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Smith seeks support for rural health during virus pandemic

ST. PAUL — As the number of COVID-19 cases in rural Minnesota continue to rise, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith’s level of concern is increasing.

“We are grappling with this kind of earthquake of the COVID pandemic,” Smith said.

Smith held a Zoom meeting to discuss the upcoming election and issues important in the district with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders in her district Friday evening.

“The public health earthquake and the economic earthquake that it has created — in that work on addressing COVID — I have been very focused on rural health and how do we make sure that rural hospitals and clinics get the support they need,” she said.

As of Sunday, cases continue to rise in southwest Minnesota. Lincoln County jumped from 11 COVID-19 positive cases on Friday to 19. Lyon County now has 344 cases, Yellow Medicine has 31 and Murray County has 82. Deaths linked to the virus jumped up from two to four in Pipestone County Friday. That county also has 74 cases.

“And we know that this is a challenge,” Smith said of the rise in virus cases. She said rural medical facilities were facing major challenges even before the pandemic.

“Something like half of rural hospitals are on the verge of closing because of the challenges that we have,” she said.

But Smith said there are some positives such as expand access to telemedicine and telehealth that deal with medical health and mental health.

“I’m excited about the work I’m doing to help make sure that we support access to providers in rural communities and access to dental care in rural communities and access to mental health care in rural communities,” she said. “We have to think about health care being full health, not just divided up by mental health and physical health. The work on telehealth is good. I think one of the good things that we are learning from what’s happening in this pandemic is a dramatic expansion of telehealth that is appreciated both by providers and also patients, who are really happy that they can have access to better care. It doesn’t replace all direct health care, but it is a good augmentation of that.”

Smith said she is also working on expanding access to broadband in rural areas, which is also vital for health care during the pandemic.

“Broadband isn’t just something that is nice to have. It is something that is essential for our health care, for our education, for our jobs, for our ability to recruit people into small towns and rural communities.” she said. “I worked on that when I was lieutenant governor, and I continue to do that in the Senate, expanding federal funding — something I made sure that we got into the farm bill that we passed last year. And something that I’m working on right now with Senator (Amy) Klobuchar to help make sure people don’t lose their broadband coverage right in this moment if they might be experiencing some economic challenges.”

Smith said the federal government is spending money on expanding broadband service to rural America, but it’s not moving fast enough.

“I think that when we have a new president in the White House, that president should appoint a broadband czar who says it is going to be my job to get broadband done in this country by a certain period of time, with accountability and goals and specifics. We don’t have that right now, and what has happened as a result is you have multiple federal efforts to expand broadband, but they are not coordinated. Nobody can really tell you exactly what’s happening with them or where they are going or even exactly how much money we are spending,” she said.

“We have to commit to getting the data. We don’t even know where broadband is and isn’t. The mapping is so bad. So that’s the second that I think we need to do. And then the third thing that we need today is to really assess the need and figure out exactly how much it’s going to cost and then just do it. And as I said, right now, there are probably 10 or 15 federal agencies that have their finger in the pie of expanding broadband in this country right now, and nobody is in charge, and nobody is marshaling all of those resources to get it done. “

Smith also mentioned she held a Zoom session with farm leaders in the district Friday morning. She said food production and speciality farming were discussed.

“I’m so aware of the challenges that we are seeing right now in many segments of the ag economy,” she said. “Whether it is livestock and meat processing, whether it is dairy — the challenge we are having with ethanol and the ways in which this administration has been just undermining ethanol at the beck and call, I think, of the big fossil fuel companies I think is deeply challenging.

“And I want you to all know I am doing that work and I am doing everything that I can to support Minnesota family farmers and make sure that Minnesota family farmers have more market power and more ability to control their own destiny, which has been too often not the case right now with so much market power concentrated in the big meat processing facilities and the big businesses that are more and more dominating agriculture, I think to the detriment of the small farmers that grow the food that we need so desperately.”

Smith also said farmers should be given more incentives to get innovative such as no till and carbon capture in the soil.

Smith criticized the “chaotic” tariffs the Trump administration put in place.

“When in doubt, when markets are up, apply a tariff,” she said. “When markets are down, apply a tariff. When the weather is sunny, apply a tariff. It is completely chaotic, and this has really hurt farmers, especially as we are looking at export markets to China.

“I want to be clear, I think China has been a bad actor, they have not been a reliable partner, and they have done damage. But mostly, that has been in the area of technology and intellectual property theft, and farmers have ended up sort of being the pawn in this battle between the Trump administration and China. I think, that the USMCA agreement was ratified and was signed into law, and that provides some much needed certainty, but the conversations that I have with Minnesota farmers tell me that there are still lots and lots of struggles.”

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