the proposed map would ignore the concerns of many rural areas because they're lumped into districts with cities, Matthew Bennett reports for the Aspen Daily News. But one of the 11 committee members who approved the map said the larger-than-desired districts couldn't be avoided, since most of the state's 64 counties are rural.

North Dakota could lose at least one rural district as the two rural legislative districts near Grand Forks are slated to be combined, Sam Easter reports for the Grand Forks Herald.

Grouping rural areas with cities may obscure rural voices, but the practice also generally weakens Democratic power. In Oklahoma, the Republican-controlled legislature is roping more rural areas into the Oklahoma City district to do just that, Dan Snyder reports for KOKH in Oklahoma City.

"Tennessee legislators are considering splitting up the growing city of Nashville into multiple congressional districts, a redistricting plan that would almost certainly doom the sitting Democratic representative and send a Republican to Washington in his place," reports NBC's Jane C. Timm.

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter believes the states' new maps for congressional districts could help flip as many as five House seats to Republicans nationwide, and will likely increase political polarization, Lou Jacobson reports for Poynter.

"The widening urban-vs.-rural chasm has increased parties’ ability to draw safe seats without resorting to crazy-looking gerrymanders, so the most predictable net effect of this round is a significant decline in the number of competitive seats," Wasserman told Jacobson. "When seats are in the bag, there’s no incentive for parties to recruit candidates with broad appeal, and that means that fringier candidates win primaries instead."

Also, "The more safe or nearly safe seats that are created, the more the candidates will be responsive to challengers in primaries, because it’s unlikely they would lose a general election," Jacobson reports. "Since primary challenges are usually launched from the right (for Republicans) or from the left (for Democrats), both parties’ caucuses in the House could end up being even more conservative and liberal, respectively, than they are today."

Epilepsy experts call for more awareness of it in rural areas

Experts say policymakers, health-care providers and the public need to pay more attention to epilepsy in rural areas, Dr. Kay Miller Temple writes for the Rural Health Information Hub.

Epilepsy expert Dr. Joseph Sirven, the education chair of the American Academy of Neurology, said the affliction is "ridiculously common," especially in rural areas. "Here in the U.S.? Over a lifetime, one of every 26 individuals will develop epilepsy," Sirven told Temple. It can be deadly, too: 3,000 epilepsy patients die suddenly and unexpectedly from it each year.

But, Sirven said, epilepsy doesn't get much attention because people usually focus more on the conditions for which it is a symptom. "Instead, they talk about the conditions that cause seizures, from its link in premature babies born too small for their age, to Alzheimer’s disease, to stroke, to brain cancers, to traumatic brain injury. Epilepsy just doesn’t get the attention. It’s hidden. It’s in the shadows."

Epilepsy needs more attention though, he said, because of the logistical issues it brings and the social consequences. "Not to be overlooked is the fact that it’s a condition with high stakes: You can lose your right to drive, to fly, and you’re likely to deal with significant stigmatization," Sirven said. 

University of Iowa epileptologist Dr. Gena Ghearing explained why rural epilepsy patients often have a harder time than their urban peers: "An urban epilepsy patient often has access to a subway system or city bus transit, but our patients living on a farm or in a small rural town usually don’t have access to public transportation," she told Temple, "Not being able to drive just further compounds the many additional challenges of daily living for our rural patients." 

According to a 2018 review of scientific studies, one paper found that rural people with epilepsy in the U.S. and Canada suffer worse health outcomes than their urban peers, while five other papers found no difference, Temple reports. However, rural areas are often underrepresented in scientific data analyses, and the researchers recommended more research on rural epilepsy.

American farmland purchases by foreigners raise concerns

Farmland sales have been hot for months, but it's not just Americans buying up acreage. While institutional investors and foreign countries own less than 3 percent of American farmland (according to 2019 Agriculture Department statistics), "concerns continue to mount about who is actually buying up acres during this most recent 'land rush' across agriculture, Victoria Myers reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. Though 22 states have laws banning foreign or corporate farmland ownership, many corporations create shell companies to obscure who owns the land.

"Family Farm Action Alliance, a Missouri-based group focused on power monopolies that control this country's food and agriculture sectors, says the issue of foreign ownership of agricultural land is common worldwide," Myers reports. The organization believes that "foreign ownership of agricultural land is not just an issue of national security but also extracts wealth from rural communities. [Co-founder and president Joe] Maxwell says some owners bring in their own inputs, control output and bypass the area's infrastructure. In these cases, more than denying young farmers ownership opportunity, the arrangement can negatively impact growth and economic vitality for an entire rural community."

Many Chinese investors produce food on American farms and export it to China, according to a Newsweek op-ed by Sam Abodo, a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council. He noted that the Shuanghui Group bought Smithfield Foods in 2013, acquiring with it 146,000 acres. In April 2020, as President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat processors to remain open, Smithfield warned that the nation was "perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply." However, at the same time Smithfield exported a record amount of pork to China. 

DTN editor Chris Clayton notes: "While Chinese land ownership draws the attention, it is, in fact, Canada that owns the most U.S. farmland, at 7.48 million acres. This number includes 2.27 million acres of cropland and 4.7 million acres of forest."

Covid-19 deaths in rural areas up 20%, twice the metro rate; rural counties' current death rate is also double metro rate

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Oct. 17-23
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New coronavirus infections in rural counties continued declining during the week of Oct. 17-23, but Covid-19 deaths rose nearly 20 percent. The rural new-infection rate was still 78% higher than the metro rate, and the weekly death rate was 120% higher. "Rural counties reported nearly 30% of the Covid-related deaths in the United States, even though they constitute only 14% of the U.S. population," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

Rural counties saw 2,980 new Covid-19-related deaths, compared to metro counties' 8,302, Murphy and Marema report. The five states with the highest numbers of rural new infection were, in descending order, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. The five states with the highest rural new infection rates were, in descending order, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Idaho.

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

Op-ed: the Hazard homecoming controversy overshadows Appalachian town trying to move past coal

Hazard, county seat of Perry County
(Wikipedia map)
Hazard, Ky., was in the national spotlight last week after photos went viral of a Hazard High School homecoming tradition: the "Man Pageant," in which male students dressed in lingerie gave simulated lap dances to seated school leaders. The "highly problematic incident ... could not have come at a worse time for an Eastern Kentucky town trying to bolster its image and craft a winning post-coal transition narrative," writes Alan Maimon in an opinion piece for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

It's difficult to lure new businesses to Eastern Kentucky, and this incident could make it more so. "Quality of life matters to CEOs. They look at everything that an area has to offer. Schools of course are on that list," Maimon writes. "This is a time of major economic transition for Hazard and the region and there is little margin for error. Unfortunately, any CEO (especially one with school-aged kids) who hears about the Hazard homecoming week story is now going to be even less likely to set up shop in the area."

Maimon recently wrote a book about his time as the Courier Journal's last Eastern Kentucky-based correspondent from 2000 to 2006. "Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning" is about Eastern Kentucky overall, he writes, but because Hazard was in the book's title, locals were upset that he didn't write more about thriving new businesses that had opened up downtown.

"They were also upset that I didn’t interview Hazard Mayor Donald 'Happy' Mobelini for the book. In light of recent events, I’m glad that I didn’t," Maimon writes. "Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I was a bit wary of Mobelini. As we now know, Mobelini is not only mayor, he is also the Hazard High School principal who took part in tawdry homecoming week events."

However, Maimon did give Mobelini a platform to tout his office's accomplishments during the book tour visit. "More impressive than anything he said or showed me was the undeniable can-do spirit I sensed from the highly motivated professionals working to revitalize Hazard," Maimon writes. "This self-inflicted wound can only hurt those efforts."

Many Hazard residents are defending Mobelini and blaming outsiders for the tempest, "but such outspoken support of an event at which scantily clad male students gave Mobelini lap dances and female students dressed up as Hooter’s servers has a lot of people beyond Hazard city limits shaking their heads," Maimon writes. "I would like to think that the people working diligently for Hazard know that the school incident and its aftermath are major blemishes on the town’s reputation. How the situation plays out will say a lot about whether Hazard is ready for the brighter future it says is already here."

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Chuck Todd: Journalists and news outlets must value fact over opinion, strengthen local news to build their credibility

Chuck Todd speaks. (Photo by Patti Cross, Bluegrass SPJ)
Journalism needs to rebuild its credibility, valuing fact more than opinion, and part of that depends on connections between local media and national media, Chuck Todd of NBC News told a largely non-journalist audience Thursday night at the national awards dinner for rural journalism.

"The credibility of national media depends on the credibility of local media, and local media give us a lot more credibility," Todd said at the Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog).

The decline of local journalism has been bad for national journalism, Todd said: “Even if people in the community disagreed with a point of view, maybe they didn’t like the national news – my father was one of those guys; he’d say, ‘Ah, The New York Times, they think they’re better than us – but if a local paper reported something they did, you know, it gave it credibility. And I do think the loss of local news, if the newspaper on the doorstep, the fact that we were all reading the same thing . . . led to more respectful debate.”

Noting the Institute's mission to help local media help their audiences understand the local impact of national issues, Todd said, “We’re so hyperlocal . . . I think in some ways, bringing more local perspective to the national discussion might actually lower the temperature, right? Make people think that there’s a little more diverse set of voices out there.”

Meanwhile, national news media need to see that their newsrooms reflect the country as a whole, Todd said: “Diversity is not just how people look, diversity is where people live. I’ve said that when you build a diverse newsroom, you gotta have geographic diversity, you gotta have socioeconomic diversity . . . You can have all the diversity on looks in the world, but everybody may have gone to Harvard; you haven’t diversified a thing.”

And the local level could use more diversity of media ownership, Todd said, drawing an analogy from the sports business, which he covered before sticking to politics:

“We have vanity owners that love to buy sports franchises,” he said. “You don’t make money on your sports team. You might, but it’s not a primary method. It’s a trophy, okay? It’s a community trophy. Well, I’m OK if the local newspaper becomes a community trophy for good. . . . I’d like to see more local entrepreneurs, people who succeed, re-investing in their community, and one of the ways you can re-invest in your community is better journalism. That’s a public service that somebody can provide. You can build an art museum. That’s great. I appreciate you putting your name on an art museum, but it would help a lot if you helped give us some more resources to do local journalism better.”

The decline of local news and the rise of social media are disconnecting people from their geographic communities, Todd said: “We’ve seen over the last five years that social media has sort of consumed, in some ways devoured, local journalism. . . . With more and more news deserts that are happening, this is why people are gravitating to social media, gravitating to these digital sites, gravitating to cable news channels – not for information, but for affirmation. . . . There’s been some terrific journalism over the last five years. . . . The good news is, we’re meeting the moment. The problem is, are people seeing it, and are people believing it?”

Todd said journalists “over-estimate how well informed the country is” because Americans are in “information cocoons. I don’t call them news cocoons, but information cocoons. They don’t prioritize news the way any of us in this room might.” Because the cocoon operators want traffic, “They prioritize sentiment: ‘I want to get you angry.’ . . . They want to play to your grievance and in some ways keep you engaged in your anger. . . . Facebook actually had an algorithm that did this.”

He added later, “Facebook would say, ‘You guys are just upset that we’re competitors.’ I said, no, no, no, you’re destroying, you’re perverting the process, and then of course, here’s the evidence. They’ve written these algorithms, and smaller news organizations, which needed Facebook’s traffic, had to sit there and say, ‘Well, jeez, how do we play to the algorithms? More divisive headlines, more divisive content, because the goal is to get traffic. It’s a perverted incentive structure, and it’s something that’s gotta change.”

Todd played off the remarks of previous speakers, including Tom and Pat Gish Award winner Les High, the North Carolina publisher who said he liked the line from the Apple TV series "Ted Lasso" in which the title character is told, “The truth will set you free, but first, it will really piss you off.”

“Reality does piss people off sometimes,” Todd said. “When you do watch ‘Meet the Press’ I hope I do make you mad for five minutes. You shouldn’t watch ‘Meet the Press’ and nod your head the whole time, right? There should be somebody challenging your point of view, making you think, going ‘Well, at least I understand why that side thinks the way they do. I may not agree with it, but I understand the rationale there.’ And if I’m doing my job, I hope I’ve done that for you. But I am gonna piss you off sometimes. It’s not persona, I swear. . . . The left thinks I’m not woke enough and the right thinks I’m too awake. And I will say, I’m stuck covering politics as it is and not as I wish it were, and every Sunday I do my best to try to present what I think is the reality of what’s happening.”

Todd said journalism has room for other types of journalists, including those who deal in opinion, but he said "some of my colleagues have been irresponsible" and have damaged trust in the craft.

“When it comes to rebuilding credibility, I think number one is tone. Be careful of your tone,” Todd said, adding later, “If I started yelling at people instead of asking them questions, I wouldn’t get any answers, and it’s a better way to get answers. It’s a tone. Tone is a big one.

He also said journalists should “Take ourselves out of the story. . . . The second I ever think of myself as a celebrity, I hope somebody punches me and tells me to get out of the job, because I do think there’s been too much celebrifying of the information business. I don’t even want to call it the news business right now, and I think there’s been people who are almost addicted to the fame. They were crappy actors, crappy musicians, so they thought, ‘Lemme try cable television.’ ”

Todd said television incentivizes opinion journalism, and the Times does it online: “Their journalism is great; why do they lead with their op-ed page when you go to their home page? Don’t lead with the editorial. Lead with the information. Lead with the facts. We spend so much time reading and printing and expressing opinion. Let’s spend more time reading and digesting the facts. We’re more worried about takes than we are about the facts. So, I do think we’ve gotta get out of the story; it’s not about us, and it never has been.”