Power Failure: A Massive Bribery Scheme Could Change Ohio Valley Energy Systems Monday, Jul 27 2020 

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One of the country’s largest investor-owned electric utilities, with a large presence in the Ohio Valley, has emerged at the center of a $60 million bribery and racketeering scheme related to Ohio’s controversial energy bill that bailed out several struggling nuclear and coal plants 

On Tuesday, federal investigators arrested one of Ohio’s top lawmakers, House Speaker Larry Householder and some of his associates, in connection with the scandal. Dave DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, said that in exchange for the $1.5 billion bailout contained in the controversial legislation, known as H.B. 6, utility FirstEnergy Corp., identified as Company A, funneled nearly $61 million into a dark money group controlled by Householder and his political allies. 

FirstEnergy Corp. executives ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange in 2018.


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Surging Coronavirus Cases Threaten To Derail Reopening In Ohio Valley Monday, Jul 20 2020 

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At the Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green, Kentucky, vendors and shoppers are adjusting to the new normal during the coronavirus pandemic. That includes wearing face coverings, maintaining distance, and taking other precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

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Masking Questions: How Pandemic Health Measures Became Politicized Monday, Jul 6 2020 

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Health officials and researchers say the science is clear: face masks can help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Yet in the Ohio Valley, not all elected officials are in agreement on whether to mandate measures such as the use of face masks in public places. 

In April, Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine initially announced the mandatory use of face masks in retail settings, only to walk back the mandate during the next day’s press conference to say it was only a recommendation. West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice recently said that mandatory use of face masks would be impossible to enforce and would “divide us.” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, ordered face mask use in public, but people who don’t wear one won’t be fined, though businesses that require masks can turn away customers who aren’t wearing one.

As of July 1 daily coronavirus case numbers were approaching a high point in KY.


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Coal Towns Were Counting On Tourism For New Jobs. Then Coronavirus Hit. Monday, Jun 29 2020 

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On a recent sunny weekday, Bill Currey proudly walks among 30 neatly stacked, brightly colored plastic kayaks. Birds chirp merrily, and the soothing sounds of the meandering Coal River permeate the background — nature’s version of a white noise machine. 

For the tanned Currey, who also owns an industrial real estate company, being here, on the river, is as good as it gets. His goal is to share this slice of paradise with as many people as will listen. 


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These Three Factors Are Driving Many COVID-19 Outbreaks In Rural Communities Monday, Jun 15 2020 

GreenRiverRallyAs the economies of the Ohio Valley gradually reopen from the pandemic closures, state officials are still reporting hundreds of coronavirus cases each day in the region. In Kentucky, coronavirus cases are again on the rise, with a week-long average of daily cases approaching the highest level yet. Public health officials are concerned about a spread of coronavirus into more rural parts of the region. 

“I’m really worried that the second wave of COVID, as we come back open again, is going to hit rural America much harder than the first wave,” Dr. Clay Marsh said. Marsh, who is vice president of West Virginia University Health Sciences, has been leading coronavirus protection efforts in the state.

For many rural counties, the spikes in case numbers have stemmed from a few kinds of facilities and workplaces where COVID-19 has spread like wildfire: meatpacking plants, prisons, and nursing homes. Protecting rural communities, where many people are especially vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, will largely depend on controlling the spread in those facilities.   

Meatpacking Plants

“The problem is without a vaccine, there is no path to recovery, that there’s nothing normal about going to work and having to wear a mask and having your temperature taken,” said Caitlin Blair, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227. 

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky’s cases rose sharply in June.

Blair’s union represents workers in several meatpacking plants throughout Kentucky and southern Indiana where some workplaces have been rocked by soaring coronavirus infections, driving up case numbers in the counties where they’re located. 

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services confirmed earlier in June a third meatpacking worker in the state had died. The death was from a Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Henderson County, Kentucky, where a labor leader with UFCW Local 227 had raised concerns about social distancing in their workplace despite use of masks and plastic barriers.

“They go to work in the meatpacking plant. But when they go home, they’re your neighbors and your friends and your family,” Blair said. “Protecting these workers protects the whole community.”

An analysis from the Food and Environmental Reporting Network found that rural counties with meatpacking plants on average had COVID-19 cases five times higher than other rural counties without plants.

That analysis included two west Kentucky plants with hundreds of cases and two deaths between them: the Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Henderson County, and a Perdue Farms poultry processing plant in Ohio County.

“In our seven-county district, we’ve, you know, the major driver of the cases that we’ve worked have been facilities in this sector,” said Clay Horton, director of the Green River District Health Department in west Kentucky. “When you look at a business or you look at a major employer, probably one of the larger employers in Ohio County, it’s bound to have an impact.”

08di1397-0131USDA/Alice Welch.

Chickens are carried through a poultry slaughterhouse on mechanical arms.

Horton and his regional health department have been in close contact with leaders at both plants as outbreaks took hold over the past few months, advising on workplace safety guidance from the state and federal government. 

He said that while more data is needed on where cases originate, outbreaks in these plants could be spreading the virus to other people in rural communities, or at the very least driving up reported COVID-19 case numbers in counties where plants are located.

The Green River District Health Department confirmed the first cases of COVID-19 at the Perdue Farms in Ohio County and the Tyson Foods plant in Henderson County on April 6 and April 13, respectively. 

According to the Ohio Valley ReSource’s COVID-19 Tracker, the seven-day average rate of newly reported cases each day began to increase in both counties as outbreaks took hold at the plants.

Ohio County, with a population of about 24,000, has almost twice the rate of coronavirus cases per capita compared to Jefferson County, Kentucky, where Louisville, Kentucky’s most populous city, is located.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Total cases in Ohio Co., KY.

Horton’s job to encourage workplace safety in these plants is complicated by federal guidance implying that the authority to temporarily shut down plants due to coronavirus cases should be left up to federal authorities, not state and local health officials. 

Horton said he often only has the “power of persuasion” to encourage meatpacking plants to follow optional federal coronavirus safety guidance, with his health department and companies not seeing eye-to-see on some standards.

He said Perdue Farms believed a worker who had no fever but was still showing other COVID-19 symptoms, including coughing, could come back to work. Horton’s department disagreed.

“There have been times during this outbreak that I’ve personally recommended to them that they should probably go above and beyond [federal guidelines], just in light of the number of cases that they were seeing and what we were seeing in terms of spread in the community,” Horton said. “They obviously had a different perspective, and we did all we could to try to persuade them to see [things] that way.”

Jails And Prisons

Meatpacking plants aren’t the only facilities driving COVID-19 infections in rural communities and isolated counties. Jails and prisons, some with overcrowded conditions and tight confines, and nursing homes, with particularly vulnerable populations, have also seen devastating outbreaks in rural counties. 

Public health experts on the front lines combating this virus say controlling outbreaks in these types of facilities is critical to protecting rural communities where the chance of COVID-19 spread would otherwise be low. 

J. Tyler Franklin

The group “Prison Wives of Green River” protested May 23 to call attention to COVID-19 cases in the prison.

At one point, soaring cases in in Central City, Kentucky, population 5,730, landed the town at the top of a White House report as having one of the country’s highest increases in coronavirus cases over a seven-day period in May, with a spike of 650%. 

Those cases could be pinpointed to one specific place: Green River Correctional Complex on the outskirts of the town. At least 363 inmates and 51 staff in the prison have tested positive, with many still waiting to be retested for the virus. According to the ReSource COVID-19 Data Tracker, Muhlenberg County, where Central City is located, saw a massive surge in cases in early May, around the time of the White House report.

Muhlenberg County’s per capita rate of coronavirus infections is 1615 cases per 100,0000 people, six times the rate for the state as a whole and among the highest of any county in the Ohio Valley. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the county are over the age of 65, and the county ranks among the worst in the country in rates of deaths due to cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory disease, all risk factors making the population there more vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Underlying health problems make many Muhlenberg Co. residents vulnerable to COVID-19.

Belmont Correctional Institution in eastern Ohio saw cases spike through mid-May, with at least 66 staffers and 132 inmates testing positive out of almost 2500 housed there. Three of those inmates died. 

Belmont County Health Department Deputy Health Commissioner Robert Sproul said about 70% of the county’s cases are connected to the prison, with another 20% connected to nursing homes in the county.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Infections in a prison caused cases to spike in Belmont Co., OH.

“It has dorm settings so it’s not individual cells. So these inmates are in close contact, you know, most all day. So the chance of spread is great. Same with a nursing home,” Sproul said. “This spread can happen very easily. So it seems to be more prevalent in those congregated areas.”

Since the first coronavirus cases were confirmed at Belmont Correctional Institution in mid-April, cases steadily increased in Belmont County through May with a total 462 cases so far, according the ReSource’s COVID-19 Tracker.

Some of Ohio’s other prisons isolated in rural counties have seen skyrocketing outbreaks, with the state corrections department announcing in May it would only test symptomatic inmates and staff despite thousands testing positive after mass testing.

Ohio Department of Health Press Secretary Melanie Amato in a statement said the department has seen cases of meatpacking and nursing home workers spreading COVID-19 to other community members.

Nursing Homes 

West Virginia has the smallest population among the Ohio Valley states but its people are among the nation’s most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying health problems. So far coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants and prisons have been limited in the state.

State officials began testing all staff and inmates in state correctional facilities after an outbreak at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County. So far that has not found other large outbreaks. Health officials began testing for COVID-19 at a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Moorefield, West Virginia, after a small bump in cases in the county.

But that hasn’t spared the state from devastating outbreaks in nursing homes. 

Clay Marsh, who’s been leading coronavirus protection efforts in the state, said it’s still critical to keep a close eye on these kinds of facilities that could be drivers of outbreaks. Particularly “congregate settings” including nursing homes, where the elderly population is especially vulnerable to the virus. 

“In West Virginia, at least the last time I looked, over 50% of people that die [from COVID-19] are people that live in this kind of setting,” Marsh said. “The clear issue is that people that work at these facilities, live in the communities, and if there’s community spread, then you can guess at some point somebody is going to introduce that spread into these congregate populations.” 

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

A nursing home outbreak in mid-April pushed up cases in Jackson Co., WV.

The operators and administrators of nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons have all implemented in varying degrees measures to protect against coronavirus spread. Those include testing temperatures when entering facilities, requiring masks, and restricting visitation. 

Yet Marsh said risk remains as people travel into West Virginia for summer tourism and businesses reopen. And recently another activity has him concerned, as Black Lives Matter protests grow . He said while he supports the demonstrations he would like to see more protesters wear masks and keep their distance from others.

“I love them. But you just see people without masks and crowding. And you almost want to say ‘We still have a pandemic here, you know, this, COVID thing hasn’t gone away,’” Marsh said. “And I think people are distracted right now. Maybe they just got tired of staying inside.”

The ReSource’s Brittany Patterson and Aaron Payne contributed to this story.

Small Towns Host Black Lives Matter Marches As Movement Spreads Beyond Cities Tuesday, Jun 9 2020 

IMG_0921 2By now it’s become a familiar scene: Marchers fill the streets with placards proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” and chants fill the air as the demonstrators recite the names of those lost. 

But there’s something different about some of these protests around the Ohio Valley in the past week. They’re not just happening in the larger cities such as Louisville, Lexington, Columbus and Cincinnati. Smaller college towns such as Athens, Ohio, and Morgantown, West Virginia, have seen marches. Communities in Kentucky farmland and the heart of Appalachian coal country, such as Hazard and Harlan, Kentucky, have seen people protesting against racial injustice and police violence. 

“Because prejudice here is as old as our dialect here for some people, and it’s inherited,” Bree Carr said. The 18-year-old from Harlan, Kentucky, said she protested to be an ally for people of color so they will know they have support. “There are so many other people behind them that support you, and hear you, and want to see you.” 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Harlan, in eastern Kentucky’s coal country.

Bowling Green, Kentucky, has seen consecutive days of protest, drawing up to a thousand people at one event. Civil Rights activist Charles Neblett sang with the Freedom Singers in the 1960s to fight segregation. Neblett said he was thirteen when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. He told protesters at the Warren County Justice Center that prejudice and injustice have persisted for too long.

“When is it gonna stop? I’m tired. And more people got to step up and do this thing,” he said. 

The protests in smaller cities and towns have been overwhelmingly peaceful. But they have not been without confrontation. A protest planned for Charleston, West Virginia, was postponed after organizers said they received threats, although a smaller group went ahead with a demonstration. Carr said she received threats over the demonstrations in Harlan, and in western Kentucky marchers have faced assaults.

A video from a march on June 2 in Murray, Kentucky, showed a white motorist using pepper spray on marchers as he drove by. The man, who was from Paducah, Kentucky, was arrested. Another white man was later arrested for pointing a weapon at demonstrators in Murray.

Courtesy Audrey Elizabeth Kellett

A Facebook video shows a man assaulting marchers in Murray, KY, with chemical spray.

The marchers in Murray invoked the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, both killed by police. But another issue is animating the protests here as well. Demonstrators are calling for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee next to the Calloway County courthouse, spurred by an open letter issued by a football coach at the local university.

As in other places, the protests here are reviving older debates about statues and memorials dedicated to the Confederacy. Louisville officials on Monday removed the controversial equestrian statue of John B. Castleman, a Confederate officer, something city leaders had proposed years ago. 

It remains to be seen if the same will happen in small towns like Murray. On Monday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear called for Murray’s statue to come down after being asked a question about it during a press conference.

The calls to remove Confederate memorials in rural communities are also part of a larger theme of confronting a history and stigma of racism in some smaller towns.

In Marshall County, Kentucky, where the population is nearly 98 percent white, more than a hundred people marched on Friday around the courthouse square. Only a few months earlier the county’s judge-executive had allowed a confederate battle flag to fly at the courthouse before a backlash forced its removal.

Liam Niemeyer | Ohio Valley ReSource

A protest in Marshall Co., KY, where a confederate flag recently flew over the county courthouse.

Malique Humphries, a 23-year-old black man from neighboring county, says he was afraid to protest in Marshall County after being in other protests because of the county’s perceived racist reputation.

“I have a six-year-old daughter,” he said, “and I felt uncomfortable to come here, you understand that?”

Yet he came anyway to join other Marshall County residents to start a larger conversion about racial injustice, police accountability, and loving one another.

“We should feel comfortable anywhere we want to go, we should be allowed to go anywhere we want to go, it shouldn’t matter if the majority is white or not, we should feel comfortable anywhere on this earth.”

Humphries said he hopes protests like these will start to bring change where it is needed, at the local level.

Claudia Cisneros, WOUB

Demonstrators in Athens, Ohio.

ReSource reporters Sydney Boles, Brittany Patterson, Aaron Payne, and Becca Schimmel contributed material for this story.

Are Ohio Valley States Ready To Reopen? Analysis Finds More Coronavirus Testing Needed Friday, May 8 2020 

An analysis by Harvard scientists and NPR finds that most states —  including Kentucky and Ohio — are not testing enough residents for coronavirus in order to meet recommended benchmarks to safely begin to reopen their economies. 

That analysis by Harvard’s Global Health Institute found that West Virginia is roughly meeting the minimum targets for coronavirus testing, while Kentucky and Ohio lag behind the recommended testing levels. Data on Kentucky and Ohio also show other indications that more testing is needed.

For example, the Harvard/NPR analysis of a week’s worth of Kentucky’s testing found that Kentucky averaged 1,229 tests per day — far lower than the estimated minimum needed by May 15 in order to begin to safely relax some of the business closures and social distancing safeguards in place. 

The Harvard scientists also recommend that the ratio of coronavirus tests that return a positive result be 10% or lower, something the World Health Organization also recommends. For the testing done during the week of April 29 through May 5, the ratio of positive tests in Kentucky was nearly 17%, far exceeding the recommended limit. 

From NPR and the HGHI

Similarly, Ohio averaged 5,717 tests per day, again far lower than the minimum the Harvard team estimated would be required by May 15.

From NPR and the HGHI.

However, both those states are ramping up testing capacity rapidly as they approach a phased-in reopening of some businesses and services. An analysis by member station WFPL of more recent testing data from Kentucky shows a far lower ratio of positive results, an indicator that the state is making progress.  

Dr. Tom Tsai is an assistant professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Global Health Institute. He’s also a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. 

In an interview with the ReSource’s Becca Schimmel, Tsai explained some of the public health benchmarks for safely reopening state economies, and talked about how an increase in testing and contact tracing can help overcome some of the challenges of resuming work life during the pandemic. 

Dr. Tom Tsai: The thresholds we look at in terms of whether a state is ready to reopen are several-fold. One is to make sure their test positive rate is below 10%. That’s a useful premise, because we know that in South Korea, their test positive rate was 2 to 3%, Germany was 6 to 8%. And anything above 10% suggests that you’re under-testing the population. So the test positive rate is a helpful metric to consider. 

The second is the number of tests that you’re doing as a per capita basis for the country. And that’s largely driven through a complex relation of issues, but including the burden of cases in your state, but also the strategy of why you’re testing. Then the most important thing is whether the actual number of cases is decreasing with time and the number of hospitalizations is decreasing with time.

Courtesy of HGHI

Dr. Thomas Tsai of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Just looking quickly at some of the numbers for Kentucky and Ohio, I think they’re, you know, in a position where they are past the peak of where the cases are, and are in a plateau stage and even starting to see some of the cases decline, which is good news. 

The overall message, though, is more important than the thresholds for reopening, that this is not an on-off switch, but really a dial. And that the states need to really consider having very clear metrics on what success or failure looks like, and understanding that in the next weeks to months, based on the testing data, if the number of positive cases is actually increasing, then we may have to dial-up social distancing, again, in order to make sure that we’re not inadvertently creating a resurgence of cases by lifting social distancing too early.”

Schimmel: Do you think that if social distancing policies end and then need to be put back in place, that people will want to follow those guidelines again after they’ve had them dialed back?

Dr. Tsai: There’s definitely a social distancing fatigue that we’re already seeing in lots of space, especially as the weather is getting nicer and people are more likely to leave their homes. That’s why it’s so crucial to get the policy right now, because in some ways, once the floodgates open, in terms of trying to return to normal, it’s gonna be very hard to reinstitute social distancing measures that have been placed over the last several weeks, to months.

Schimmel: What are the risks to the states if they open without meeting those benchmarks?

Dr. Tsai: Well, we’re in a lockdown now, nationally, because we didn’t have the right testing capacity over the last several months, and we want to make sure as we consider reopening that we can stay open. And that means having enough information on testing. But testing is only one piece of the puzzle. Moving forward will likely involve really thoughtful and aggressive contact tracing to make sure we’re testing everybody who’s been exposed to a contact. It also may mean that we need to do workplace surveillance.

Schimmel: Aren’t there concerns about violating HIPAA and personal privacy when taking employee temperatures that some have been implementing in workplaces?

Dr. Tsai: I think it’s important to frame it in the right way, that this isn’t meant to be an obtrusive way of monitoring. This is really to help people have the right and best information for their own safety. And, you know, we think about you know, when you’re driving a car, right, everybody wears a seatbelt. We follow the rules of the road, we follow traffic lights, we stop at stop signs. And those aren’t invasions of your autonomy or privacy, but that’s basically following the rules of the road and making sure that it’s safe for everybody on the road, safe for society. I think some of these strategies — wearing masks and public being screened for temperatures —  can be viewed in the same way. They’re not affronts to your personal liberty. It’s making sure that everybody including yourself is safe from COVID-19.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Demand Soars At Food Banks While Farmers Have Too Much Food Monday, Apr 20 2020 

Food banks and pantries across the Ohio Valley are seeing spiked demand as an unprecedented surge of people continue to file for unemployment benefits, with food banks facing weeks long delays to get certain products. Meanwhile, some farmers are facing a financial crisis, sitting on excess food they can’t sell — food that could be directed to food banks and pantries. 

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $3 billion infusion to try to get surplus food to pantries. Those funds could eventually be put to use at pantries like one in west Kentucky.

Murray-Calloway County Needline Association Executive Director Tonia Casey had already seen demand increase for her food pantry before the coronavirus pandemic, when a local engine manufacturer began laying off hundreds of employees. 

Tonia Casey

Murray-Calloway County Needline food pantry volunteers putting together food packages to distribute in west Kentucky.

The mandated business closures due to the virus have only accelerated that demand. Her pantry has held drive-thru service to hand out food to the public.

“We ask four questions. One of the questions was ‘How many is in your home, how much do you make, your name and address.’ About 50% of them would cry,” Casey said. “They would be crying, going, ‘I just didn’t know what I was going to do.’ And you put the food in their car, and they’re just like ‘thank you, thank you, you.’ It’s been bittersweet. It breaks my heart that they even have to ask because they’ve lost their job.”

Casey estimates she’s seen about a 30% increase in demand at her pantry, a demand she’s struggling to keep up with as she’s organizing hundreds of food packages to be distributed on a given day. 

While she said her pantry’s supply has been replenished with community support and a shipment from the federal government, some food banks in the Ohio Valley are beginning to face delays in getting food amid the high demand.

“Product that I used to be able to order and get within a week or two weeks at max, is now four to six weeks. And then worst case scenario, six to eight weeks,” said Cynthia Kirkhart, Director of the Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington, West Virginia. “We have a network across the country of 200 food banks that are competing with everyone else to access especially what we refer to as dry product, the canned goods and shelf stable items.”

_DSC0880Glynis Board | Ohio Valley ReSource

A warehouse in the Facing Hunger food bank in Huntington, WV.

Kirkhart said as the nationwide competition has increased, the price of goods who food bank purchases has also spiked. For example, she said the price of a dozen eggs have spiked from 65 cents to two dollars.

Yet, while the food pantries she distributes to are facing up to a 50% jump in demand, some Ohio Valley farmers are confronting a different problem:  too much food. Market disruptions due to the pandemic are forcing some dairy farmers to dump milk and some livestock growers to consider killing off hogs or chickens because they will not make it to market.

Too Much Supply

Daniel Hayden manages his family farm in Ohio County, Kentucky, where they produce about 1.2 million chickens a year in eight chicken houses, under contract with Perdue Farms. That contract has allowed Hayden to a degree of financial freedom, yet the future stability of that has come into question with the coronavirus.

“Agriculture, it’s like turning a barge … sometimes, it can’t turn in quite the speed and demand that consumer habits change,” Hayden said. “And we try to foresee some of that, but obviously no one could have seen this coming.” 

Hayden said major meat producing corporations are facing a “logistical beast” adapting to the change in demand of where food is going — away from closed down restaurants, and instead almost exclusively to grocery stores. 

“It’s hard for them to swing it over to another industry because those warehouses that distribute to grocery stores can only handle so much as well,” Hayden said. 

On top of that, the virus is increasingly causing meatpacking plant workers to fall sick across the country and in the Ohio Valley, slowing down production and even temporarily shuttering plants. 

AEE9A84D-F07F-4B22-A3BB-13B114268EB8Nicole Erwin | Ohio Valley ReSource

Small farms are squeezed by the dairy crisis.

This potentially leaves poultry, pork, and livestock farmers with more chickens, hogs and cattle on their farms than processing plants and distribution warehouses can handle, creating a supply bottleneck.

Hayden said his farm hasn’t been affected yet, but it could leave some farmers on the brink of financial ruin if processing delays extend for weeks.

“The big concern is that we’re going to have to depopulate those chicken houses that are full to 50%, and that is euthanizing 50% of those chickens because they literally can not be processed. We can’t keep them longer because they continue to grow,” Hayden said. “For a situation that dramatic could have an existential threat towards some farmers that have brand-new farms that depend on that 100 percent processing to make their loan payments.”

Kentucky Pork Producers Executive Director Bonnie Jolly said a record number of hogs are on farms across the country, potentially creating a glut that could put pork producers out of business.

The National Chicken Council has asked U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to distribute billions in dollars of designated relief funding for agriculture to farmers quickly, as the effects of the coronavirus mount. National trade associations for cattle and pork farmers are also calling for relief, as the price of hogs and cattle have sunk as much as 50% and 30%, respectively. 

Ohio Valley dairy farmers are also facing a bleak financial picture with a similar supply chain crunch.

“We have a local guy … he has three farms. He’s dumping three tankard loads of milk a day from each farm because he was an independent producer,” said Chuck Moellendick, a central Ohio dairy farmer. “A friend of ours went up to him to talk about buying some baby calves from him, and he said he was in tears.” 

The dairy industry was in distress even before the pandemic. Moellendick said for dairy farmers who don’t have financial protection through banding together in a cooperative, the effects of the coronavirus supply chain crunch could put even more dairy farmers out of business. 

“He can’t even get his cows sold to a packing plant because packing plants are shutting down. The place he was shipping his milk to, they don’t have enough workers to run,” Moellendick said. 

Farms To Food Banks

Meanwhile, the federal government and states are trying to find ways to solve two issues at once — give financial relief to farmers, while also providing food banks with the supply to meet a rising demand.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine  signed an executive order, allowing millions in state emergency funds to be used to buy farm products to be directed toward food banks. The lobbying organization American Farm Bureau and food bank operator Feeding America also sent a letter to Congress, pleading with lawmakers to create a voucher program that would allow farmers with excess product to directly work with food banks in need.

On Friday, the USDA answered: with funding in part coming from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, USDA said it plans to purchase $3 billion in dairy, meat, and produce to send to food banks and other charitable organizations. USDA also said it has another $873.3 million available for extra food purchases, if necessary.

“The last thing dairy farmers want to see is milk being put down the drain,” said Greg Gibson, a dairy farmer in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. “If we have to give it away, we would rather give it away then put it down the drain. That’s a last resort.”

Gibson said the cooperative he works with through the Dairy Farmers of America — Mideast Area has been fortunate to not have to dump milk, but he’s still selling his milk at a “distressed” price.

“I think the dairy industry is really trying to pull out all the stops they can to get milk processed and in the food banks,” Gibson said. “There’s tremendous need right now.”

Tonia Casey

Volunteers with Murray-Calloway County Needline food pantry distribute drive-thru food packages in west Kentucky.

For the Southeast Ohio Food Bank, it’s a solution they’re welcoming with open arms.

Food bank spokesperson Claire Gysegem said their facility has seen a high number of calls from people asking how and where to get food, many who recently filed for unemployment.

“There’s a really strong cultural value here in Appalachia where it makes it very difficult for people to ask for help,” Gysegem said. “So, I know the need is probably five times greater than what we’re seeing.” 

She said while her food bank has seen a surge of donations from communities, some of the pantries they serve have had to shut down because of coronavirus impacts. As the Ohio Valley’s economic crisis continues in the months ahead, her food bank may need the help of farmers to keep up with surging demand.

“It’s anxiety I think that we’re all feeling in seeing how far we can stretch things,” Gysegem said. “We want to take whatever is available.” 

 

The Pandemic Primary: How Will We Vote In The Age Of Coronavirus? Friday, Apr 17 2020 

polling-placeWith concerns mounting about how to conduct elections during a pandemic, states across the Ohio Valley are postponing their primary election dates and, in some cases, expanding access to voting by mail in order to allow people to cast ballots safely. But the implementation of last-minute changes is straining politics and the capacity of local elections officials region-wide. 

Ohio postponed its election from March 17 to April 28, giving its election officials the smallest window in which to adjust their plans. West Virginia delayed until June 9, and Kentucky, which had planned to hold its primary May 19, moved its primary five weeks later to June 23. 

Races range from the presidential primary, to U.S. Representatives and Senators — including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — down to state and local officials. 

“Voting is obviously the bedrock of our republic in terms of how Americans are able to influence the laws under which they live,” said Jack Noland, a research manager with the bipartisan group RepresentUs which supports mail-in voting. “Ultimately, one of the upshots of this will be exposing more voters than ever before to the value, ease and opportunity of voting at home.”

But the move to expand mail-in balloting also opens a partisan divide about how we should vote during a crisis.

Ohio

In addition to postponing its primary election, Ohio eliminated in-person voting except for people with disabilities or other special needs. All others who wish to cast a ballot in the primary must request a mail-in ballot from their county board of elections, receive the ballot by mail, and get it to the same board either postmarked by April 27 or hand-delivered by April 28.

“We were completely prepared for the election,” said Debbie Quivey, the director of the Athens County, Ohio, board of elections. Her team of seven learned that in-person elections would be eliminated at 3 p.m. on March 16, just hours before voters were to go to the polls. That left her team of seven, most of them elderly women, just weeks to drastically scale up their voting-by-mail procedures so that all of the county’s 65,000 residents had the opportunity to cast their ballot.

“I’ll be honest, I was… I don’t know if I’d call it shock or not, but it took a while for us to think about, okay, how we’re going to handle this,” she said.

The team, some full-time staff and some volunteers, receive about 300 requests for an absentee ballot each day, by phone, by mail and from in-person drop-offs at a table next door to their office. The requests then get digitized and sorted by political party (Quivey’s kept up at night by the thought of a Republican receiving a Democrat’s ballot by mistake, she says, or vice versa), then a team of ladies downstairs stuffs envelopes with the official ballot and return postage. The envelopes are sealed, addressed and stamped, and, mouth covered in a homemade purple mask, Quivey delivers batches of ballots to the post office by 4:30 each afternoon.

It’s a lot of overtime and a lot of extra worry, Quivey says, but she believes her team is on track to get absentee ballots to all Athens County residents who want them.

West Virginia

West Virginia is one of seventeen states that allow residents to request an absentee ballot, also known as a mail-in ballot, for one of several specific reasons, which vary by state but typically include illness, disability, work-related out-of state travel, or incarceration before conviction.

To accommodate public health concerns over the coronavirus, Secretary of State Mac Warner allowed all voters to access absentee ballots. This came after Attorney General Patrick Morrisey found that the Secretary had broad powers to alter the method of conducting elections during states of emergency.

Unlike in Ohio, where voters must request an application for an absentee ballot, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced March 26 that every one of the state’s roughly 1.2 million registered voters would receive their application automatically.

West Virginia plans to hold in-person voting on its delayed primary day. State officials have asked people in low coronavirus risk categories to volunteer as poll workers so the state’s 1,000-2,000 elderly poll workers can stay home.

Kentucky

Kentucky is also an excuse-required state, and despite agreement between Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Mike Adams, there are currently no firm plans to expand access to absentee ballots due to the coronavirus. That makes Kentucky one of just eight states to have taken no action to increase voting access during the coronavirus, according to anti-corruption group RepresentUs.

Kentucky’s system for voting in the primary was complicated by a dispute between Beshear and the Republican-controlled legislature.

Beshear vetoed Monday language in an omnibus spending bill that would have ceded to the Secretary of State some of his power to alter the method by which Kentuckians vote during a state of emergency.

“I know there’s going to be an argument about whether or not the legislature should get to add this piece, or whether I’m a bad teammate by vetoing a new part of the law that takes authority from the governor,” Beshear said in a Tuesday press briefing. “I just believe that given the coronavirus, I need to have the final decision, just like has been the law forever.”

The legislature overrode Beshear’s veto Wednesday; the governor will now need approval from Republican Secretary of State Mike Adams before he can expand mail-in voting.

The State Board of Elections, the Secretary of State, and the governor’s office are in discussion over how or whether to expand voting by mail in the state’s June 23 primary.

“We have to allow voting by mail, because to not allow voting by mail, in my opinion, increases voter disenfranchisement,” said Democratic state representative Attica Scott of Louisville.

Scott pointed to Wisconsin, where executive orders delaying the vote and instituting voting by mail were overruled in last-minute court decisions, resulting in in-person voting proceeding despite a stay-at-home order. The move endangered poll workers and Wisconsin voters alike, and was panned as a disaster in the national press.

“We don’t want that for Kentucky,” Scott continued, “because right now we can’t honestly say where we’ll be come June 23. We don’t really know.”

Jeff Young | Ohio Valley ReSource

A Kentucky polling place during the 2016 election.

Access and Security

Limited evidence suggests that increasing access to voting by mail results in a boost to voter turnout, leading some Republicans to argue that the practice would benefit Democrats. In a March appearance on Fox News President Donald Trump said the increased turnout would mean “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Thomas Massey, a Republican U.S. Representative from Kentucky, opined recently that voting by mail would “be the end of our republic as we know it.”

West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice has also criticized vote-by-mail efforts, saying Wednesday, “There is always suspect with absentee balloting, you know, from a corruption standpoint, and I’m very very hopeful that on June 9 we’ll be able to go to the polls and you’ll be able to exercise your right.”

Election experts say charges of increased fraud among mail-in ballots are unfounded, with data from the five states that have switched to automatically mailing all voters an absentee ballot showing that rates of voter fraud remain low as use of mail-in ballots increases. Oregon has mailed-out more than 100 million ballots since 2000, with about a dozen cases of proven fraud.

“There are concerns in some camps about the potential for voter fraud, the idea being that if you’re not keeping a close eye on the actual voting process, it introduces the opportunity for fraud. But thankfully the states that have really pioneered ways to make sure it is just as safe and secure as other forms of voting,” said Jack Noland, a research manager with RepresentUs. “And so there are elements of security that are in place now, that may just need to be bolstered or enhanced to meet the increased demand.”

The politicized national conversation obscures a richer, more bipartisan history of voting by mail, including in the Ohio Valley: Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia all have Republican Secretaries of State who have indicated support for voting by mail in the pandemic.

“Looking through the history of expanded vote-from-home options, it has often been Republican election officials who have pushed for reforms on efficiency grounds, and making sure the voter rolls are secure and accurate,” said Noland.

Kentucky Secretary of State Mike Adams campaigned against early voting and voting by mail. But despite clashes with Beshear over authority to decide elections, Adams has accepted that changes may be necessary to accommodate the pandemic. His office is working with the governor’s to iron out the details of how the election may work.

“You can’t just turn on a dime and redo your entire election system overnight,” he told the Ohio Valley ReSource Thursday, recalling the words of another election official. “You don’t have enough time for the training, you don’t necessarily have the hardware and software that you need.”

One key challenge facing election officials will be making sure the specific ballot reaches the right person. Two people in the same zip code or even on the same street may have different ballots if they are represented by different county delegates or school board members.

“There’s probably an administrative load that has to be solved,” said Dr. Don S. Inbody, retired U.S. Navy Captain and an expert in military absentee voting. “Some larger counties probably have the staffing to handle that. Small counties who might have three or four people handling their ballots will probably be overwhelmed.”

That may mean we won’t have election results as quickly as we expect, Inbody said.

General Concerns

Ohio Valley states are focused on upcoming primaries, but the general election later this year still looms.

“Some of the decisions that Kentucky makes today with the primary, they’ll probably need to make keeping November in mind,” said Trey Grayson, who served as Kentucky’s Secretary of State from 2004 to 2011.

Modelling suggests that extreme social distancing will have relaxed by November, but the virus will likely still be circulating, and no vaccine will be widely available.

Kentucky must also grapple with a new law requiring voters to have a photo ID. The legislature overruled Gov. Beshear’s veto of the law in the final hours of the legislative session and the law goes into effect for the November general election. The difficulty with the new law, of course, is that it’s impossible to get a photo ID right now, because government offices are closed.

Ohio Valley Facing Pandemic With A Health System Hollowed Out By Hospital Closures Thursday, Mar 26 2020 

Clendenin Health Center Triage TentAs new cases of coronavirus mount in the Ohio Valley, health officials are bracing for an onslaught of patients and what could be unprecedented demand for beds, medical staff and specialized equipment.

Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have disproportionately high rates of people vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19. But the region’s capacity to treat them has been sharply reduced by the closure of some 21 hospitals over the past 15 years. An analysis by the Ohio Valley ReSource shows some of the communities where hospitals have closed have some of the nation’s poorest health outcomes, making them especially vulnerable.

Still more hospitals in the region are being closed now, even as the pandemic unfolds.

Tiffany Wilburn-Meeks has lived in eastern Kentucky’s Greenup County for most of her 38 years. And the hospital her family has always relied on is only a five-minute drive away.

Courtesy Tiffany Wilburn-Meek

Tiffany Wilburn-Meek and her child Darian.

Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital is where she would go if she was sick growing up, and it’s where she was considering taking her 23-month-old daughter Darian for speech therapy. It’s also where her mom, Judy, would go if an asthma attack turned for the worst.

“But I think if she’d had to go to King’s Daughters [Hospital], I don’t know that she would have survived the drive because it’s 10 or 15 more minutes down the road.”

But by May, her family won’t be able to rely on Our Lady of Bellefonte anymore. The 220-bed hospital with more than 1,000 employees — started by a congregation of Catholic sisters in 1953 with the blessing of the pope via telegram — will close its doors.

That would leave 35,000 people in Greenup County without a hospital, forcing those who need intensive medical care to drive to King’s Daughters Hospital in Ashland. This comes as many Ohio Valley public health officials are bracing for the coronavirus to reach their communities.

While the number of confirmed cases in her region have not reached levels in larger cities, she knows the number will grow.

“If it does, there’s no way that King’s Daughters is going to be able to handle that,” she said. “It is terrifying, and I’m afraid that people will die as a consequence of the hospital closing.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for King’s Daughters Hospital said they were working daily with Our Lady of Bellefonte to potentially expand the capacity of King’s Daughters if patient needs surge due to coronavirus.

Wikimedia Commons, KCompton

The entrance of Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in 2009.

Wilburn-Meek started an online petition to try to call attention to the situation and save the hospital, but she isn’t optimistic she’ll be successful. And more than a dozen communities across the Ohio Valley are facing a similar situation.

Our Lady of Bellefonte will join at least 21 other hospital closures in the Ohio Valley within the past 15 years. The Ohio Valley Resource estimates those 21 closures represented more than 1,000 hospital beds in total.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Some shuttered hospital sites are now vacant parking lots. Some have been turned into addiction rehab facilities or urgent care facilities, but those often have limited or no in-patient services.

These closures have left a hollowed out healthcare infrastructure in the Ohio Valley, and leading healthcare professionals worry that the loss of hospital beds, skilled staff and equipment — combined with a population that is especially vulnerable to COVID-19 disease — could hinder how well the region can respond to the coronavirus.

Running Out

For 15 years, Marlene Moore was lead nurse of the intensive care unit at Ohio Valley Medical Center in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia. She would make determinations about who would be admitted and who would be discharged, who would be transferred to other departments and hospitals, and helping younger nurses with questions and assistance.

That time came to an end when the company that owned OVMC and another hospital in nearby Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, announced last year both hospitals would close. Along with Belmont Community Hospital also closing, three hospitals in total last year shuttered in the Wheeling metropolitan area.

East Ohio Regional HospitalGlynis Board | Ohio Valley ReSource

East Ohio Regional Hospital in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, one of three hospitals that closed in the area last year.

“It was just devastating, because especially at our smaller hospitals, the employees know everybody. I mean, from housekeeping, to dietary to the lab, to all the departments,” Moore said.  “It affected the whole valley.“

Moore started working last month at what is now the only hospital in town, Wheeling Hospital, where a coronavirus patient is currently being treated.

She said because Wheeling Hospital often has many beds filled with patients having other needs, those needing a bed for coronavirus treatment may have to travel a half-hour or more to hospitals in Steubenville, Ohio, Columbus or Pittsburgh.

And it’s the kind of people her hospital tends to serve that has her particularly worried.

“We have such an older population here. And if you get several that come in at the same time with severe respiratory distress, you’re going to run out of ICU beds, you’re going to run out of ventilators, you’re actually going to run out of places to treat these people,” she said.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found West Virginia led the nation in how vulnerable its population is to coronavirus because of old age and preexisting conditions. More than half of all adults in West Virginia and more than 45% of all adults in Kentucky were at high risk of serious illness from coronavirus because of advanced age, pre-existing conditions, or both.

A report from Kaiser Health News also found there are only 325 ICU beds for more than 12,000 people over the age of 60 in Ohio County, where Wheeling is located. People over the age of 60 make up 28% of the county’s population.

According to an Ohio Valley Resource data analysis, 4 of the 18 counties that lost hospitals over the past 15 years also have some of the worst health outcomes in the nation. Those counties have some of the country’s highest rates of chronic respiratory disease deaths, cardiovascular disease deaths and diabetes prevalence.

Amid closures, remaining Ohio Valley hospitals are reinforcing their capacity for beds, equipment and personal protective equipment for worst case scenarios.

A statement from the West Virginia Hospital Association said hospitals are canceling or rescheduling elective surgeries to free up more beds, in compliance with a state emergency order. Hospitals are converting different departments into infectious disease units, and developing “alternative treatment sites.” One hospital in Athens, Ohio, has now set up a triage tent to treat potential patients outside.

Rising Costs

Even if Ohio Valley hospitals are able to accommodate a surge of coronavirus patients, the financial toll it could take could devastate rural healthcare providers.

A report last year from Navigant Consulting showed that 16 rural hospitals in Kentucky —  about a quarter of all rural hospitals in the state — were at high risk of closing due to unstable financial situations. Some of the reasons cited for financial struggles include population loss with fewer people to serve, and more patients insured through Medicare and Medicaid, which often undercompensates hospitals for treatment.

Those ongoing challenges will only be made worse by the pandemic.

“The payment mechanism for treating these patients is not clear at this point. The unusually long length of stay I think is a concern with the very sick of these patients who typically end up, or have ended up, on ventilator care, which is very expensive and resource intensive to deliver,” said Bud Warman, Kentucky Hospital Association Vice President and former CEO of Highlands Regional Medical Center in east Kentucky. “They haven’t always had potentially this much volume of wants to deal with.”

The American Hospital Association is asking for $100 billion from Congress to offset anticipated coronavirus costs, while some rural hospitals struggle to ration protective medical supplies. A bill being considered by the Kentucky Senate would also provide a loan program for struggling rural hospitals.

Warman also said when hospitals have closed in Appalachia, there are often few options remaining for the people the provider served.

“In some cases, they just don’t have adequate transportation to get them that longer distance,” Warman said. “If they’re deciding between food on the table or traveling 50 miles to see a doctor or to seek health care, oftentimes, they make the choice for food on the table. It sounds dire, but the fact is in many parts of our state, many parts of Appalachia, that is the case.”

What’s Left

In central West Virginia, Michael Brumage is leading one of the remaining options for those without easy access to a hospital.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

As Chief Medical Officer of Cabin Creek Health Systems, he directs several Federally Qualified Health Centers that provide preventative care and substance abuse treatment, often for people who are low-income or uninsured. His experience also extends across multiple organizations: Brumage serves as director of the Preventative Medicine Residency Program in the WVU School of Public Health, was former executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, and former health officer for Kanawha County and Putnam County, West Virginia.

His staff is preparing to treat patients who have respiratory symptoms outside of the centers in order to prevent the spread of the virus inside their buildings, and they’ll also have curbside service for those with respiratory symptoms.

Michael Brumage

A triage tent set outside one of Brumage’s community health centers in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

“Our public health system has been underfunded for many, many years, at the federal, state and local levels,” Brumage said. “So we’re fortunate, I think that there are federally qualified health centers, that there are free and charitable clinics that are able to pick up the slack.”

But even with his centers, there are still intensive, in-patient services that he can’t provide, that a hollowed out healthcare infrastructure has left lacking.

Brumage was born in Fairmont Regional Medical Center in Fairmont, West Virginia. So was his sister. He’s had several relatives who’ve been hospitalized there over the years. The hospital is set to close this week.

“It’s befuddling to me how they can close this hospital during a pandemic, when there are going to be so many more beds that need to be filled. It staggers the imagination,” Brumage said.

While a hospital is being built to replace Fairmont Regional, Brumage is worried that it will be too late  for the demand for hospital beds, ventilators and skilled staff needed to respond to the pandemic.

“There will be many competing economic priorities once this clears to restore the American economy,” Brumage said. “But shame on us if we don’t invest in our public health infrastructure, and if we don’t invest in our overall health infrastructure, and if we don’t look for ways to make health care equitable for all Americans.”

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