State ramps up opioid response

By COLTON WOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING — Last October, President Donald Trump called the nation’s opioid crisis a public emergency.

Now, six months after his announcement, Michigan has taken more steps to strengthen the state’s battle against opioids.

“The news has definitely been reporting on the opioid crisis for a while now, and, yes, it continues,” said Monica Gonzalez-Walker, the clinical implementation and engagement manager of Michigan OPEN — the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network.

Data published by the governor’s office says the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed has decreased by 10.7 percent since 2015. For the first time since 2011, the total number of controlled substance prescriptions dispensed in Michigan dropped to below 20 million.

“The decrease is a result of our partnerships and collective efforts to raise awareness among patients and health professionals,” said Shelly Edgerton, the director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. “We, along with our partners, will continue our targeted education and outreach efforts to fight back against this devastating public health crisis.”

In 2015, 10,833,681 opioid prescriptions were written in Michigan, contrasted with 6,670,989 in 2017.

“These figures are promising indicators for our continuing efforts against the opioid epidemic in Michigan,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said. That means “less potentially addictive opioids in our communities.”

Calley chaired the governor’s Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force.

To continue that trend, he said there’s a need for “a conscientious approach to prescribing and dispensing while managing care for patients.”

Even before Trump’s announcement on the opioid crisis, Rep. Joseph Bellino Jr., R-Monroe, had introduced legislation to assist in Michigan’s battle against opioids.

“My district got opioids early — 10, 12 years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s everywhere in the United States. It’s affected my family — I lost a cousin. It affected my work. It affecting my community, my school. It’s hurt all of us.”

Last December, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Bellino’s bill that restricts the amount of opioid prescriptions given to children.

“My bill says if you’re a minor, you have to have your parent or guardian’s signature OK’ed for the doctor or provider to give you an opioid for pain, Bellino said.

Several other restrictions on opioids will be put into place later this year. On June 1, health care providers must be registered in the Mandatory Michigan Automated Prescription System before prescribing controlled substances.

As of July 1, doctors treating patients with acute pain won’t be able to prescribe more than a seven-day supply of an opioid within a seven-day period.

Autism diagnosis doesn’t come with a job

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — To combat high rates of unemployment among autistic individuals, mental health organizations statewide are connecting them to job opportunities — or even hiring them directly.

No reliable source tracks employment rates for adults with autism, according to Autism NOW, a national information center. Employment statistics generally fail to identify specific groups like those on the autism spectrum.

However, using results from a U.S. Department of Education study of youth who received special education services, the center suggested that young adults with autism are less likely to work than most other disability groups.

Thirty-three percent of young adults in the study with autism spectrum disorders had a paid job, compared to 59 percent for all disabled respondents.

Northern Transitions, a nonprofit community rehabilitation organization in Sault Ste. Marie, hires people with autism to assist with janitorial work and help with the county recycling service run through the organization.

The nonprofit connects people to jobs with local businesses as well. For example, Northern Transitions partners with the famed Soo Locks, placing autistic individuals into janitorial jobs around the park and supplying summer staff for its visitors’ center.

“Some people just come in the door — you know, ‘Hey, I’m a person with a disability and I’m looking for a job,’” said Karl Monroe, Northern Transitions’ rehabilitation director. “Some people we hire and some people we send to a job developer that works with about 40 companies down here and does placements.”

People with autism can bring unique skills to the workplace, Monroe said. Although autism can severely impact one’s social skills, it also often comes with an increased level of concentration and attention to detail.

Monroe told of an individual who found a grocery store job through Northern Transitions’ employment program and began to spot things most other employees simply skipped over.

“He’s noticing stuff that needs to be thrown away — which is not something that the boss appreciates,” Monroe said, tongue in cheek. “He’s the only person they have who always pays attention to the expiration dates.”

To better prepare people with autism for the workplace, the state has to start with fixing its special education system, said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who chairs the Michigan Special Education Reform Task Force and has a daughter with autism.

“Now, even though we expect much more mainstreaming of kids with disabilities into general education settings, just putting a kid in a classroom is not really inclusion unless you have expertise on staff,” Calley said. “You can be as isolated in the classroom as you were if you’re not in the classroom if the student is not supported the way they need to be supported.”

“Our special education — we have to do better with that. If we do, I think it will open up more employment opportunities,” he said.

In 2012, Calley championed autism insurance legislation that eventually became law.  It mandated that insurance policies cover applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.

While Monroe said he sees value in such services for managing the symptoms of autism, there’s less clarity about whether they impact career readiness.

Autism affects people in such diverse ways — from self-injury and speech difficulties in severe cases, to delayed social skills in more high-functioning individuals — that an autistic person’s success in employment depends more on the individuals and the field of work they end up in, he said.

Not all employers are equipped to hire autistic individuals, however — especially ones  with more severe symptoms. Even if individuals are prepared with the skills necessary to enter the workforce, finding an employer with the resources to accommodate their other needs is a separate challenge.

While the federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits employment discrimination based on disability, federal law also says employers don’t have to accommodate disabilities if doing so would cause “significant difficulty or expense” for the employer.

There’s no formula by which employers can figure out what would constitute “significant difficulty,” said Mark Cody, the legal director for the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, although the size of a company is one consideration.

“The cost of the hardship for a small company of 20 or 25 employees is going to have a bigger impact than a place like General Motors,” Cody said.

However, Cody said the law is generally tailored to both employer and employee needs. Treating the accommodations process as a continuing conversation can give potential employees the best shot at securing a job, while protecting employers from discrimination suits.

Autistic individuals seeking employment would be best served by submitting their request in writing and having a “give-and-take discussion” with the employer about what exactly they need on the job to perform their essential duties, Cody said.

“There’s a fair degree of flexibility, and it can work well for both employer and employee,” Cody said. “If the employer is too bureaucratic or too rigid, that’s where they tend to get into trouble because they don’t really work with the employee to figure out what needs to be done.”

Northern Transitions’ Monroe said employment is a quality-of-life matter for people with autism, and overcoming the many barriers to their employment is almost always a positive.

“I think you’d have a lot more happy persons with disabilities if more of them were employed,” Monroe said. “When you identify yourself, I think most people start out with what they do for a living.

“There are a lot of values to work besides a check.”

Regulations threaten services for disabled, nonprofits say

By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service

LANSING — Facilities employing and training people with disabilities face increased regulations that will decrease the amount of help they can provide, nonprofit program experts say.

Federal regulations intending to provide disabled residents with more community integrated programs for employment education have vocational rehabilitation facilities worrying that changes may mean less choice for participants.

Vocational rehabilitation facilities around Michigan specialize in working with people  with physical and mental disabilities. The goal is to enable them to find employment. Services include socialization skills, resume building, career planning, transportation assistance and job placement.

The U.S. Census Bureau says 75 percent of the 552,000 persons living with a cognitive disability in Michigan are unemployed. The poverty rate for Michigan residents with disabilities is 28 percent.

Federal law requires vocational rehabilitation facilities to provide more opportunities for work experience in community settings. The intent is to ensure that facilities don’t  isolate participants from the broader population in what are referred to as sheltered workshops.

North Eastern Michigan Rehabilitation and Opportunity Center, a nonprofit manufacturing facility in Alpena, employs around a hundred individuals with disabilities, said David Szydlowski, its chief executive officer.

Employees are trained on site by job coaches and receive training to operate forklifts, pay loaders and industrial saws. The program also contracts out employees to provide custodial services to local businesses.

Szydlowski said the problem is the Michigan Department of Community Health’s interpretation of federal law. If the program gets a contract for a local cement plant for two people to move tables, or to paint a room, it cannot assign two disabled individuals to be on that job together.

“In order to comply to the regulations, I’ll have to take away those jobs for disabled workers,” Szydlowski said.

Determination of compliance can vary by local health departments, he said.

“There are community rehab programs across the state and across the nation that are saying that this isn’t an issue and those two people can continue to work together because they are working in the community for a local business,” Szydlowski said.

Todd Culver, the chief executive officer for the Michigan Association of Rehabilitation Organizations, said, “If these rules and regulations are implemented in a way that is not fair to the individuals receiving services, then it can impact the quality of their life.”  

According to Culver, Health and Human Services developed a test for a thousand different environmental settings that facilities may operate in and is determining which ones qualify for Medicaid funding.

“We’re right in the middle of going through that data,” he said

According to Culver, if a program fails the test, there’s an opportunity to follow a corrective action plan.

Rehabilitation facilities argue that the law shouldn’t restrict a participant’s choice in where to go for services.

Another facility which was cited for non-compliance is Grand Traverse Industries in Traverse City. It’s now following a corrective action plan.

“This is a regulatory nightmare,” said Steve Perdue, the facility’s president.

“We’re working through the Home and Community Based Services waiver with our Northern Michigan entity and thus far are optimistic that we are in compliance,” Perdue said. “They’ve gotten back to us on certain issues and we made changes that we believe will have us in compliance.”

The nonprofit’s annual report said 31 percent of its services were conducted outside of its main facility.

More counselors suggested by schools plagued by threats

By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service

LANSING —  Michigan schools are experiencing increased threats of violence in the months following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, when 19 students were killed.

The number of threats or acts of violence in schools is three times higher across the nation since February, according to the Educators School Safety Network, a nonprofit that tracks media reports of violence. It regularly reports Michigan as being in the top 10 in the nation for such incidents.

Two shootings have occurred at Michigan schools since 2016.

In Northern Michigan, police have investigated three potential threats at Traverse City West High School and one at Petoskey High School since mid-February.

Two cases concerned friends who responded to a threat made by a classmate. None of the instances was found to be a credible threat of violence.

“I don’t think the hypersensitivity to threats is a bad thing right now,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school staff.

“At the root cause of this are students who really need help,” Pratt said. “We need to be able to provide the holistic education for a kid, and that includes taking care of their mental wellbeing.”

In 2015, the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District developed a crisis response team of two social workers and nine psychologists to address the needs that its school often face.

“The crisis team offers training for all the local school districts and academies,” said Carol Greilick, the district’s assistant superintendent of special education.

“Trauma and crisis are in the eyes of the beholder,” Greilick said. “It may be a relatively simple thing, such as a student losing a family member, or it could be a school district losing a student or teacher.”

In response to the sudden death of a teacher last year, the crisis team provided  assistance.

“The team worked with administrators in both districts to plan a response,” Greilick said. “They set up counseling rooms, planned the script for informing students and worked step by step through the response anticipating student needs, family needs and staff needs.”

Addressing student concerns is more difficult with less staff, said Tamara Kolodziej, a guidance counselor at Petoskey High School.

The average ratio for K-12 schools in the U.S. is 482 students per counselor. In Michigan, which has seen a 25 percent decrease in school counselors since 2005, the ratio is 729 students for each counselor.

In response to concerns about school safety and student welfare, the Senate is considering a bill that would allocate an additional $50 million towards hiring more guidance counselors, social workers and armed resource officers.

“Here at Petoskey we have two counselors for a thousand students,” Kolodziej said. “We’re lucky because they’re going to be hiring another counselor next year. We’ve been down to two counselors for the last seven years.”

Guidance counselors are responsible for “data maintenance, scheduling classes, transcripts, communicating with parents and staff —  it’s a lot for two people,” she said.

“Our biggest job is organizing testing,” said Kolodziej.

Those obligations mean that counselors get less face time with students. “We each generally see 10 to 12 students in our office a day,” Kolodziej said.

Kolodziej emphasized the difference between a guidance counselor and a licensed therapist.

Petoskey High School has a licensed therapist practicing on site. Therapy isn’t free but having one on site provides easier access for students seeking mental health services.

Addressing student mental health needs will take adjustments on the part of schools.

“We need to arm educators with smaller class sizes, more counselors and better security measures,” the MEA’s Pratt said.

Students are well aware that the potential for violence exists, Pratt said. “Even at a young age, you have elementary schools going through lockdown drills.”

Teachers and counsellors are not the only ones who should be responsible for students’ welfare, he said. The whole school system is responsible.

“A classroom teacher’s job is to help every student learn the material,” Pratt said.

“We can’t ask educators to do everything,” Pratt said. “They need to be able to assess the situations, but they also need the resources to follow up.”

Boating is up, and so are accidents

By AGNES BAO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Are Michigan waters getting less safe for boaters, with or without motors?

The number of recreational boating accidents in the state increased from 92 in 2013 to 125 in 2016, and deaths increased from 21 in 2012 to 38 in 2016, according to the latest report from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Accidents are happening on inland waters and on the Great Lakes. Last year, for example, on July 22, a 45-year-old woman was critically injured after a boat crash near Grand Haven.

On Aug. 6, a 23-year-old woman died from injuries caused by being thrown from a tube into another boat on Sand Lake in Clare County.

And on Sept. 17, a 23-year-old Holland man died in a personal watercraft accident on Lake Michigan.

One factor in the rising accident toll is the increasing popularity of paddle sports  — participation is up about 7 percent annually, experts say.

Over the last five years,  the number of powered vessels and paddle craft has grown steadily, said Dennis Nickels of Grand Haven, the chair of the state’s Waterways Commission.

There are more than 600,000 paddle sport vessels in the state, according to the Coast Guard.

“In three years, the number of paddle crafts in Michigan water will exceed the number of powered vessels,” Nickels said.

As a paddling enthusiast for over 40 years, Nickels said he’s  “extremely excited about promoting the paddle sports in Michigan, but we’ve got to find a way to keep them safe.”

July and August are the heaviest boating months, said Jeff Pendergraff, Crawford County’s undersheriff in charge of the Marine Division.

To make sure of boaters’ safety, the Marine Division strengthens its workforce from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, Pendergraff said. “Some officers retired from other places, and they come and work here [for the Marine Division] in the summer to do marine enforcement.”

“Generally, there was an accident and alcohol was involved,” he said, adding that many people aren’t aware they cannot operate a boat well while drinking.

The general things that Crawford County’s Marine Division looks into include whether boaters wear life jackets, checking that they’re not drinking too much and making sure jet skis don’t get too close to swim areas, boats and anchors, Pendergraff said.

Chris Dekker, the chair of West Michigan Offshore, said that to improve boating safety, the Hudsonville-based powerboat club provides members with safety videos and a code of conduct to educate and regulate boaters’ behaviors.

The big factors that cause boating accidents are excess speed and alcohol, Dekker said. “Just staying on the basics and having a healthy fear of what can happen on the water is the key.”

New findings raise concerns about avian malaria in Southwest Michigan

By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – The blood parasites that infect songbirds with avian malaria are far more diverse in Southwest Michigan than scientists knew, raising troubling questions about the spread of the disease and its impact on dozens of species of birds.

“Parasitism is a widely occurring interaction that drives ecological and evolutionary processes and has profound impacts on biological systems,” according to a newly published study by scientists at Western Michigan University.

And climate change could worsen the problem, said the researchers who tested 726 songbirds from dozens of species.

“As global temperatures continue to rise, the Great Lakes Basin will be of importance to malaria distribution as many vector species shift or extend their regions,” the study said. The region has more than 20,000 inland lakes, roughly 30,000 miles of flowing water, many wetlands and more than 400 species of migratory and resident birds.

Avian malaria can’t infect people or other mammals, according to biologist Maarten Vonhof at Western Michigan’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, but it can kill birds and harm their ability to reproduce.

“During the acute phase, birds can be very sick. It can cause them to die – they can’t forage in the same way, feed their offspring in the same way,” said Vonhof, a co-author of the study published in the journal “Parasitology Research.”

“None of us like to think about parasitism or disease, but parasites have a huge impact on the lives of organisms, including humans,” he said.

The project targeted 11 common species such as American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals and yellow warblers. But members of 44 other species were also tested, including barn sparrows and red-winged blackbirds.

None of the birds are endangered or threatened in Michigan but one species, the field sparrow, is in steep decline. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimated a 69 percent decline in field sparrows from 1966 to 2015.

The team netted the birds, then banded, screened and released them in 12 Southwest Michigan counties.

More than 40 percent of the tested birds had the parasites, the study said.

The scientists found 71 kinds – lineages — of parasites, 42 of them previously unknown to science, Vonhof said.

“There’s all this undiscovered parasite diversity we were simply unaware of,” he said.

The Midwest diversity of avian blood parasites is likely much higher, the study said.

The avian malaria study is part of broader research at Western Michigan on how human activities influence the interrelationship of species, Vonhof said.

Another piece of that research, led by graduate student and lead author Jamie Smith, examines the impact of urbanization on avian malaria.

“Birds in urban environments have a lower prevalence of avian malaria,” Vonhof said. One reason may be that development eliminates wetlands and other habitats where mosquitoes breed.

Old UP avalanche teaches new lesson to rescuers

By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Dead isn’t always dead.

That’s the lesson learned from the near-miraculous survival of a 12-year-old Upper Peninsula skier who was buried head-down and unconscious in an avalanche for at least three hours.

Although the incident took place almost 80 years ago, a newly published study in the journal “Wilderness & Environmental Medicine” says it offers an important lesson for rescuers today.

The study, based on news coverage in the Ironwood Daily Globe, recounts the 1939 experience of Henry Takala, who suffered from hypothermia, a condition with an abnormally and dangerously low body temperature.

Avalanches in Michigan are “rare but not unknown,” according to the study.

A number involving the complete burials of victims have been reported in the Upper and Lower peninsulas, including a fatal 1924 accident that killed a rabbit hunter at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Michigan’s last known avalanche fatality occurred in 1982, also at Sleeping Bear Dunes, said Dale Atkins, a past president of the American Avalanche Association and co-author of the study. The National Park Service now warns winter visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that avalanches are possible on steep dunes.

So how is an 80-year-old Michigan avalanche relevant today? And what happened to Henry Takala?

As the boy was skiing, an overhanging snowdrift broke off, totally burying him and partially burying his companion. Henry’s father and neighbors dug him out and took him home, where the father administered artificial respiration for three hours.

Snow-blocked roads kept a doctor from arriving quickly.

“Whenever the father stopped his first aid work, his son would stop breathing and the work would have to be resumed,” the Ironwood Daily Globe reported. “It looked hopeless at the time, and so the father was told by the neighbors, but he continued until the boy recovered.”

The father, a miner, had learned first aid on the job.

“Although Henry appeared dead to his father at the time of extrication (from the avalanche), he was most likely breathing spontaneously. In hypothermic subjects, breathing may be shallow and difficult to detect,” the study said.

Two days after the accident, “The boys are no worse for their experience,” the newspaper reported. “Henry feels soreness in one of his legs.”

Michigan has the terrain and in some years the weak, soft layers of snow that are conducive to avalanches, Atkins said. While many people associate avalanches with the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada and Cascades, they can happen anywhere steep slopes are covered in snow.

Atkins described a 1954 incident that killed two 12-year-old boys who were sledding west of Marquette at an abandoned iron mine. Thomas Lecklin and Ernest Falo of Negaunee were buried in 10 feet of snow and a third boy was rescued.

The Michigan Snowmobile Safety Course acknowledges that they’re rare in the state, but advises snowmobilers to check with local officials if visiting a known avalanche area.

Such areas include slopes steeper than 30 degrees and where there are “overhanging masses of snow or ice, often found on a ridge,” according to the safety course. “Before crossing an unstable slope, look for possible escape routes should an avalanche occur.”

Atkins said, “Time is the enemy of the buried victim. Nature is not very kind. More people die than survive avalanche burials.”

Ken Zafren, the lead author of the study and an emergency physician in Anchorage, Alaska.

said someone with hypothermia “might look dead but might be alive. Don’t give up.”

That’s the lesson of the story of Henry Takala.

Rescuers “should attempt to resuscitate a hypothermia victim unless there is an obvious condition that is not compatible with life, such as decapitation or a completely obstructed airway,” the study said.

“Don’t give up until the victim is warm and dead or warm and alive.”

Music strains: injured performers strike sour notes

By KHAL MALIK
Capital News Service

LANSING —  You’ve got to be tough to play music.

Stress as diverse as tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and anxiety from being forced to stop doing what you love all take a toll on musicians.

Music-related injuries are commonly associated with playing too much, according to John Hopkins University Magazine. Professional and student musicians often play four to eight hours per day, most of the time without any rest days.

An Australian survey of 377 professional orchestra performers found that 84 percent of those studied had experienced pain directly related to their profession.

Music-related injuries span genres. Members of marching bands routinely face ankle, knee and neck injuries. Rockers and other performers brave the dangers of moshing and stage-diving.

Those are dangerous enough that venues like the Flint Local 432 in downtown Flint have banned both practices.

The event coordinator of the Local, Sara Johnson, said that’s because the venue is intended to be a place where young people can explore music in a safe environment.

“Many people coming through our doors are attending their first live show,” she said. “Our attendees are equally likely to be 14 years old or 40, and we have to be a place parents feel safe bringing or potentially leaving their kids.”

University of Michigan – Flint student Michael Puro, is a huge supporter of the hardcore and punk scene in and around mid-Michigan.

Black eyes, nosebleeds and blows to the head are common at intense and rowdy shows, he said.

But generally music injuries are related to playing instruments.

Central Michigan University bass performance graduate Kosta Kapellas has experienced injury firsthand and witnessed other students dealing with the physical and mental toll of playing music.

As an upright bassist, Kapellas has dealt with numerous finger injuries. And he’s had back pain from hauling his 50-pound instrument around campus.

“My fingers have been torn apart more times than I can count,” he said. “The back thing definitely knocked me out for a few days.”

Mental stress is also a consequence of being a musician, he said.

“I tend to find burnout super-common, and that tends to pop up a ton in music schools because of the crazy amount of work and demands the school puts on the students,” Kapellas said.

Injuries to musicians need a more nuanced diagnosis and treatment than standard trauma, according to Judy Palac, a Michigan State University music professor emeritus who chairs the Musicians’ Wellness Team.

Palac established the team in 2004 as a better resource for injured students than simply visiting the school clinic, she said. “Other doctors might say, ‘Well if that hurts just don’t do it.’ That’s not always possible for musicians.”

The team is comprised of music professors, physicians, physical therapists and psychotherapists. Their mission is to consult with and refer injured students to “appropriate treatment resources available on and off campus,” according to its website. The teams also research and promote strategies to reduce the risk of injuries among musicians.

Case studies have shown that treatments such as rest are “not to be considered a safe” method for many common injuries to musicians, Palac said. That’s because taking a break from the activity doesn’t address why the injury occurred in the first place.

To combat this, she says the team holds a monthly “consult and refer clinic.”

The Wellness Team “provides no cost appointments to students who are having issues, so they can get the right care they need,” she said. “We don’t treat them or diagnose, we just try to send them in the right direction.”

While that’s helpful, there’s room for improvement, said Emily Roberts, a music therapist and doctoral student in music performance at MSU.

Many of the problems have to do with the lack of emphasis placed on health by music schools, she said.

The Musicians’ Wellness Team “is really not very accessible. Students really don’t know about it,” she said.

Even if they do, there isn’t much the team can do besides refer students to an additional physician, she said. And a musician’s health course was recently removed from the curriculum, putting students at a further disadvantage.

“The first step is education,” Roberts said. “The musician’s health course was probably the most important course of my schooling — bringing it back is an important step. Hopefully from there, there could be a physician at the College of Music that could be there for [injured] students.”

Roberts wants the public to truly understand the physical demand of being a musician. “One thing that people often forget is that we are athletes, and we train very specific muscles like athletes, so we get injured just like athletes.”

Khal Malik writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Withdrawal drugs, banned in Michigan prisons, show promise elsewhere

By COLTON WOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING — New evidence by Brown University and a recently announced federal investigation may lead to more states allowing the use of addiction treatment medications to prisoners struggling with substance abuse behind bars.

Currently, Rhode Island is the only state that provides its inmates with all three FDA-approved addiction medications — methadone, buprenorphine and a form of naltrexone called Vivitrol.

Brown University researchers concluded that providing inmates with medication to treat addiction not only reduces overdose deaths after they’re released but increases inmates’ chances of avoiding arrest in the future.

In Michigan, the use of such medications by drug-addicted inmates is prohibited.

“When an inmate comes in, we screen them to see if they’re on anything,” Lt. Ebony Simmons-Rasco of the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department said.

“And if they are on anything, they put them on a withdrawal protocol, which means they go and check their vitals because they’re not going to get anything. A lot of drugs aren’t allowed in the facility,” Simmons-Rasco said.

She said those inmates are put into a withdrawal program and monitored for fluid intake, vital signs and behavioral changes.

However, methadone, which is itself addictive, can be used in Michigan if an inmate is pregnant and needs the medication.

Simmons-Rasco said one reason drugs are restricted is because people lie.

“The problem that we have in prisons is when you administer drugs to some people, people lie,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m on this, and I need to be on the withdrawal protocol.’”

Then when they get such medication as methadone, inmates may keep it in their mouths, she said. “We have a problem with people hoarding meds, so that’s why certain medications aren’t allowed in the facility.”

Muskegon Correctional Facility Sgt. Alexander Thompson agrees with Simmons-Rasco and said he doesn’t see Michigan changing its policies regarding substance withdrawal medication in its prisons.

“My experience with what this particular problem presents is not them gaining the medication and getting out,” Thompson said. “It’s them getting out of prison and affording the medication when they’re out in society.

“It’s the key contributing factor. In our facility, we can monitor medication in a very controlled environment. But when they’re out of here, their willingness or ability is drastically reduced,” he said.

Jenn Thompson is very familiar with substance addiction.

Thompson struggled with hard drugs for five years. She had hit rock bottom after she was arrested for possessing cocaine with the intent to sell it. She was released from jail after serving one weekend and was placed on probation. Then a friend overdosed while the two were snorting cocaine.

She had no rent money, but had plenty of cocaine. She called her dad, confessed and asked for help.

“I had just turned 21,” she said. “I relapsed once and cleaned up. At 22 — pregnant. And never went back.”

Thompson, who is now an advocate against drug use and has been clean since 2003, said she firmly believes medication should be available to any inmate suffering from addiction.

“They should get medicine for safe withdrawal,” she said. “Opiates and alcohol have deadly withdrawals — literally deadly for some. And then skills and strategies to not reuse on release. It is cruel and unusual punishment to not give a person medical treatment for withdrawal.”

Rural bicyclists, mindful of road deaths, look for safer measures

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — For bicyclists, a 2016 crash that killed five and left four injured is still a potent reminder of the importance of protecting non-motorized vehicles that take the road.

“That was an event that has been unprecedented in Michigan history,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, communications director for the League of Michigan Bicyclists. “The attention that the tragedy brought to the issue of bicycling safety really helped bring about positive solutions.”

The crash in rural Cooper Township, north of Kalamazoo, highlighted some of the issues with rural biking that the Legislature and local governments have since aimed to address.

Ten Michigan cities have adopted “complete street” ordinances and resolutions in response to a 2010 law that aimed to make all roads accessible for both motorized and non-motorized traffic. These cities include Manistique, Sault Ste. Marie and Lansing.

However, Kiersnowski said there were factors in that crash that could not have been prevented with improved legislation.

Charles Pickett, Jr., the driver of the pickup truck that hit the nine bicyclists, faces charges including five counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death. Investigators have not determined exactly why Pickett was driving so erratically.

Jury selection for Pickett’s trial is scheduled to start April 23.

Because of the Cooper Township incident — and the rate at which incidents involving motorized vehicles and bicyclists could be prevented — Kiersnowski said the League of Michigan Bicyclists is trying to get people to stop using the word “accident” in reference to those incidents. The organization prefers the term “crash.”

One of the best ways to ensure bicyclists’ safety in rural areas? Maintain dedicated trails, according to Scott Slavin, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) unit manager for William Mitchell State Park and the White Pine Trail.

The White Pine, a 94-mile trail between Comstock Park and Cadillac, runs along the former Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad.

Outside of the snowy season, there is no motorized traffic allowed on the White Pine.

“That’s definitely a safety factor and a comfort factor,” Slavin said. “Most people that use it know that there’s not going to be motor vehicle traffic, so if they’re taking small children they feel comfortable riding bikes down there.”

Kiersnowski said that while rural trails do have their benefits, they may not be as safe as they might seem, given the wide variety of speeds at which walkers, bicyclists and motorized traffic use them.

“They’re not necessarily safer because they are multi-user trails most of the time,” Kiersnowski said. “Although smaller, more rural areas do a lot to build up their trails, it shouldn’t be the end-all be-all for bicycle safety.”

During the winter, a large northern portion of the trail is open to snowmobiles. Slavin said that due to the efforts of the Pere Marquette Snowmobile Club, based in Evart, to maintain the trail — like clearing it of brush for better sight lines — fat-tire bikes and snowmobiles have been able to co-exist without any concerns.

The Snowmobile Club’s efforts are an example of how the DNR partners with local non-profits and volunteer groups to maintain the White Pine Trail, Slavin said.

This collaboration with local organizations on day-to-day maintenance is often necessary, as inconsistent funding from the federal levels can leave parks holding the bill.

The financial uncertainty of the Kal-Haven Trail, which runs between Kalamazoo and South Haven, speaks to that point. The Kal-Haven has gained and lost various features over the years, such as a shuttle program for one-way bikers and a trail pass system to pay for maintenance.

Nearly $50 million in federal funds through the Transportation Alternatives Program were available to the state in fiscal year 2016, according to data compiled by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that preserves unused rail corridors for use as bike trails.

That was up drastically from a 10-year low of just under $10 million in 2009, but below 2006’s peak of $65 million.

This program authorizes funding for programs and projects defined as transportation alternatives, including on- and off-road pedestrian and bicycle facilities, according to the Federal Highway Administration.