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Stronger together: How Eagle County’s health care workers rose to the challenge of COVID-19

Vail Health nurse Nicole Campbell administers a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Jordon Nicholson of Conifer Wednesday at the Vail Hospital.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

In the thick of the pandemic, in a year that refused to let up, Caitlyn Gnam started running.

An infection preventionist at Vail Health Hospital, Gnam prefers more daring outdoor pursuits: whitewater kayaking, dirt biking, and tearing down the mountain on her skis. But with her professional life bleeding into every aspect of her personal life, Gnam needed a release valve. As the 14-hour days at the hospital stacked up, and the toll of the pandemic weighed on her, she found herself being pulled outdoors for what she jokingly referred to as “jogging on purpose.”

Caitlyn Gnam said she was always able to leave her work at the hospital. That changed with the arrival of COVID-19.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Running from something? Towards something? Gnam isn’t so sure, but whatever it was, she absolutely needed it.

“I used to be able to leave thinking about infectious disease and masking and hand washing at work,” she said. “And I would go home and go in public and nobody cares about that kind of thing. But now the whole planet is thinking about your work. So it’s harder to escape in that sense.”

Before COVID-19 took over her life, pandemic preparedness was a sidebar in Gnam’s role at Vail Health. It was the “oh, just in case” aspect of a job focused on keeping infections out of the hospital. Name any type of infection — staph, urinary tract, seasonal flu, SARS — and you can be sure that Gnam has, at some point, obsessed over it.

But in early 2020, that “oh just in case” scenario of a global pandemic quickly consumed every waking minute of her life. Protocols and rigorous training are essential to a job that requires constant vigilance, but Gnam said she could always compartmentalize her work. That changed when a mysterious, airborne virus that originated halfway around the world quickly found its way into every corner of humanity, including Eagle County.


The valley’s two largest health care providers, Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical, braced for the arrival of COVID-19 by stockpiling personal protective equipment before supply chains were overwhelmed and launching a system-wide high-level task force to solve logistical challenges as they arose. But when case numbers exploded locally in early March, there was no training to emotionally prepare for the reality of a novel virus that was highly contagious and deadly.

“We see all kinds of infectious disease where we need to take precautions all the time,” Gnam said. “But for something to spread that quickly, we knew that it was something different and that we would be kind of off and running from that point.”

They haven’t slowed down since.

Uncharted waters

Antarctica. That’s where Dr. Brooks Bock was in late January when he first heard about COVID-19. Earth’s least inhabited continent was arguably the safest place on the planet with a global pandemic on the march.

Bock, the CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, was traveling with his wife on a National Geographic ship to see penguins up close. He first read about the virus that originated from Wuhan, China, in a daily newsletter that rounded up global headlines.

By the time he returned to the Vail Valley in February, he found himself on a voyage unlike any other he’d ever taken in a medical career spanning more than five decades. Over the course of 75 or so days, Bock and Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, worked out of a command center at the hospital managing the organization-wide response to the pandemic.

What started as a smaller team of high-level managers quickly grew to include as many as 24 different staffers from an array of departments over the months of February, March and April as the first wave of the virus shut down the valley and the state.

The objectives? Keeping the local health care system from buckling under the strain of the virus and protecting health care workers and the community at large.

Vail Health Safety Manager Kimberly Flynn and Vail Health Population Health Director Chris Lindley are joined by Airman First Class Samuel Weber of the Colorado National Guard in receiving the first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Vail Health in early December.
Ben Gadberry/Vail Health

For each member of the team, especially the two men heading up the collaborative effort, the experience was challenging, exhilarating and emotionally draining.

“We got to be good friends,” Bock said. “I have a tremendous respect for him and I enjoyed working with him.”

The challenge of slowing the virus put all of Lindley’s education and experience to the test. A former unit commander and environmental science officer of preventive medicine in the 793rd Medical Detachment of the United States Army Medical Reserves, Lindley served in Iraq and received a Bronze Star for saving multiple lives during a suicide bomber attack. He holds master’s degrees in public health, epidemiology and business administration.

His first job after getting his master’s in epidemiology was working with bioterrorism preparedness for Denver Health Medical Center.

“It was the first in the country training for pandemic influenza or large scale biological warfare attack,” he said. “These things, I’ve been thinking about them my whole career.”

If Lindley had been prepping for a global pandemic for years, Bock represented the opposite end of the spectrum.

The challenge of slowing the virus put all of Lindley’s education and experience to the test. “I think that finger pointing this year has started to decrease and go away,” he said. “And our challenge is, how do we stay in this community collaborative effort going forward?
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

“I certainly never planned to live in a pandemic,” he said. “And hopefully there won’t be another during the rest of my lifetime.”

Working together on the same problems, with the same goals in mind, often times with different approaches, brought the two together — and the two organizations they represented. Colorado Mountain Medical’s merger with Vail Health in July 2019 had, on paper, already created a valley-wide health care network — but Lindley, Bock and Vail Health CEO Will Cook insist that it took a pandemic, of all things, to truly make the two providers inseparable.

“There were lots of moments of concern and doubt,” Bock said. “The amazing thing was that everyone was very supportive. Everyone was very collaborative. There was no one who was trying to run the show. It was a group effort to figure out what we needed to do.”

Each day brought new challenges, and with those challenges came spirited debates, brainstorming sessions and swift innovation.

How to ramp up testing and keep the virus out of the hospital and clinics? Create the state’s first drive-thru testing facility, in Gypsum, and install a testing trailer at the hospital in Vail — both of which were in place by March 7. Also, create a system of “clean clinic” safety protocols to ensure the safety of patients and staff as clinics eventually began seeing patients again for well visits.

How to reach the valley’s Spanish-speaking communities? Partner with the MIRA Bus to begin offering free testing.

Yazmin Almanza with Vail Health tests a patient for COVID-19 Friday at the Dotsero Mobile Home Park in Dotsero. The Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance (MIRA) bus through Vail health provides free COVID-19 screenings in select neighborhoods where transportation is an issue.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

How to solve the riddle of a lack of available tests and delayed results from outside labs? Work to develop an in-house test that could be turned around quickly.

How to counter the slow-rolling behavioral health crisis that was engulfing the valley as residents struggled with isolation, joblessness, food and financial insecurity, and the stress of kids learning remote? Provide telehealth training for all behavioral health providers, hire 40 new behavioral health specialists and roll out a community-wide scholarship fund to provide those in need who are struggling financially with free access to services.

“We learned a lot about what it means to be resilient, and I think even before COVID, we were already dealing with a lot of those problems,” Cook said.

He described the response to COVID among his staff like any response to a traumatic event: First there was denial, then a sense of sorrow and being overwhelmed.

“I think that actually the initial phases bonded us together and really helped us respond the way that we did,” he said. “What I’ve liked the most, is, you know, Chris and Dr. Bock and even Amanda Amanda Veit, our COO, and so many others, were spending countless hours in that command center. But they were collaborating, making decisions, moving quickly and avoiding that bureaucratic sort of hierarchy that can sometimes make people feel like I’m not going to even bother to make this decision because I’m going to have to go through three channels above me.”

Bock said he enjoyed becoming a bit of a local celebrity by filming a number of informational videos with Lindley and others early on in the pandemic that helped soothe some of the fears of the community.

“We would call each other the day before and say, ‘OK, let’s make a video on this. Or let’s make a video on that,’” he said. “It was the topic of the moment that we were trying to educate the community on, and they were effective, remarkably effective. I can’t tell you how many people I would see when I was out and about at the grocery store, or wherever I ventured to, not often, but whenever I ventured out for the needs that I had, people would comment on how much they appreciated that and the personal touch that it brought to their lives and the assurances that they received from them.”

Added Lindley: “You always kind of look at the big health care systems, the big hospitals with all they can do,” he said. “Many of them have great resources, very talented people, great financial capability. But I got to see firsthand what this health care system is for this community and what it can do. And without question, I’m 100 percent certain the Vail Health system has done more in this community than any health care system I’ve heard about or ever dreamed about.”

‘This test sucks’

Mark Joffrion parachuted into a crisis. He started his job as the director of Vail Health’s laboratory in March, smack in the middle of the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the valley.

A soft-spoken Southerner who came to the Colorado after stints in labs all across the country, working in Louisiana, Indiana, Texas, Alaska, Oregon, California, Florida and North Carolina, Joffrion described his first weeks and months in his new role as an “everyday scramble” to find solutions to problems that were largely out of his control.

How could the lab get more tests? How could it avoid the growing backlogs for results from state and private labs?

“There was just that need to get results out immediately,” Joffrion said. “We kind of had our hands tied with the testing available and the turnaround times that we were dealing with.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Joffrion and Vail Health officials targeted in-house testing as a solution to both of those problems. Developing a test that worked, however, and being able to turn it around quickly to deliver results in a 24-hour period was a challenge that pushed every tech working in the lab to the brink over the summer and into the fall. As Joffrion and his staff worked tirelessly to find a reliable test, not to mention a manufacturer that could supply it, they coped with the stress that came from repeated phone calls looking for results that too often weren’t available.

Vials of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine wait to be filled into syringes Wednesday in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

The waiting was excruciating.

“It’s tough when we’re not the owners of that answer,” he said. “You know, we know when the results come back to us, but we had no control over when it came. And we were dealing with sometimes two, sometimes three different laboratories to get these results out or get them back to us.”

The lab received a test it could perform internally in April, but the supply was extremely limited, creating the need to horde the tests for the most symptomatic patients. Tests for asymptomatic patients were still being sent to an outside reference lab, with turnaround times taking as long as 10 days.

In May, the lab picked up another test it could perform internally, but again, the volume was extremely limited. Joffrion said he checked the FDA website every day to see which tests had been approved for emergency use and if his team could actually run them in the lab.

By October, he finally found a test that looked like it was doable, and would supply the large testing volume that his team needed to drastically reduce turnaround times.

Stress levels reached a peak, however, in the final weeks of October as techs worked their way through the delicate process of making sure the test actually worked. Joffrion said at one point, in a moment of frustration, one of his techs walked up to him in the lab and pronounced, “This test sucks.”

“But she came and we talked about it and I go back there and she’s just running them like a true professional,” he said, smiling. “She said what she wanted to say, but she got back there and she was running, you know, 60, 80, 100 of these tests at once and just doing an amazing job. That just speaks to the quality of individuals here in this laboratory. They were pushed to that limit, but they knew what we wanted, what our goal was.”

By November, with the test dialed, the lab was finally able to complete all testing in-house, and started receiving samples from collection sites in Summit County and Vail, as well as the Aspen area, becoming a regional testing center.

In November, the lab performed a total of 4,061 COVID tests, compared to just 835 in October and a little more than 200 in September. The lab has since performed more than 20,000 tests since November, often turning over a result in 10 hours or less.

“There were some days it was really doubtful if we could do it, but these are true professionals just stepping up to incredible levels to do what they did,” Joffrion said. “What’s happened in this laboratory is really amazing.”

Coming full circle

Julie Scales is uncomfortable with people making a big deal about her story. During the past 13 months, so many people have gotten sick, she said. So many have died.

Julie Scales, a respiratory therapist at Vail Health, spent seven days on a respirator in a Denver-area hospital after catching COVID-19 in March, 2020. She returned to work a few months later and was the first Eagle County resident to receive a shot of vaccine in early December.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

There have been 22 Eagle County locals who have succumbed to the virus and more than half a million Americans. But talking to Scales’ coworkers at Vail Health, where she works as a lead respiratory therapist, her recovery from the virus is the narrative that often emerges when they talk about the turning points in the pandemic.

March 14, 2020, is the day when COVID-19 became jarringly personal to them. It’s the same day that the local ski resorts shut down and the hospital saw its highest number of patients admitted. One of those admitted was Scales, whose work often brought her into the emergency department.

“It came home pretty hard,” said Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department who oversees the intake of patients.

Earlier that week, Scales had been convinced she had a sinus infection. She had a pounding headache but no respiratory symptoms. Working in a hospital, over the course of a winter, everyone deals with colds and gets run down, and Scales just pushed on with her work. But by Saturday, she was experiencing respiratory symptoms and was admitted to the hospital. A day later, March 15, with her condition worsening, she was transported to the Medical Center of Aurora.

Stephen said seeing Scales being prepped for that ambulance ride down to the Front Range was similar to watching a patient go into the operating room for the last time for organ donation. Scales’ coworkers were legitimately frightened that it would be the last time they’d ever see her.

“It was really, really hard. Of all my ER staff, all of us that worked in the ER the whole time, none of us got COVID that we know of,” he said. “She’s the only one that worked in the ER intermittently, and after she got it, it was like, ‘OK, people, let’s make sure we buddy up.’ We were very, very careful with each other. We protected each other, we had each other’s back and made sure nobody was put at risk if somebody was really sick. We do not rush into that room.”

“It was definitely very scary,” Scales said. “I’m a respiratory therapist. I’ve intubated people on ventilators my whole career, and knowing that that’s where I was headed, I was very scared when I was headed down to Denver.”

Scales spent 10 days in the Aurora hospital, seven of them on a ventilator. She doesn’t remember much. Her daughter, 34, was with her.

“I had my phone, but I didn’t have a charger, so my phone would die,” she said. “My friend told me that I just texted her, and I just said, ‘I’m just going to try and live, OK?’”

After coming off the ventilator, Scales pleaded with doctors to discharge her. She returned home with the help of supplemental oxygen. From the beginning, she was determined to return to work. It took her nearly two months to get back on the job, and it was slow going at first.

“It was very emotional, and still is at times to take care of COVID patients,” she said. “My first ventilator patient that I took care of when I came back was super-emotional. I held it together in the patient’s room. But I had to take the tube out and it was very dramatic.”

Equally dramatic: the scene of Scales being the first Eagle County resident to receive a shot of vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020. That’s when many of Scales’ coworkers said they could finally see the fog start to lift.

Since recovering, Scales has climbed a 14er and marked the one-year anniversary of when she was admitted as a patient by going skiing with some of her coworkers. Gnam was among those who were excited to get out on the hill with her.

Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department. He said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

“I just made a comment to my daughter that I would like to ski down the hill instead of go down the hill in an ambulance on the 15th,” said Scales, who spent more than three decades working in hospitals in her home state of Indiana before moving to Colorado a few years ago to be closer to her daughter. “I feel really humbled by everything and I feel bad for the people that didn’t make it because when I was sick, we had a lot of people in the valley that were sick.”

Getting to the other side

How does this story end? Vail Health CEO Will Cook isn’t so sure.

Too often, the COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to as a race. A race to save lives. A race to develop effective vaccines. A race to get back to normal.

Cook said Eagle County, as a whole, has run that race better than most places around the country and the state. The collaboration between the valley’s health care providers, local governments and the community at large has been at the center of that.

The county never plunged into the Level Red restrictions that were a crushing blow to neighboring counties. Shools have managed to remain open for the current academic year while other districts around the state struggled to open and stay open.

The pandemic forced innovation, collaboration and created an opportunity for leaders to emerge, Cook said. But that success story doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the national tragedy of a pandemic that is still killing as many as 1,000 Americans a day, and has claimed more than 500,000 American lives, continues to overshadow the local narrative.

“I’m still waiting for the impact of this to my management team,” Cook said. “In some of the front-line staff, we’re worried now about what we refer to as hero syndrome, which is that you get so caught up in being on the front lines of dealing with this and being in there for vaccinations where people are emotionally elated and overwhelmed and excited and happy. How do you go back to being the H.R. assistant after that? It’s understandable, though. I don’t think we’ve even seen the end of the impact of this.”

Residents give thumbs up while waiting in line at a vaccine clinic at Vail Health. The county is rapidly approaching 30,000 total dose of vaccine being distributed.
Special to the Daily

Lindley, an eternal optimist, said the last year has flown by for him, and that in a time where charged national debates over the virus, masking, and reopening created deeper fractures in American society, he has been inspired by the community spirit that has carried the day here.

“I think that finger pointing this year has started to decrease and go away,” he said. “And our challenge is, how do we stay in this community collaborative effort going forward? Because we’re going to have other challenges right now. We have a lot of things we have to address. But if we can do it in this response mode I think we’re all in, it’s unbelievable.”

Stephen said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”

Making it to the other side of the pandemic, with the county rapidly approaching 30,000 total doses of vaccine distributed, is the light at the end of a tunnel in a trying year.

“They showed up for work and got it done,” Stephen said. “They’re team players, the best team in the land. You could have called in sick. You could have asked not to do it. But not a single one of them did that. We rose to the challenge. We were resilient and we stayed here for the community and took care of them.”

What’s In the new COVID-19 relief package for agriculture?

After months of negotiations, Congress passed a $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus package with much-needed financial relief for agricultural producers, funding for food assistance programs, enhancements to the Paycheck Protection Program and funding for enhanced broadband access, as well as additional financial resources for agricultural research and farmer stress assistance programs, among others.

The package provides an estimated $13 billion directly to agricultural programs, with $300 million allocated to the Commerce Department for assistance to fisheries. Today’s article highlights many of the direct agricultural provisions in the bill.

AG PROVISIONS

Of the $900 billion in the recently passed COVID relief package, $13 billion was allocated to agricultural programs, representing approximately 1.4% of total spending in the bill. Of the $13 billion, $11.2 billion is allocated to the Office of the Agriculture Secretary, approximately $870 million is allocated for a supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage program as well as a dairy donation program, $300 million is provided to the Commerce Department to assist fisheries, and $20 million per year, or $200 million over 10 years, is to be used to address gaps in nutrition research. Specialty crop block grant programs and Local Agriculture Market programs are allocated $100 million each, farming opportunities training and outreach and the Gus Schumacher nutrition program receive $75 million each. Interstate shipment grants were allotted $60 million and $28 million was allocated for farm stress programs.

AID FOR CROPS

The bill provides approximately $11.2 billion of direct financial assistance to commodity producers. Producers of 2020 price trigger crops and flat-rate crops are eligible to receive a payment of $20 per eligible acre of the crop. Price trigger commodities, as defined in the second Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, are major commodities that meet a minimum 5% price decline over a specified period. These crops include barley, corn, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers, upland cotton and all classes of wheat. For example, with 91 million acres of corn planted in 2020, and based on a $20 per acre payment, corn producers would be expected to receive $1.8 billion in financial support. Across these seven crops alone, 240 million acres were planted, representing $4.8 billion in COVID-19 stimulus. Additionally, the bill allows the agriculture secretary to extend the term of marketing loans by three months, providing producers additional time to repay.


Flat-rate crops, as described in CFAP 2, either do not meet the 5% price decline trigger or do not have data available to calculate a price change. Flat-rate crops include alfalfa, amaranth grain, buckwheat, canola, extra long staple cotton, crambe (colewort), einkorn, emmer, flax, guar, hemp, indigo, industrial rice, kenaf, khorasan, millet, mustard, oats, peanuts, quinoa, rapeseed, rice, sweet rice, wild rice, rye, safflower, sesame, speltz, sugar beets, sugarcane, teff and triticale. These commodities will also receive a payment of $20 per acre.

The bill includes a provision allowing for the adjustment of direct support payments to account for price differentiation among commodities. This may include specialized varieties, local markets and farm practices such as certified organic.

For specialty crop producers, the bill modified the sales-based rules from CFAP 2 to allow specialty crop producers to include crop insurance indemnities and disaster payments in their 2019 sales, which was the basis for determining the amount of support under CFAP 2, or by substituting 2018 sales. Additionally, the bill makes available an additional $100 million in Specialty Crop Block Grants that are administered through each state’s Department of Agriculture and an additional $100 million available for the Local Agriculture Market Program.

PROCESSORS

The bill requires that a portion of the appropriated money to be used to make payments to domestic users of upland cotton and extra long staple cotton between March 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020. The payment rate is calculated by multiplying 6 cents per pound by the average monthly consumption of the domestic user from Jan. 1, 2017, through Dec. 31, 2019, then multiplying it by 10, e.g., cotton payment = $0.60 x (average monthly consumption Jan. 1, 2017-Dec. 31, 2019).

Moreover, one of the consequences of COVID-19 precautions and stay-at-home orders was a significant decrease in fuel consumption, and along with it was a slash to biofuel demand. Since the beginning of the year, and through mid-December, the cumulative decline in ethanol production is nearly 2 billion gallons. The bill allows for payments to producers of advanced biofuel, biomass-based diesel, cellulosic biofuel, conventional biofuel, or renewable fuel due to unexpected market losses as a result of COVID-19.

TIMBER INDUSTRY

For timber harvesting and timber hauling businesses, $200 million is allocated for relief to those that experienced a loss of at least 10% of gross revenue between Jan. 1, 2020, through Dec. 1, 2020, compared to the gross revenue earned in the same period in 2019.

LIVESTOCK AND DAIRY


Poultry, in particular, was left out of the CARES Act, largely due to the structure of the industry and how the relationship between the farmer and integrator historically has operated. Under the CARES Act, to be eligible for assistance, the farmer had to directly own the commodity. This worked well for MOST cattle and hog producers, but not for broiler farmers. Typically, a broiler farmer raises and cares for the birds, but does not directly own the birds; the integrator maintains ownership of the animals. However, these producers saw their income significantly reduced as many of their barns (which they financed the construction of and still were required to service the debt) remained empty due to supply chain disruptions earlier in the pandemic. The new bill addresses losses faced by many in the poultry industry (and other livestock sectors as well) by providing $1 billion for contract growers of livestock and poultry to cover up to 80% of losses.

LIVESTOCK LOSSES

The livestock supply chain was significantly disrupted, especially at processing facilities, where labor shortages and worker protection measures slowed throughput and even caused some facilities to shut down. As a result, some producers were forced into the heart-wrenching position of having to euthanize their animals. This is the last resort, as farmers do everything they can to avoid this outcome, but in such a tightly coupled delivery system they were threatened with going out of business having raised animals they could no longer sell. This bill directs the agriculture secretary to make payments to producers for losses incurred due to the depopulation of livestock and poultry due to insufficient processing access. These payments will be up to 80% of the fair market value of the depopulated animals, and for the costs of depopulation.

The bill ensures that livestock producers are paid for their animals by requiring dealer trusts. In the current system, dealers frequently buy and resell livestock, often grouping them to meet the volume and type needs of their customers. Dealers are allowed to take possession of livestock and pay for them later, and dealers do not maintain a trust account to guarantee payment.

OTHER LIVESTOCK PROVISIONS


This bill included a one-year authorization to livestock mandatory reporting, extending the law that requires buyers and sellers of meat and livestock to report the price and volume of certain commodities. The bill also aims to assist meat and poultry processing facilities in making improvements to allow for interstate shipment. While doing this, it would require a study on programs for meat and poultry processing and slaughtering facilities. This bill also includes additional inventory-based direct payments for cattle producers based on the difference between the CARES Act inventory payment rate, the Commodity Credit Corporation payment rate and the CFAP 2 payment rate multiplied by a percentage factor. For example, fed cattle had a CARES Act inventory payment rate of $214 per head, and the CCC payment rate and the CFAP 2 payment rate were $33 per head and $55 per head, respectively. When subtracting the CCC and CFAP 2 payment rates, and then multiplying by 50%, the plus-up payment for fed cattle is $63 per head.

DMC PROGRAM

The bill would provide necessary cash flow assistance to small and midsized dairies by establishing supplemental dairy margin coverage based on 75% of the difference between recent actual production (based on 2019 marketings) and the established production history currently used by DMC. Program payments under this supplemental program would be based on the additional 2019 production and the elected DMC coverage level. Many small and midsized dairies have grown their operations since their production history was established and locked in previous farm bills (based on 2011 through 2013 milk marketings). This legislation would allow those operations to qualify for additional coverage for 75% of any increases in milk production up to 5 million pounds. This bill would not reopen registration for DMC for 2020, but producers who sign up for DMC in subsequent years would also be allowed this option for higher milk production coverage.

Following up on USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, the bill includes two donation-style programs. The first is a dairy donation program that will pay milk processors the full value of milk used to produce and donate dairy products into food assistance channels. The $400 million dairy donation program is also retroactive, meaning milk processors may be eligible to receive financial payments for milk previously processed and donated during 2020.

In addition to the dairy-only donation program, the bill would provide $1.5 billion for the agriculture secretary to purchase food and agricultural products and distribute these products through nonprofit organizations. This support would include fresh dairy, produce, meat and seafood products. It would also provide grants and loans to small and midsized food processors and distributors, seafood processing facilities and processing vessels, farmers markets, producers and other organizations to respond to COVID-19 and protect their workers.

SUMMARY

The recently passed COVID-19 stimulus package provides $13 billion, approximately 1.4% of the $900 billion package, in financial assistance to help livestock, poultry, dairy, non-specialty and specialty crop producers continue to recover from COVID-19 disruptions. In addition to the direct support for agriculture, the bill includes other agriculture-related provisions including improvements to and additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, an extension to livestock mandatory reporting, several tax extender provisions, such as a $1.01 per gallon credit for the production of second-generation biofuels and a $0.50 per gallon excise tax credit for alternative fuel and alternative fuel mixtures, as well as $7 billion to increase broadband access.

How has COVID-19 impacted beef demand?

This past year has brought many changes for all Americans. The pandemic has shifted the way many of us think, behave, shop, work and spend our time.

As an example, much of society has transitioned from the typical hustle and bustle of work meetings, social events, traveling and shopping in retail stores to working from home, virtual learning with our kids, ordering groceries online and canceling our social events.

So how does this changing dynamic impact how we promote beef? And meet the needs of consumers right where they are at?

Instead of talking about steakhouses or beef jerky on the go, we are focused at offering tips for cooking beef at home and making recipes that kids would like to eat during their virtual school days.

For a brief time, we got a reprieve from debunking myths about cow farts. Instead, we had the chance to focus on timely questions like food safety, buying beef in bulk and connecting with producers when there were shortages in the meat case at the grocery store.

My own family has approached reaching consumers during this pandemic in new and unique ways. As an example, knowing we couldn’t visit classrooms or host farm tours, we have created videos doing farm tours, beef recipe demonstrations and reading my children’s books including, “Levi’s Lost Calf” and “Can-Do Cowkids.”

In addition to what producers can do individually with their own voices, time, talents and stories through social media posts and efforts in their own communities, the Beef Checkoff has also been studying ways to reach consumers during a pandemic.

A new report assesses the impact of COVID-19 on consumer behaviors. Titled, “State of the Consumer,” this report was conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, and highlights the opportunities and impact of COVID-19 on beef demand.

According to an NCBA press release, “The impact of the pandemic has been transformative in every corner of our economy,” said Buck Wehrbein, 2020 NCBA Federation Division Chair. “The good news is that consumers are choosing beef more often as they adapt to cooking more at home.”

Here are some key findings from the study:

•Online ordering for both groceries and meal ordering is likely here to stay. It is expected online ordering and delivery will grow at a more rapid pace than originally projected due to COVID-19. Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner., managed by NCBA, will continue to complete first-of-its-kind exploratory e-commerce marketing campaigns to help the supply chain accelerate the sales of fresh beef in this rapidly changing environment.

•Consumers are cooking more meals at home now than prior to COVID-19. This means they are searching for information to help them cook meals at home. Though expected to continue for the short term, a long-term shift is difficult to assess. NCBA will continue to utilize a variety of techniques by pushing out cooking information and recipe inspiration through digital, social media and traditional media platforms and leveraging impactful, high-profile influencers or thought leaders to teach consumers how to cook.

•Consumers are spending more time at home and online than prior to COVID-19. Along with that comes the rise of more TV and moving-streaming platforms and the decline of in-person movie theater watching experience, which could signal a long-term shift in consumers using more media “inside of the home” compared to “out-of-home.” NCBA will continue to utilize a variety of marketing platforms to continuously reach the consumer through paid, earned and owned digital, social and traditional media platforms.

•Currently, consumers are more focused on spending their money on essential needs, such as groceries, household supplies and personal care and cleaning products. This will likely adjust back at some point; it is just a matter of when. NCBA, as a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, will continue to look for opportunities to remind consumers that beef is the classic comfort food that they want as the centerpiece of their dinner, especially as we move into the holiday season.

•Positive consumer perceptions of beef and beef production increased during the pandemic and will likely remain higher for the next several months. Consumers may return to expressing concerns about food production when focus evolves from current concerns. NCBA will continue programs that educate consumers about beef production.

You can read the full study at www.beefresearch.org

Trump signs omnibus appropriations/COVID-19 relief bill

President Donald Trump signed the combined fiscal year 2021 omnibus appropriations and COVID-19 relief bill on Dec. 27 after threatening to veto it.

The presidential signature means that as part of the provisions in the bill there will be more aid to farmers and a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for the next six months.

The signing of the bill also averted a government shutdown that would have begun Monday at midnight. Trump demanded changes in the bill, but Congress is not required to follow his direction.

“I will sign the omnibus and covid package with a strong message that makes clear to Congress that wasteful items need to be removed,” Trump said in a statement.

“I will send back to Congress a redlined version, item by item, accompanied by the formal rescission request to Congress insisting that those funds be removed from the bill.”

House, Senate pass omnibus/COVID-19 aid package

The House and the Senate late Monday passed the fiscal year 2021 omnibus appropriations bill and a COVD-19 relief package, sending the legislation to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The omnibus appropriations bill will cost $1.4 trillion and the COVD-19 relief package $900 billion.

The measure was split in two in the House.

The House vote on Divisions B,C, E and F was 327 to 85, with 43 Republicans, 41 Democrats and one Independent opposing it.

The House vote on the rest of the combined bill was 359 to 53, with 50 Republicans, two Democrats and one independent opposing it.

The vote in the Senate was 92 to 6.

The legislation contains many provisions affecting agriculture, nutrition programs and rural America. Many groups issued statements explaining the importance of the bill and giving their views on it.

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said the organization is “particularly encouraged by the expansion of SNAP benefits — a crucial step toward ensuring food security for all.”

“It is similarly heartening to see the inclusion of provisions that will revitalize rural economies, such as financial support for the biofuels industry, further assistance for farmers impacted by market disruptions, and more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program,” Larew said.

“Finally, we are pleased by several measures that will strengthen local and regional food systems, help socially disadvantaged farmers, and protect food chain workers — all of which will make the agriculture sector more resilient not just through the end of the pandemic, but long after.”

The Alliance for a Stronger FDA noted that the Food and Drug Administration got $15.25 million for food safety, including an additional $1.2 million for the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition to ensure contaminated food is detected and removed from the marketplace quickly, $5 million to enable FDA to continue regulating the usage of cannabis-derived substances such as cannabidiol, and $6 million for a Shrimp Import Inspection Pilot Program.

Eric Deeble, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said, “Making contract growers eligible for aid, dedicating support for PPE for farm and food system workers, investing in local and regional markets and processing infrastructure, and ensuring more farmers can participate in procurement efforts like the Farmers to Families Food Box program show that Congress is taking some overdue steps to assist farmers who need help now.”

Food Research & Action Center President Luis Guardia said he “commends congressional leaders for proposing a COVID-19 relief package that makes an immediate and essential downpayment on nutrition and other critical assistance for tens of millions of people across the country whose lives have been upended by the pandemic.”

Family Farm Action Alliance Senior Policy Advisor Jake Davis said, “Many of the grants, payments, and regulatory changes in this legislation will help working families, small businesses and farmers get through a difficult time.”

“It also begins the process of strengthening our food system which has shown, throughout this pandemic, to be incredibly fragile because of the extreme concentration of power in the hands of a few multinational corporations.”

The Renewable Fuels Association said the bill “clearly specifies that renewable fuel producers are eligible to receive COVID-19 emergency relief aid from USDA” and “extends key tax provisions that support innovation and expansion in the renewable fuels industry, including the Second Generation Biofuel Producer Tax Credit, Alternative Fuel Refueling Property Credit, and the Section 45Q tax credit for carbon sequestration.”

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor noted that the bill specifically:

▪ Allows for payments to producers of advanced biofuel, biomass-based diesel, cellulosic biofuel, conventional biofuel, or renewable fuel;

▪ Allows qualified small businesses to access a second round of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans;

▪ Includes a one-year extension of the Section 40 Second Generation Biofuel Producer Tax Credit, a $1.01 credit per gallon of second-generation biofuel produced; and

▪ Includes a two-year extension of the Section 45Q Tax Credit, a credit on a per-ton basis of carbon dioxide that is sequestered.

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern noted that the package includes nearly $1 billion in targeted support “to help dairy producers continue to feed families throughout these difficult times,” including a dairy donation program, payment limits flexibility, supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage payments and Paycheck Protection Program improvements.

National Pork Producers Council President Howard “AV” Roth noted that the bill includes:

▪ $635 million to ensure U.S. agriculture inspectors are fully funded;

▪ Extension of livestock mandatory price reporting until Sept. 30, 2021;

▪ $20 million in funding for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network;

▪ $284.5 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which removes restrictive language that prevented some pork producers from eligibility; and

▪ Funding to compensate hog farmers who were forced to euthanize animals due to COVID-related supply chain disruptions, valued at 80% of the animal’s value, and for the cost incurred during the process.

“We are thankful for several vital provisions in the omnibus bill, including strengthening biosecurity at our borders to keep foreign animal diseases (FAD) outside the country. If a FAD were to enter the U.S. swine herd, the consequences would be disastrous, and a devastating blow to hog farmers already teetering on the financial edge due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said the bill contains language that would authorize USDA to provide up to $1 billion to contract chicken growers for revenue losses, earmarked specifically for contract growers of livestock and poultry to cover up to 80% of revenue losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is wonderful holiday news for our farm families who have been working tirelessly through the pandemic to make sure food was one less thing Americans have to worry about as everyone navigated through 2020,” Brown added.

 

Appropriators release text of omnibus-COVID-19 relief bill

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., this afternoon released the text and summaries of the $1.4 trillion fiscal year 2021 omnibus appropriations bill and the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill.

The legislation, a product of bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, is expected to be considered in the House and Senate today and signed by President Donald Trump, although the votes could go late into the evening. The current continuing resolution funding the government expires at midnight.

The House has begun debating the rule and will also debate the bill.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has told members that voting will begin on the rule about 5 p.m. A vote on the bill will follow.

“As I prepare to depart the House after 32 years of service, I could not be more pleased that we are concluding this Congress with a bipartisan agreement to provide the certainty of full-year funding for all of government and urgently needed coronavirus relief to save lives and livelihoods,” Lowey said in a news release. “Because of the leadership of congressional Democrats, this spending agreement contains funding increases for critical priorities and strong emergency relief to crush the virus and put more money in people’s pockets. I know that Democrats will continue to build on this initial step to bring this crisis to an end, make our country safer and stronger, and give more people a better chance at a better life.”

Lowey’s news release contained links to the text and summaries of sections of the bill.

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in an email to The Hagstrom Report, “As the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee, I worked to ensure that the COVID-19 relief bill supports our farmers and ranchers, providing an additional $13 billion for the agriculture industry. The COVID relief includes important support for both farmers and ranchers, building on rounds 1 and 2 of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. Our producers have worked hard to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, and this additional support will help them continue to provide our nation with the food, fuel and fiber we need.”

“I am pleased we have finally reached a deal,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in a news release. “The American people expect us to do our job, and after many months of work on this legislation, I am hopeful we can swiftly advance the bipartisan package through Congress and on to the president’s desk. Funding the government, including our Armed Forces, is our fundamental responsibility. Providing relief to struggling Americans and businesses is paramount as our nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. This year has been unprecedented in a number of ways. Completing our work is all the more important. I urge my colleagues to support this package.”

In a separate news release, Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “This agreement is the product of weeks of hard work and compromise. This is not the bill I would have written on my own. It includes things I support and things I oppose. But on balance, passage of this bill is unquestionably in the interest of the American people, and both the House and the Senate should act on it quickly.”

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint news release on the COVID-19 provisions, “We are going to crush the virus and put money in the pockets of the American people.”

CDC agrees: Frontline meat and poultry workers high priority for COVID-19 vaccination

WASHINGTON — Frontline meat and poultry workers should be amongst the first to be vaccinated after health care workers and those in long-term care facilities, according to federal guidance approved today by the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Priority.

Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts applauded ACIP’s guidance and urged state governments to follow CDC’s decision:

“Priority access to vaccines is a critical step for the long-term safety of the selfless frontline meat and poultry workers who have kept America’s refrigerators full and our farm economy working.

Meat Institute members stand ready to support vaccination for our diverse workforce, which will also deliver wide-ranging health benefits in rural and high-risk communities. Meat and poultry leaders may also be able to aid vaccination for all Americans, for example by offering state-of-the-art cold storage for these precious vaccines.”

The $1.5 billion in COVID-19 preventions and supports implemented since the earliest days of the pandemic have reversed COVID-19’s impact on meat and poultry workers. Meat Institute members have distributed tens of millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, implemented health and temperature screening, radically modified facilities, conducted testing, preemptively paid leave for high-risk and quarantined employees, enhanced air sanitation and ventilation, and much more.

Due to these efforts, COVID-19 infection rates amongst meat and poultry workers are now more than 8 times lower than in the general population.

Prioritizing vaccination for frontline meat and poultry workers is supported by leaders across industry, unions, civil rights organizations and has been recognized as a key consideration in multiple other countries’ vaccine distribution planning.

Omnibus-COVID-19 package might include tax extenders

As Congress appeared close to a deal on an omnibus appropriations bill and COVID-19 relief late Wednesday, there were signs that the massive legislation might also extend tax breaks, and Growth Energy asked that biofuels measures be included.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that negotiations were continuing and that congressional leaders said they would not leave town until a bill is passed.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that the tax extenders might be included, Law360 reported.

“As of 3 o’clock yesterday, there was good hope of reaching an agreement. I can’t get into those details until they’re announced,” Grassley said Tuesday. “But there was some question that if we didn’t have a COVID package, whether that’s with or without the omni — and it’ll probably be in the omni — then we may not have extenders.”

On Wednesday, Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor wrote congressional leaders to urge them to extend the Section 40 Second Generation Biofuel Producer Tax Credit and the Section 45Q Tax Credit.

“The Second Generation Biofuel Producer Tax Credit, a $1.01 credit per gallon of second-generation biofuel and set to expire at the end of December 2020, provides an essential incentive for our biofuels industry to produce a low-carbon, renewable fuel which keeps our rural communities afloat,” Skor wrote.

“Section 45Q is a tax credit on a per-ton basis of carbon dioxide that is sequestered,” Skor added. “Ethanol plants are continuing to explore technological methods to further reduce their carbon footprint, and the Section 45Q tax credit is a key component to encouraging these advancements.”

Rule, Smidt sent home from Wrangler NFR with positive COVID tests

Two contestants have been dismissed from the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Before the rodeo kicked off on Dec. 3, barrel racer Dona Kay Rule, Minco, Texas, ranked third in the world standings, and tie-down roper Caleb Smidt, Bellville, Texas, eighth in the standings, tested positive and were sent home and will not compete for the remainder of the Wrangler NFR.

In the last few weeks, the PRCA issued COVID-19 protocol for all contestants and contractors to compete at and work the Wrangler NFR, held Dec. 3-12 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Everyone was subject to a COVID-19 test upon arrival, with random tests to take place during the ensuing days of the finals.

Contestants and personnel were told that if they tested positive, they would be dismissed. If a contestant tests positive, he or she is replaced with the next person in the world standings.

Rule tested positive, and on her Facebook page on Dec. 3, posted a video of herself, telling her fans that she had no symptoms and felt fine. She stated that the fans attending the rodeo won’t be tested. “The 22,000 people they let through the front door, they’re not going to test those people…. Surely they can isolate me, let me make my run, and not keep me out.”

A few hours later, she posted her gratitude to the response her fans gave her.

She posted, “I want everyone to know how much your support had meant to me….. Covid19 is not the fault of the PRCA or the WPRA…. No matter the decisions made please be kind to each other and use good sense before saying mean things to or about anyone. God’s got this.”

Jessica Telford, Caldwell, Idaho, the number 16 cowgirl, replaces Rule; Cory Solomon, the number 16 tie-down roper from Prairie View, Texas, replaces Smidt.

Rule was aboard High Valor, “Valor,” the 2019 and 2020 AQHA/WPRA Barrel Horse of the Year, a horse owned by her and her husband John. Smidt owns and rides the 2020 Purina Horse of the Year, Pocketful of Light, “Pockets.”

Each WNFR qualifier receives a $10,000 appearance fee; if a contestant is sent home due to a positive COVID-19 test, he or she receives an additional $10,000. If that contestant has competed, $1,000 per round he or she competed in is deducted from the COVID-19 monies.

The Wrangler NFR continues through Dec. 12.

After healthcare workers, meat and poultry workers high priority for COVID vaccine

WASHINGTON — The North American Meat Institute urged federal authorities to highly prioritize COVID-19 vaccination for the men and women who work in the meat and poultry industry, following healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities.

Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts commented:

“The men and women of the meat and poultry industry help keep America’s grocery stores stocked and our farm economy working. They should be highly prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination, following our nation’s brave health care workers.

“The meat and poultry industry was among the first sectors to be challenged with the pandemic, and since March the industry has implemented effective programs and controls to stop the spread of COVID. Our efforts are working, but access to vaccines remains the most critical tool to protect this critical infrastructure workforce.”

Since the spring, meat and poultry companies have implemented health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and, in many cases, additional measures. The industry has spent more than $1 billion to date on procedures and controls to both support and protect employees. These measures include physical adaptations to facilities, personal protective equipment, enhanced sanitation, advanced ventilation systems, extensive testing and contact tracing, enhanced health care services, and more.

Earlier this week, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended the initial phase of the COVID-19 vaccination program (Phase 1a) should include providing vaccines to health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities.

KatieRose McCullough, Ph.D. MPH, director, Regulatory and Scientific Affairs for the Meat Institute submitted written comments urging ACIP to prioritize vaccination for meat and poultry workers during the next phase (Phase 1b).

Including meat and poultry workers in Phase 1b will:

Protect meat and poultry workers as critical infrastructure employees whose heroic efforts feed the nation throughout the pandemic;

Increase health equity as the workforce is highly diverse and includes populations the CDC has also identified as greatly affected by COVID-19;

Strengthen vaccine distribution in rural communities with limited health care infrastructure, where meat and poultry facilities are major employers; and

Maximize efficiency using existing protocols and procedures that make meat and poultry facilities ideal locations to efficiently distribute vaccines, especially those facilities with medical staff on site.

To read the Meat Institute’s comments to ACIP, go to https://www.meatinstitute.org/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/183944.

The North American Meat Institute is the leading voice for the meat and poultry industry. The Meat Institute’s members process the vast majority of U.S. beef, pork, lamb, and poultry, as well as manufacture the equipment and ingredients needed to produce the safest and highest quality meat and poultry products.