Best of the West: The relationship between wildfire smoke and COVID-19; the pandemic’s growing impact on rural Oregon; bringing affordable housing to South Dakota

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting July 20, 2020. Photo courtesy of Montana Public Radio.

Wildfires and COVID: Researchers are investigating the impact of wildfire smoke on the severity of COVID-19 infections. Their work centers on a type of particulate matter, PM 2.5, which can bypass the body’s natural defenses and is known to cause myriad health issues, according to Montana Public Radio. “There is already fairly good evidence from China, Italy and one important study in the U.S. to suggest that people that are infected with the virus who are exposed to fine particulate pollution, have increased risk of severe COVID-19 and death,” said Dr. John Balmes, a California-based medical researcher at the University of California San Francisco and UC Berkeley School of Public Health. This type of research is important in the Golden State, where, amid rising case numbers, two recent fires in the north have prompted air quality warnings from The National Weather Service. Learn more.

Rural Response: Municipalities in rural Oregon were largely untouched by the virus at the outset of the pandemic. But as time went on, that changed. Currently, the five counties with the highest per-capita number of cases are all rural, and the four hardest-hit counties are located in the dry, eastern side of the state, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports. “Are rural communities more at risk?” asked Charlie Tveit, the chair of the Oregon Association of Hospitals’ Small and Rural Hospital Committee. “I think they’re equally at risk. So, the big question is, do we have enough resources?” Tveit explained that the limited availability of personal protective equipment, tests, and contact tracers makes controlling an outbreak harder for rural communities, which in turn places more strain on their limited hospital capacity. Find out more about the challenges these communities face.

Native Broadband Access: The pandemic has highlighted the need for increased broadband access, especially within Native American communities. As of 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that 35% of Americans living on tribal lands lack broadband service — more than four times the country’s average, according to KSUT Public Radio. To remedy this issue, the FCC opened a Rural Tribal Priority Window in February, where Native communities could apply for free 2.5GHz spectrum licenses. As the program ends in August, however, the remaining unpurchased licenses will be sold at auction, where large telecom companies will likely scoop them up.  “If tribes don’t get control of their own spectrum, they’re only going to see the digital divide get wider and wider and wider,” said Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association. Here’s why spectrum sovereignty is so important.

Affordable Housing: A new initiative in South Dakota, spearheaded by the East River Electric Power Cooperative, aims to provide housing for the state’s rural residents and spur economic growth in the process, South Dakota Public Broadcasting reports. “You have to have the people to run the businesses out in the rural areas,” said CEO Tom Boyko. “In order to do that, they want housing, they need housing and they need affordable quality housing … and so when we want to get those jobs out there, if you want people out there, you have to have decent housing and that's what this whole effort's about.” To date, $4 million have already been pledged to build multi-family apartment complexes and single-family homes in the region. Read more.

Dry Days in Colorado: Drought conditions, which began May 5, are now present in approximately 95% of Colorado, with 40 of the state’s 64 counties experiencing severe to extreme drought, according to Colorado Public Radio. On June 22 Gov. Jared Polis activated a drought mitigation and response plan, launching a task force to develop solutions for hard-hit communities. “2020 has been a tough year for anybody in agriculture,” said Bruce Fickenschure of the Colorado State University Extension. “And now we also have this drought on top of it where producers are having to sell livestock off, which is their main source of income.” Arid conditions have become problematic for many across the West. Discover which states have been hardest hit using this interactive map from the United States Drought Monitor. Learn more about the conditions in Colorado.

READ: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work

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