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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.”

Q & A with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet

COVID-19 and Education

We took a look at how COVID-19 has disrupted our education system, how schools are meeting student needs, and what’s being put in place to address gaps in resources. Featuring Phil Qualman, superintendent of Eagle County Schools, and Jay Hamric, Director of Teaching & Learning for Steamboat Springs School District.

COVID-19: How to Navigate Unemployment (Video)

Laid off and not sure what to do next? View our informational webinar featuring unemployment and career development experts. Learn how to apply for unemployment benefits, how the CARES Act has changed those benefits, and what you can do now to prepare to re-enter the workforce.

Virtual horse shows, a new and growing event

What can you do when you have a horse in training and shows lined up, when suddenly, it all just stops? The shows are canceled and training seems pointless if you aren’t preparing for an event.

Ashley Kluz Villmow of Kluz Performance Horses, Gillette, Wyo., had heard of Virtual Horse Shows and e-shows, but hadn’t had anything to do with them. But, when the COVID-19 virus came in the picture, much changed in the horse business. People who make a living training horses are losing those horses from training. If they can’t haul and show, many owners don’t want the expense of training, so it is a difficult situation for both trainers and owners. Horses taken out of training now will have to make up ground when the shows are scheduled again.

Villmow says “I’ve gotten to know a lot of trainers around here and they were suddenly struggling to keep customers horses in their barns. There needed to be a reason to keep training, so I looked into this way of showing.”

She got the idea from seeing what others in the industry were doing. “There are other groups doing this and some associations are offering incentives to show this way. What some have said is that this gives a person a reason to keep riding and training their horses. Plus, it also helps folks stay positive through this trying time and to not get down in the dumps about not being able to show.”

Villmow had hosted clinics with Jennifer Bull, a judge and clinician who was wanting to do some virtual western dressage clinics to stay in touch with the people who had been at the live clinics. “When the virus outbreak became news, it was time to try it,” says Villmow. “I have several judges who are lined up to judge each week and they are all people who have judged the live shows in the past.”

Reining, ranch riding, ranch trail and walk/trot horsemanship classes are available. Divisions are open, amateur, youth, rookie and green horse. “If people don’t have an arena to ride in, they can also do it in a pasture, or in the walk/trot class, on a road,” says Villmow.

The cost for the class is $30 and riders will win money back just as if they were at a regular show. The judge scores the run and gives written notes on how they can improve their run. “That’s an added bonus for showing this way,” says Villmow.

It’s simple enough to get into the show. Go to the website www.kluzperformancehorses.com, find the pattern you have to run for your event, video it wherever you can, then upload it to YouTube and fill out the online entry. Payment is made online, as is pay back. Videos are usually three to four minutes for reining, two minutes on ranch riding and under a minute on horsemanship. The video cannot be edited or it will get a no score.

Villmow is enthusiastic about the response and says “The first week there were 15, then 28, and it’s catching on fast as people adjust to the current situation. I applaud the people for getting out and doing this. Just figuring out how to upload things onto YouTube is a new experience for many and it could end up helping them promote their horses and business in a new way. There’s even a YouTube video on how to upload your YouTube videos!”

Villmow enjoys watching the submissions, which are available for the public to view online, and likes seeing the similarities between the live shows and online events. “It’s neat because you can still see a bit of the horse show nervousness. I think even when these shows aren’t necessary we’ll keep doing them so that people can have a chance to overcome some nerves and still show if they can’t haul for some reason.”

MFBF seeks solutions to plummeting cattle prices

The Montana Farm Bureau has joined 26 other state Farm Bureaus in signing a letter to Secretary Sonny Perdue requesting his attention on two important matters: relief to cattlemen seeing increasingly volatile markets and investigating any price manipulation that may be occurring in the cattle industry. In addition, the states asked that the USDA look into ways to use the Commodity Credit Corporation funds to help in this time of crisis.

“While we are pleased the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides $9.5 billion for various agricultural industries, we must ensure struggling cattle producers receive enough assistance to help make up for the significant losses they have endured,” noted Montana Farm Bureau National Affairs Director Nicole Rolf. “Specifically, we asked the department to direct support to the stocker and cow/calf producer, the actual rancher or farmer, as these people have shouldered the brunt of this market decline. Farm Bureau supported the passage of the CARES Act and worked to secure funding that will help cattle ranchers, as well as producers of all commodities, affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Rolf had visited previously with Montana Senator Steve Daines about difficulties farmers and ranchers are facing. “One of the concerns we discussed was this discrepancy between retail demand and futures prices. Senator Daines has signed on to a letter to Attorney General William Barr asking the Department of Justice to investigate possible anti-competitive behavior and price fixing in the beef markets.”

In addition, American Farm Bureau has been in discussions with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) about factors affecting cattle markets.

“We have a good relationship with the CFTC so we will continue to follow up with them regarding our concerns and relevant information,” Rolf added.

Another factor to consider is the general economics of beef pricing, including why beef prices in the grocery store have soared.

“The beef cutout just skyrocketed, and it hit historic levels, the highest increases we’ve seen in just seven days,” noted American Farm Bureau Economist Michael Nepveux. “On top of that, you saw live and fed cattle futures decline substantially, and you even saw cash prices drop. There’s a lot of confusion in the beef markers and the cattle markets.”

Nepveux said consumers’ habits during the panic-purchasing is behind some of the volatility. “It still remains to be seen how long this stocking phase is going to continue. When consumers rush to fill up their freezers, the freezers become full. We’re still not sure how long this panic buying is going to continue in different parts of the county, and once they go back to week-to-week purchases, the meat cases are going to be full, and you’ve seen many meat cases around the U.S. already kind of go back to normal.”

He added that the futures market has been incredibly volatile. “Looking forward, we’re looking at an economic recession hitting the United States. That doesn’t bode too well for beef in the future because beef is one of those luxury goods in terms of animal proteins, and as consumers lose paychecks, you might see a little bit of a tougher environment for beef.”

To read more on the reason behind beef prices visit AFBF’s MarketIntel report:https://www.fb.org/market-intel/pandemic-injects-volatility-into-cattle-and-beef-markets.

–Montana Farm Bureau Federation

John Nalivka: A Few Thoughts – Unprecedented

The $20 trillion U.S. economy was strong as 2020 began. It has been for the past 3 years. With the onset of COVID-19, that situation changed drastically. The often-repeated statement is that the U.S. economy is headed for a depression as the result of COVID-19. I would challenge that statement and rather than saying the current economic situation is the result of COVID-19, I would say the American public and the economy is in a severely, stressed, situation as the result of the decisions surrounding COVID-19. The economy’s performance prior to the outbreak of coronavirus was running on all eight cylinders. We didn’t slip into a recession as the result of a cyclical business downturn. Rather, it was the result of Americans becoming unemployed as the result of business closures and social distancing as the result of coronavirus posing a significant and perhaps unprecedented disruption to the economy. Again, this is not a result of the business cycle.

Unprecedented is the term is used to describe an event that has never happened before. I don’t use that term lightly, but I would say that when entire cities and businesses are shut down, the word unprecedented is a fair description. Subsequently, those events have led to a severe economic downturn and changed people’s behavior which brings me to the topic of markets.

Analyzing markets and projecting prices in the current environment is definitely challenging. However, I will not go so far as to use the term “unprecedented.” I think the term “uncertainty” more aptly describes the market outlook. Consumer behavior has become very disrupted and unpredictable. Hoarding may be a normal response to being told to stay at home, but now the question is what will be the tone of consumer buying behavior once the incidence of coronavirus has peaked and begins to decline? Furthermore, when will that “curve flatten” as the experts say and a decline be firmly in place? Those are the key demand-related questions that will shape the market going forward. And that discussion is only further frustrated with regard to the question of opening restaurants.

Supply is one issue. We do a pretty good job of analyzing and projecting that number. Certainly, record beef, pork, poultry production, individually and in total, this year is likely if not highly probable. I am projecting total meat supplies to reach over 228 lbs. per person and the highest since 2007 when that figure was 221 lbs.

Production may be unprecedented this year setting a new record. But demand is the central factor in regard to prices going forward. From that perspective, it may well be “unprecedented” when the lives of U.S. and global consumers return to “normal.”

USDA adds more crop insurance flexibilities

The Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) today said it would authorize self-certification on replant inspections and waiving witness signatures in certain situations as part of a broader suite of flexibilities to support producers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Specifically, Approved Insurance Providers (AIPs) may allow the use of self-certification replant inspections for certain crops with 100 gross acres (before considering share) per unit in lieu of 50 acres, and they may waive the witness signature requirement for approval of Assignment of Indemnity through July 15, for applicable crop years.

“RMA recognizes the challenges the crop insurance industry and America’s farmers and ranchers face,” RMA Administrator Martin Barbre said. “We will continue to provide flexibility that supports the health and safety of all parties while also ensuring the federal crop insurance program continues to serve as a vital risk management tool.”

Many state and local governments have issued “stay-at-home” orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which may prevent loss adjusters from completing on-the-farm replant inspections and obtaining associated signatures required for replant certification purposes. In the absence of “stay-at-home” orders, loss adjusters and policyholders may also be prevented from meeting in person due to concerns of spreading COVID-19, USDA said.

Here are the details:

Replant Self-Certification

For the 2020 crop year only, AIPs are authorized to allow self-certification replant inspections for up to 100 gross acres (before considering share) per unit in lieu of 50 acres.

Authorized crops for self-certification of up to 100 acres for replant include:

▪ Barley and wheat not covered by the Winter Coverage Endorsement (both initially planted winter and spring crops)

▪ Buckwheat

▪ Canola and rapeseed

▪ Corn

▪ Dry beans

▪ Flax (spring-seeded only)

▪ Grain sorghum

▪ Mustard

▪ Oats (spring-seeded only)

▪ Popcorn (including popcorn revenue)

▪ Peanuts

▪ Safflowers

▪ Soybeans

▪ Sugar beets

▪ Sunflower seed

Assignment of Indemnity

AIPs are authorized to waive the witness signature requirement for approval of assignments through July 15.

The insured’s and creditor’s signature on the assignment will be required in a pen and ink signature and in the hand of the person whose signature is required or an acceptable electronic (digital) signature in accordance with the AIPs’ established electronic business implementation plan and applicable RMA procedures.

RMA announced on March 27 other flexibilities, including enabling producers to send notifications and reports electronically, extending the date for production reports and providing additional time and deferring interest on premium and other payments.

–The Hagstrom Report

Struggling cattle industry seeks solutions

Almost 150 members of Congress asked U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, on April 1, to help deliver subsidy assistance to cattle producers via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stabilization (CARES) Act recently signed by President Trump.

The CARES Act provides $9.5 billion to be distributed to farmers and ranchers and replenished USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation’s borrowing authority back to the statutory cap of $30 billion, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused commodity prices to plummet.

The CARES Act is intended to provide $2 trillion in assistance to Americans.

The letter was led by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) in the Senate, and Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Calif.) and Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) in the House of Representatives.

“This program should deliver targeted, temporary, equitable relief to cattle producers in a manner that limits market distortions and negative effects on price discovery,” says the letter, adding that younger farmers and ranchers are especially vulnerable in a time like this because they haven’t built up equity to fall back on.

The American Sheep Industry estimates that the COVID-19 crisis will cause a $125 million loss directly to the sheep industry directly and will have an overall negative $300 million impact economically to the industry and those it affects.

The group asked Secretary Perdue for help in developing “a mechanism that would help offset actual and demonstrated losses realized by America’s sheep producers.” They cited a 25 percent drop in wool prices, an 88 percent decline in wool exports to China (the US’s biggest wool buyer) in the past year, a 50 percent drop in demand for lamb due to the food service shutdown and last week’s bankruptcy of the second largest lamb company.

While he appreciates the attention given to the livestock industries in recent weeks, rancher and backgrounder Brett Kenzy of Gregory, South Dakota, says the cattle market has been in need of regulatory fixes, for years, not just subsidy assistance.

“We’ve got to quit trying to break even. We’ve got to get that out of our heads. We need a return. They’ve got us so beaten down that we’re so excited at the prospect of getting back to zero, let alone running a successful business,” said the R-CALF USA director. Kenzy said his family operation will survive the extreme challenges because of equity they’ve been able to build up, but many producers, especially younger ones, will likely not make it through the coming months or years without some changes that put a bigger percent of the retail beef dollar into the producer’s pocket.

“The percent of the producer dollar is shrinking, ever since 2015. The fed cattle price and boxed beef price used to run together, now there is no correlation,” Kenzy said.

“I’ll be honest, I think we were in serious trouble way before the Holcomb fire. The fire made it worse all at once, and that backed the packers off a little bit.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association have asked for direct subsidies for producers. “USCA worked directly with Congressional offices and cattle producers to rally support for this letter – it came together really well,” said senior policy advisor Jess Peterson.

His group also voiced opposition to the corporate meatpackers being eligible for any of the CARES Act support.

NCBA voiced support for the subsidies as well. “America’s cattle producers have been hit hard by the unforeseen financial challenges brought on by this pandemic. We thank each and every lawmaker that showed their continued support to rural families by signing onto this critical letter,” said NCBA President Marty Smith, a family cow-calf operator from Wacahoota, Fla, in a news release. “We remain hopeful that USDA can quickly deliver this relief to the cattle producers that so desperately need it.”

“While the effects of COVID-19 will be felt across the country, we must ensure we avoid permanent, fundamental changes to workings of the American cattle market,” NCBA said in a March 19 news release.

R-CALF USA has asked for regulatory fixes, to help drive market prices upward, rather than subsidy assistance.

While Kenzy acknowledges that some producers may need direct assistance now, he said that concept isn’t a long-term solution.

“They talk about sustainability – this is so unsustainable,” he points out.

“We all want to be sustainable, we’ve always been about sustainability, but we can’t be sustainable if we’re not profitable.”

NCBA declined TSLN’s request for a phone interview for this story.

Leading up to the Coronavirus crisis, the cattle industry faced a multitude of challenges.

USDA announced in February that the agency had lifted the two-and-a-half-year ban on Brazilian beef, saying, “FSIS confirmed that Brazil has implemented the corrective actions and has determined that its food safety inspection system governing the production of raw intact beef is equivalent to that of the U.S.”

Before this announcement, industry-wide conversations were being had regarding the struggling state of the live cattle and feeder cattle markets.

Most, if not all, industry groups seem to agree that 15 or 20 percent of finished cattle sold in a “bid and buy” or negotiated pricing situation is not enough to determine the true value of the cattle. The 80 plus percent of cattle sold on contracts that are based on the sliver of “cash trades” are considered by many to be the “tail wagging the dog.” This problem is exacerbated by confidentiality rules that prevent many of the already limited cash trades from being publicly reported. The result is that the few cash trades that occur – which might consist of high quality cattle that grade well one week, and subpar, poor grading cattle the next, are setting the price for the hundreds of thousands of cattle that are slaughtered weekly.

Additionally, a disconnected futures system where many feeders sell cattle based on their hedge positions rather than the perceived value of their cattle, creates challenges for the other feeders who are then unable to get stronger bids than their “hedging” counterparts.

Following an August, 2019, packing plant fire in Holcomb, Kansas, it was reported that meatpacker profit margins climbed over $400 per head, well above the previous record of $308, according to Denver-based livestock marketing advisory service HedgersEdge.com.

The industry continues to reel from the market impacts of the plant fire (as far as slaughter capabilities, USDA data showed that more cattle were slaughtered in the weeks following the fire than those leading up to it).

The Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing panic buying of beef which brought about record gains in boxed beef prices has also been blamed for a record drop in live cattle prices. Ranchers and media pundits alike scratch their heads when learning about new record packer profits upward of $600 per head, according to hedgersedge.com.

Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley questions whether this constitutes possible price gouging of consumers and producers. South Dakota Republican Senator Rounds questions whether the big four meatpackers were price fixing.

In recent months, industry groups have called for any number of policy changes to revive the cow-calf and feeding sectors

Some are calling for better price insurance for cattle producers.

Others want mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, mandated minimum negotiated cash trades, more export opportunities and more.

Cattle ranchers are busy caring for calving cows and praying that their calf check this fall will be enough.

Farm Bureau: Prices down, more aid needed, Perdue in charge

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall today detailed farm price drops today and said more aid will be needed in future coronavirus aid packages.

On a phone call to reporters, Duvall noted that dairy prices have dropped 26 to 36%, the futures price for cotton is down 31%, hogs down 31%, cattle down 25%, corn down 14% and soybeans down 8%.

Duvall said that even though the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security (CARES) Act provided an additional $14 billion for the Commodity Credit Corporation, created a $9.5 billion emergency fund to help livestock, dairy and specialty crop farmers and included other provisions for the Agriculture Department to buy foods, Farm Bureau officials have “realized very quickly that that amount of aid is not enough to sustain us” and that“ it’s going to take is a lot more” to keep farmers going.

Asked which division of USDA is in charge of getting the aid out to farmers, Farm Bureau Vice President Dale Moore said that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is in charge.

“The secretary has a fairly expansive range of authorities. From what we understand he is working to look at all the angles,” Moore said.

Duvall added that Perdue told him this week the farm aid is “a very complicated deal,” that he “wants to be fair to everyone” and get the aid out as quickly as possible, but that he could not give a timeline on when the aid would arrive.

Paul Schlegel, vice president for public affairs, said that Farm Bureau is preparing a letter to Perdue on how the aid should be handled and that the organization hopes to send it today.

An aide said that the letter would not differentiate between the use of the Commodity Credit Corporation authority, which is usually used to aid crop farmers, and the emergency fund, which has been designed to help producers who do not get aid through the Title I programs.

Schlegel added, “This is an extremely fluid situation. We are learning as we go as to what those needs are and what we can do about it. We don’t have concrete asks at the moment.”

Duvall said that low prices “do not tell the whole story” of the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

He noted that consumers have seen empty dairy cases while dairy farmers have been dumping milk because they don’t have buyers. He said a Walmart executive told him today that there was a shortage of milk initially, but that it has been resolved.

Alan Reed, a dairy farmer from Idaho, noted that cows need to be milked once or more daily in order to maintain good health. Reed said he owns retail stores, but sees very little traffic in them.

“It is puzzling to have a product and no place to go with it,” he said.

There was a surge of demand for beef and no shortage of supply, but prices went up while prices paid to cattle farmers went down, Duvall pointed out.

Consumer demand has risen in grocery stores, but that “pales in comparison” to the loss of sales to restaurants, schools and universities.

“It is not simply a matter of supply and demand. The entire supply chain is trying to adapt,” he said.

Veronica Nigh, a Farm Bureau economist, also noted that the decline in ethanol should be taken into consideration. In addition to the problems of corn farmers, the decline in ethanol production is reducing the supply of dry distillers grain that livestock producers use for feed and CO2, a gas used in meat processing.

Peter Bakken, a cattle farmer in southwest Minnesota, said that a call from an investment banker showed him that people are not as aware of the problems that coronavirus has caused in agriculture as they should be

The banker said he knew what was happening in the stock market, but wondered what was happening with cattle. Bakken said that “for the most part” his business is operating as usual while he practices care to avoid being infected with the coronavirus. Bakken said he is also focusing on keeping costs down.

Jim Alderman, a vegetable farmer from Palm Beach County, Fla., said that his business has been damaged because “the food service industry is basically shut down.” Alderman said he was referring to restaurants, clubs, cruise ships and Disney World.

Alderman said he still has “some fairly decent retail business,” but that squash has to get picked daily or it gets too big to sell

But the current price — $4 for a half bushel box of squash — is “way below” the cost of production including picking and packing, he said. Farmers have to keep on picking in order to prepare the ground for the next crop, he added.

In a month or six weeks, he said, the harvest will be over in South Florida and the same problems will be seen in more northern states.

Alderman complained that, while American produce farmers can’t find a market, produce is still coming in from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.

“We are in a bad situation,” Alderman said, noting that he started farming in 1979, has been through hurricanes and other weather disasters, but ”this is something we have never seen.”

Asked by The Hagstrom Report whether products could be diverted to food banks, Moore said Farm Bureau is talking to food banks about delivering food to them The idea is particularly relevant for farmers who sell to farmers markets because many farmers markets already have relationships with food banks, he said.

Alderman said he would be happy to provide food to food banks if they would pay for the cost of picking, packing, cooling and shipping the products. Alderman said that he has donated excess food to food banks in the past, but has not heard from any during the coronavirus crisis.

Getting milk to food banks is “a logistical challenge,” Reed said.

And Bakken noted that meat going to food banks has to be federally inspected.

But he added that local residents have shown an interest in buying meat “off the farm” to top up their personal lockers.

–The Hagstrom Report