Credit requirements, funding hinder class options for students, experts say

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING — When retired Clintondale Community Schools teacher Ken Austin started teaching in 1974, the vocational technical education department was largest department in the building, he said.

“Now, there’s nothing left,” Austin said. “I was really the last man standing as far as what they used to call ‘shop classes,’ and through budgetary constraints even that was eliminated. And that’s kind of why I retired — because there wasn’t any work for me to do.”

It’s a situation that Michigan employer groups seek to rectify.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of vocational classes, Austin said. One is more stringent local and state class requirements..

“Gradually over time, at my particular school and just in general, course offerings for those kinds of classes kind of stayed on the books, but they’re driven by how many students are available to sign up for them and there became fewer and fewer opportunities for students to take those classes,” Austin said.

The Michigan Manufacturers Association supports efforts to change the state’s graduation requirements to be friendlier to technical education, said Chuck Hadden, the group’s president.

“We find that the curriculum is very rigid and doesn’t give you the opportunity to work with your hands a lot of times,” Hadden said.

A good example is foreign language requirements, which Hadden said should include computer language options.

Welding should be considered an alternative to taking Algebra 2, he said.

“You need Algebra 2 to be able to weld,” Hadden said. “We’re not trying to lower the standards, we’re trying to keep the standards high but give some alternatives out there that could allow people to work with their hands and still graduate.”

While foreign language is important for those going on to higher education, it should not be required if a student’s wants and needs don’t align with them, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said.

“When funding dries up and standards of graduation increase in the core areas… when is there time for me to take a welding class, which is what I really want to do?” Herbart said. “When is there time for me to take these introductory medical classes in the career and technical education department, when I am required to take four years of a foreign language which I may or may not ever use?”

As budgets shrank, expensive classes like vocational and teaching classes became easy targets, Austin said.

Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed an additional minimum per-pupil funding increase of roughly $230 per pupil for the coming year’s budget.

But longstanding problems with funding and stricter curricula have starved public school programs that once provided course work in welding, small engine repair, culinary arts, agriculture, computer-assisted design and other programs, Herbart said.

“Gov. (Rick) Snyder talks about it like he invented this pathway. I want to just choke him and say ‘Before you cut the funding we had those programs, and then you starved those programs and now you want them back again?’ Well, we’re happy to do it,” Herbart said. “We can’t even get certified teachers in those areas anymore because we starved this funding so bad that those teachers couldn’t get jobs so they stopped going into that as a profession.”

Losing vocational classes is a disservice to students and the community, Austin said. Many of his students were able to get apprenticeships or industrial work because of technical classes.

“Even students that I had many years later would come back and say, ‘You know, I’m an engineer now, but the classes that I took with you and others proved invaluable to my understanding of how things work.’

“I think we’ve made a mistake, but I’ve sang that song for 40-plus years and not too many people were listening, and I would still sing it but nobody’s paying a lot of attention.”

Teacher salaries down statewide, with one exception

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Teacher salaries in Michigan dropped an average of $333 from 2011-12 to 2016-17,  except in the smallest school districts, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Districts with enrollments below 500 paid teachers an average of $47,337 in 2016-17, an increase of nearly $2,500 over 2011-12.

For example, Hillman Community Schools in Montmorency County, a district with 437 students in 2016-17, saw average teacher pay rise 5 percent over the prior five years even as enrollment dipped by 14 percent.

But local administrators say that trends in average salary figures are misleading in small districts.

Since low-enrollment districts employ far fewer teachers, their average salaries are volatile, said DeTour Area Schools superintendent Angela Reed.

Her Chippewa County district is an example of that volatility. It employed the equivalent of 11.4 full-time teachers in 2016-17. DeTour’s average teacher salary of $92,498 in 2016-17 was the highest in the state, according to state figures.

Yet only five years earlier, DeTour ranked 33rd, with an average salary more than $20,000 lower than it was in 2016-17.

In DeTour the high average salary is due in part to the district’s “highly educated, experienced” teachers, Reed said. The loss of that experience is likely to prompt a major drop in the district’s average salaries when those teachers retire.

“If they all leave and I replace them with $35,000 teachers, that brings our average salary down quite a bit,” Reed said.

Burr Oak Community School District, in St. Joseph County, saw volatile shifts in its average salaries as well. After decreasing by nearly $3,000 from 2011-12 to 2015-16, teachers’ average pay rebounded to $40,272 in 2016-17 — slightly above the mark from 2011-12, according to state figures.

Another reason average salaries are misleading is because some districts supply teachers to other schools who are not counted in the final figures. DeTour Area Schools supplies teachers to the DeTour Arts and Technologies Academy. Those salaries are counted in DeTour’s budget, but the teachers themselves are not included in the district’s teacher headcount.

Although average salaries in Michigan’s small districts have increased, they continue to lag behind the statewide average of $62,280 by nearly $15,000.

Since state funding to schools is on a per-pupil basis, the smallest districts often face hard choices, said Greg Warsen, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University’s College of Education.

“The non-classroom costs in a smaller district have to be spread over a smaller number of students,” Warsen said. “You’re probably still going to need an athletic director, you’re still probably going to need some bus drivers, you’re still going to have operational costs.

“The dollars that remain for teacher salaries proportionally are going to be lower,” he said.

That low pay means fewer people are entering teaching, said David Crim, a communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest union of teachers and instructional staff.

Average teacher salaries have fallen statewide for five of the past six years on record, and the number of teaching certificates awarded fell from 5,721 in 2011 to 3,696 in 2016, according to state records.

“Talk to MSU, Central, Western — 50 percent reduction in enrollment over the last eight years in all colleges of education around the state,” Crim said. “Students are not going into teaching.”

At the same time, teachers have been hurt by increases in costs of living, cuts to benefits and student loan debt, Crim said.

MEA President Paula Herbart praised the willingness of young educators to enter the field in such a climate.

“We are lucky that we have people who still find the calling so great that they are willing to sacrifice their own financial security to go into education,” Herbart said. “We must lift them up, and funding has a lot to do with that.”

Driver education may add bicycle safety lesson

By AGNES BAO
Capital News Service

LANSING – While bicycling soars in popularity, bicycle crashes are also increasing in Michigan.

Bicycle crashes increased 12 percent, up from 1,763 in 2014 to 1,988 in 2016, the most recent figures show. Thirty-eight bicyclists died in 2016, up 81 percent from 21 in 2014, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Although bicycle crashes account for less than 1 percent of all traffic crashes, “bicyclists are more seriously injured in these crashes,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, the director of development and communications at the League of Michigan Bicyclists.

Many drivers are unaware that bicyclists — not only motorists — have the right to use the roads, said Kiersnowski.

“Often motorists will shout things like ‘get off the road’ or ‘get on the sidewalk’ at bicyclists when they are lawfully riding on a roadway,” she said. “Some even attempt to ‘punish’ bicyclists for being in their way by passing them extremely and dangerously close.”

The most severe crashes occur when a bicyclist is hit from behind when both the bicyclist and motorist are traveling in the same direction, according to the state crash data.

To raise drivers’ awareness of bicycle safety, Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, sponsored a bill to improve the driver education curriculum.

It would require driver education classes to include at least one hour of instruction on laws pertaining to bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians and other “vulnerable roadway users.”

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has moved the bill to the House floor for a vote.

The cosponsors are Reps. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek; Holly Hughes, R-Montague; Bronna Kahle, R-Adrian; Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township; and Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills.

Alexander said some motorists are confused because communities have different types of bike pathways. Some are in the middle of the road, some are on the side and some are between the road and parking areas.

“We need to make sure our new drivers have the information and education to become a better and safer driver,” Alexander said.

The one-hour classroom instruction would come from the 1.5 hours of instructor discretion that is now in the curriculum. It wouldn’t affect the total hours of driver education and other content, she said.

Driver education programs already devote time to bicycle safety, said Mary Kay Relich, the secretary of the Michigan Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association based in Kalamazoo.

If the bill is signed into law, local instructors would follow the outline established by the Department of State, she said.

The department is responsible for the driver education curriculum.

To ensure drivers’ awareness of bicycle safety, Relich suggested that the department write questions to test their knowledge.

Besides advocating for the improvement of driver education, the League of Michigan Bicyclists is creating a web-based training program for adult bicyclists, children and motorists on bicycle safety.

Incorporating bicyclists into driver education training will help motorists build an understanding of bicylists’ behavior and lead to an environment where both are comfortable interacting with one another,” Kiersnowski said.

Work-for-welfare push on in Michigan

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s economy, on a slow upswing since the Great Recession, has recovered enough so the state is moving to reinstate stricter work requirements for recipients of federal food assistance.

The waiver of a three-month limit on some benefits for unemployed persons is being phased out.

In 2002, Michigan opted in to a federal waiver allowing states with high unemployment or low job availability to remove work requirements for able-bodied individuals without dependents.

Previously, they could receive benefits only through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program for up to three months every three years without meeting work requirements. The waiver eliminated the three-month limit, effectively allowing those without a job to receive assistance indefinitely.

Michigan used to have a statewide waiver of the federal requirements during the height of the economic downturn, according to Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. However, the state moved to “phase out” the waiver program by moving to a partial waiver last year.

“There have been significant improvements in the unemployment rate in Michigan over the last several years,” Wheaton said. “As a result, people who are trying to reenter the workforce, such as these individuals who were receiving the waiver, now have more job opportunities.”

Michigan is one of 28 states receiving a partial waiver, meaning the indefinite grace period for unemployed SNAP recipients will be revoked in counties with economic improvement but not in those that continue to struggle.

Fourteen of the 83 counties have reinstated the three-month time limit so far. Ionia, Allegan and Grand Traverse counties are among the 10 that have done so in 2018. Work requirements were reinstated in 2017 for Kent, Oakland, Ottawa and Washtenaw counties.

To continue receiving benefits, SNAP recipients in those counties must work an average of 20 hours per week each month or participate in an average of 20 hours per week in an approved training program.

Wheaton said that while there is no concrete time limit on phasing out the waiver entirely, it’s the department’s goal to reinstate work requirements in all counties by October.

The department is prepared to help individuals meet the work requirements and “become self-sufficient so they can be in a situation where, once their food assistance expires, they’re able to support themselves by working,” Wheaton said.

As the current waiver is phased out, some legislators are pushing to prevent future waivers.

A bill introduced by Rep. Kimberly LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, would do just that, as well as create an “identity authentication process” for welfare applicants to prevent fraud. The bill is pending in the House Appropriations Committee.

Cosponsors include GOP Reps. Triston Cole of Mancelona, Roger Victory of Hudsonville and Jim Lilly of Park Township.

LaSata said the bill is intended to empower Michiganders to seek employment. She said the waiver was for individuals who would seemingly face the least obstacles towards returning to the workplace.

“You’re 18 to 49, you’re healthy, you have no dependents,” LaSata said. “Women that do have dependents have a work requirement.

“There’s really no reason for anyone to be against this,” she said.

But the move to prevent Michigan from receiving future work-requirement waivers is “foolish and self-defeating,” according to Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. The organization describes itself as a policy institute “dedicated to economic opportunity.”

He said while he believes Health and Human Services is “acting in good faith” by moving to phase out the waiver as the state’s economy improves, there’s no reason to prevent future waivers in the event of another recession.

“One thing Michigan absolutely should not be doing is tying its own hands on this,” Ruark said.

Ruark also disagreed with the use of county-wide unemployment rates as a measure of an area’s economic health. Using Oakland County as an example, he said that although unemployment rates indicate the county was recovering, Pontiac — its largest city — still faces troubles that could suggest a need for a waiver.

“There are still pockets of economic hardship, even in those counties that appear to be doing well according to the countywide unemployment rate,” Ruark said.

James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said unemployment rates are “a good proxy” for the health of the labor market but don’t tell the full story. The center is a free market-oriented think tank in Midland.

Michigan’s labor force has been growing, which has raised the unemployment rate but indicates a larger pool of talent, Hohman said.

“Even though it’s giving a contrary sign, it’s been good news for the state of Michigan,” he said.

Reinstating SNAP work requirements is far from the only way Michigan policymakers have sought to restrict welfare benefits in recent years.

For example, Sen. Joe Hune, R-Gregory, sponsored a 2014 law adding community service to the list of work requirements.

“This common-sense reform will ensure that those benefiting from public assistance are giving back to the community that is providing them with a helping hand,” Hune saide. “There is nothing wrong with folks having a little skin in the game.”

The community service option has no minimum hours requirement, and caseworkers approach each case individually, according to Wheaton of Health and Human Services..

In addition to the law sponsored by Hune, bills signed into law include cutting off payments to families with chronically truant children and testing recipients for drugs.

More money sought to clean up brownfields

By AGNES BAO
Capital News Service

LANSING –  A new $79 million-a-year proposal from Gov. Rick Snyder would increase funding to protect Michigan’s environment, including $45 million to clean up and redevelop contaminated sites.

Snyder plans to generate the money by increasing landfill dumping fees from 36 cents to $4.75 per ton, also known as “tipping fees.”

Jeff Hukill, the brownfield coordinator at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said he is not aware of any opposition to the proposal at this early stage.

“As more people are becoming aware of it, I could see some groups having issues with where the money is coming from,” Hukill said.

Brownfield sites are abandoned land with contaminated soil, groundwater or both.

It’s hard to estimate how much money it would take for the state to clean up all abandoned brownfields, as the cost depends on the condition of a specific site, he said. “Some require $5 – to $10,000 to do something very small, and some lands require hundreds of thousands of dollars to address severe risks.”

The state’s brownfield redevelopment program aims at improving the environment, protecting public health, reusing infrastructure and creating economic opportunities, according to the DEQ.

James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said manufacturers and other businesses benefit from the program.

“Sometimes brownfield sites are located in better areas because they were originally chosen by businesses to develop markets,” Clift said.

“A lot of times, those sites are close to transit lines and train tracks that make them good manufacturing sites,” he said.

Andy Such, the director of regulatory and environmental policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said in terms of the site selection, questions like “greenfield vs. brownfield: which is better for manufacturing facilities?” is not really a decision for manufacturers.

Such said the decision depends more on transportation, worker availability and other specific factors, rather than on a general choice between greenfield and brownfield. Greenfields are previously undeveloped lands.

However, Clift said redeveloping brownfields requires overcoming more difficulties than developing greenfields, including contamination assessment and funding. “Most of the state funds have been used up now. There is not as much available in the state resources.”

“We would like to see the governor’s proposal move forward, and to see legislators provide more funding for the brownfield site redevelopment project,” he said.

On Jan. 30, Grayling Northern Market, a brownfield redevelopment project in Crawford County, received a $175,000 grant and a $175,000 loan from DEQ.

Julie Lowe, the Crawford County’s brownfield redevelopment coordinator at DEQ, said it is Grayling’s first brownfield project,which has other funding as well.

Lowe said funding and contamination clean-up are the main challenges for the project.

In terms of funding, she said, “We would like to see some similar path in the future so that we can continue to do great work for our community.”

Elsewhere, the Grand Rapids Urban Market is a brownfield redevelopment program finished in 2012.

The market was redeveloped on a site that included five underground storage tanks, six unsafe buildings and about 52,000 tons of contaminated soil.

The market is a mixed-use facility including vendors, restaurants, education facilities and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Kara Wood, the executive director of the Grand Rapids brownfield project, said the Urban Market is a year-round enterprise funded mostly by local tax increment financing.

Wood said one of challenges for the project was “to get the funding from the state” rather than  local government.

Furthermore, she said putting several funding sources together is a challenge. “We worked really hard to build the relationships with the DEQ and Environmental Protection Agency to apply for and receive grant and loan funding.”

Based on past experiences, Grand Rapids “is trying to increase the amount of property that is developed as the result of the brownfield program,” Wood said.

Flu cases in Michigan highest in recent years

By COLTON WOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING — The flu season is in full effect, and this year it’s reaching more of the population than usual.

According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, 45,521 patients have been treated for influenza over the last four weeks.

“In Michigan, we are seeing a lot more cases, hearing about a lot more cases of the flu through our surveillance systems,” said Lynn Sutfin, a department press officer.

“It’s not unusual that the season starts to revamp after the holidays — people come back to work, come back to school. They’re getting into these congregate settings where there’s a bunch of people in one area, so that’s how that spreads,” Sutfin said.

Last year 420,603 people were diagnosed with the flu in Michigan, and that number is continuing to rise each year.

In 2014, there were 288,807 reported cases. In 2015, that number increased, topping 305,000. In 2016, the number jumped by almost 30,000 to 335,599.

While the flu season has commenced, Sutfin said it’s not too late to get the flu vaccine.

“Any protection is better than none,” she said. “The flu vaccine is your best defense from the flu.

“My other tip is — if you’re sick, stay home. Do not spread the germs to others. I know everybody’s busy, but the best thing you can do to take care of yourself and others is to stay home and get rest.”

Sam McCoy was one of the thousands of people to be treated with the flu this season.

“I had bad symptoms for three days — really sore throat, headache, fatigue and congestion,” she recalled. “Then I saw the doctor after two days. They prescribed me with Tamiflu. From them, my symptoms got a lot better, but my sore throat lingered for about a week.”

Aislynn Stocks, a combat medic in the Army National Guard and a licensed EMT, said it’s vital to avoid contact with those who are sick and to get rest when sick.

“If you see someone who is sick, you should always avoid contact with them,” she said. “You need to ensure you are practicing good health habits, especially eating well, getting enough sleep and drinking adequate amounts of fluids.

Sutfin said she believes the arrival of the H3N2 virus is the predominant reason that is spreading to more people than usual this season.

“Every flu season is different,” she said. “This season is one that is being dominating by the H3N2 virus, which is a more severe form of the flu, so when you get that virus, and that virus is more predominant, you obviously see a lot more cases, a lot more hospitalizations, a lot more people getting sick.”

As of the latest weekly influenza surveillance report, which was published on Jan. 19, no pediatric deaths have been confirmed to Health and Human Services during the 2017-18 flu season. However, 30 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported across the nation.

If you start to feel sick, Sutfin stresses the importance of staying at home, getting rest and seeking medical treatment if needed.

“Obviously, when you get the flu, you’re going to have body aches,” she said. “You’re going to have a fever, upper-respiratory issues, possibly some stomach issues. In most cases, you’ll feel better in a few days. People know their own bodies, so if you’re not feeling well, if this is the worst you’ve ever felt, go to your doctor.”

On-the-job deaths drop but construction safety remains a concern

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Workplace deaths declined last year to 38 in the state, a decrease from 43 in 2016, according to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA).

Fifteen of the 38 fatalities last year were fall-related, many in the construction industry.

Among them, according to MIOSHA:

  • In Holland, a 38-year-old laborer died in a fall from the second level of a facility when it collapsed.
  • In Ludington, a 25-year-old roofer was installing materials on a steep pitched residential roof when he fell about 15 feet.  He wasn’t wearing protective equipment.
  • In Clinton Township, a 39-year-old carpenter fell from the roof of a new home and landed on a concrete surface. 
  • In Plymouth, a 66-year-old roofer fell about 25 feet from an unguarded roof to the ground.

According to MIOSHA Director Bart Pickelman, fall-related on-the-job deaths dropped to 15 last year, compared with 22 in 2016.

In February 2017, MIOSHA launched a “Stop Falls, Save Lives” campaign. It offers free safety training to high-hazard industries such as construction and tree-trimming companies.

Pickelman said one of the most effective ways employers can protect their workers at construction sites is to establish a safety and health management system.

A system is a set of uniquely designed safety and health program pieces that interact for each organization and is “an employer’s best defense against a workplace fatality, injuries and illnesses,” he said.

After falls, being struck by an object, electrocution and “caught-in-between” accidents such as cave-ins and having body parts pulled into unguarded machinery are the three leading causes of fatalities in the construction industry, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Related work experience is not required for laborers who want a basic job in the construction industry, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives in the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. Only short-term on-the-job training is required.

Michigan’s shortage of skilled labor is a big concern the construction industry faces, and that means there may be less time to properly train new hires about safety, experts say.

Steph Schlinker, a communications specialist at the Michigan Talent Investment Agency, said, part of the reason for the shortage might be the recent push for all students to attend post-secondary education and training after high school.

“Many middle and high school students watched their parents, grandparents and neighbors lose their jobs in manufacturing, construction and other skilled trades fields during the recession and were pushed to a college track,” she said.

“The economy in Michigan has come back and work is being done and projects are being filled again, but during those years, no one was entering the construction fields,” she said.

Jason Griffin, the director of education at the Construction Association of Michigan, said a large part of the industry doesn’t have dedicated internal resources to train their workers, since about 80 percent of employers in construction have too few employees.

“Generally, lack of training and hazard recognition are primary underlying causes of workplace fatalities,” he said.

Education and training programs are available for both employers and workers to reduce the possibility of workplace accidents.

Schlinker said many construction occupations have apprenticeship programs, which can last anywhere from 2 to 6 years, depending on the occupation.

“A registered apprenticeship program will have both on-the-job training and related technical instruction components, sometimes provided by a local community college,” Schlinker said. “The participant is hired with the company and serves as an employee throughout their apprenticeship program.”

Griffin said making sure that people in the industry are aware of what’s going on is a priority to protect them from workplace hazards since many are unaware of the job safety rules they need to obey.

He said that most construction sites have multiple companies working together.

“Typically, you have a controlling contractor and a construction manager, who are responsible for overseeing the overall safe mission at the work site,” Griffin said.

“They are contractually trying to manage safety and push it down to their subcontractors that may or may not have sufficient experience to be able to effectively control what you do in the work site,” he said.

Health experts confront rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — Rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)  are on the rise across the country, and Michigan is no exception.

“During the past few years, rates are up nationally for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis,” said Lynn Sutfin, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan follows that trend for chlamydia and gonorrhea but reports of syphilis have been declining in the state, she said.

From 2006 to 2011, the average number of cases of chlamydia was just under 45,000, according to the department. Between 2011 and 2015, the average climbed to 47,285. In 2016, there were 47,414 cases.

There were 12,866 cases of gonorrhea reported in Michigan during 2016, up from the average 11,334 between 2011 and 2015.

STDs are spread through unprotected sex, Sutfin said.

“Chlamydia is fairly common among adolescents in many parts of the state,” she said. “And it is spread fairly easily.”

Especially hard hit are Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Kent counties.

One reason some STDs spread so rapidly is people don’t know they have one.

“Several STDs don’t really come with symptoms,” said Meghan Swain, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, based in Lansing. “They don’t know they have an STD and they’re unintentionally transmitting it to others.”

Some STDs do have symptoms, but they may go unnoticed or may be mistaken for something else, such as a bladder infection.

Most STDs are curable with the right treatment, Swain said. However, if STDs are left untreated, they can result in serious health complications.

An effective way to prevent the spread of STDs is treat those who are infected.

“We really encourage people who think there’s even the smallest chance they have an STD to get tested,” Swain said.

Local health departments urge those who many have been exposed to get tested as well.

“We provide testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C,” said Sheryl Slocum, a registered nurse with District Health Department #10. “We provide treatment for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, genital warts and trichomoniasis.”

District Health Department #10 covers Crawford, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Mecosta, Missaukee, Newaygo, Oceana and Wexford counties.

Another way to keep STDs from spreading is by raising awareness, including condom distribution and educating the public and health professionals, Sutfin said. “Michigan also has a robust screening program at high schools to increase sexual health awareness, education and access to care.”

Slocum said local health departments also work to create awareness. Anyone who goes to a clinic is assessed for STD risks and is educated about prevention measures.

“Our staff offers presentations to schools within our jurisdiction, along with any community groups or organizations,” she said. “These can encompass information on our services, STD symptoms and treatment options, and safe sexual health practices.”

She added that the department has started the Sexual Health Ambassador program that trains young adults about sexual health. These ambassadors then accompany staff members to events where they talk with their peers.

Swain said education through social media, schools and news releases is an important way to create awareness when STD rates increase.

“We’re always concerned about STDs,” she said “Whenever there’s an uptick in cases, we really push awareness campaigns.”

Concerns raised about maternity care in rural areas

By GLORIA NZEKA
Capital News Service

LANSING – Almost 2.5 million women of childbearing age living in rural America face higher risks during pregnancy and childbirth, including some who are forced to drive at least an hour to give birth in a hospital, a study in the journal “Health Affairs” found.

The study found that 45 percent of rural U.S. counties had no hospital obstetric services at all, leaving more than half of all rural U.S. counties without hospital obstetric services.

This comes at a time when the maternal mortality rate in the United States increased by more than 25 percent from 2000 to 2014, according to a 2016 study in the “Obstetrics and Gynecology Journal.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal Mortality Surveillance Committee estimated in a January report that approximately 80 women die each year in the state during pregnancy and childbirth.

Patrice Bobier, a  midwife from Oceana County and member of the board of the Michigan Midwives Association, said the trend in hospitals closing their obstetric care departments could be because they struggle to balance their books.

Hospitals increasingly find themselves having to merge with bigger corporations or health institutions, bringing their maternity operations to a halt, Bobier said.

Bobier has been working as a midwife since 1982. But in the last three years, she noted an increase in women giving birth through her midwifery services.. 

The situation in the Upper Peninsula is particularly critical, with fewer obstetrical units than other areas in the state.

UP Health System Marquette is the only hospital in the U.P. with a neonatal intensive care unit.

Obstetricians in the  hospital often travel to nearby hospitals to provide obstetric services, said Emily Wright, physician relations specialist at UP Health System in Marquette.

To address this situation, the Michigan Maternal Mortality Surveillance Committee endorsed six recommendations in September.

For example, the committee will seek to enhance education and coordination between the state Board of Licensed Midwifery and midwives attending out-of-hospital births about  timely referrals of women to hospitals when necessary.

With high stakes, state gears up for census

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING — It’s that time of decade again.

Though the next U.S. census won’t take place until 2020, Michigan and other states will soon begin the groundwork to prepare the country for its upcoming headcount.

With more than 327 million people to be counted, states will be responsible for confirming federal address lists and making sure new residents are identified and their addresses recorded.

Michigan employs a full-time state demographer, Eric Guthrie, dedicated to leading its census preparation efforts.

Guthrie serves as Michigan’s liaison to the US Census Bureau regarding the Federal and State Cooperative for Population Estimates, a collection of state-level agencies that review, update and verify population estimates.

“This is kind of an ‘all hands on deck’ type of situation, where the federal government is handling the actual nuts-and-bolts setup and everybody is working together to make sure the work itself that needs to happen” gets done, Guthrie said.

Among other purposes, census data is used to determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. With a population of 9,883,640 according to the 2010 census, Michigan currently has 14 congressional districts.

The information also affects distribution of federal aid.

More than $589 billion was distributed between the states and Washington D.C. through “census-guided” programs in the 2015 fiscal year, according to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

The 2020 census will be the first census in which all forms can be filled out electronically, a major change that Guthrie said he hopes will not only make it easier for individuals to respond, but will cut costs as well.

“The census is a very important project that will affect every area for the next decade in terms of representation and funding,” Guthrie said. “Everything we can do to make sure it’s successful will be for the common good.”

The Local Update of Census Addresses Operation, or LUCA, a program allowing local governments to compare their address lists to the Census Bureau’s, will begin in February. LUCA will help to make sure the Census Bureau’s address list is as accurate as possible for the coming count, he said.

“Which is highly important, because the census is essentially a household survey,” Guthrie said.

“In order for the census to make sure it reaches every household, it has to have the most current address list possible.”

In addition to LUCA, Guthrie will begin a state-level review of Michigan’s address list. The state recently hired two full-time demographic analysts who will help with preparation efforts, he said.

“Every administrative unit in the state is offered an opportunity, so that goes down to Michigan’s smallest village and township all the way up to the city of Detroit and the state,” Guthrie said. “They will get the list of all the addresses within their jurisdiction.”

Different-sized units might employ different methods, Guthrie said.

Small areas might use paper address lists and perform their comparisons manually, while Guthrie, working with several million addresses on the state level, might make electronic comparisons to look for areas with the largest discrepancies.

A large part of census preparation is getting the word out and making sure people understand why it’s important, Guthrie said. That becomes more complicated for more sparsely-populated areas that might lack resources.

“When we start thinking about more rural, spread-out populations that are not able to participate, that makes the process of counting those persons more labor-intensive on the Census Bureau’s part and may result in more difficulty counting those populations,” Guthrie said.

Michigan will participate in LUCA on a statewide level, but a large number of individual counties are not participating, including many in the Upper Peninsula and the Northeast Lower Peninsula.

LUCA efforts require local governments to use their own staff and resources, which might be one of many reasons certain areas decide not to participate, Guthrie said.

Wexford County and Cadillac are both individually participating in LUCA, according to the Census Bureau..

Meanwhile, Gladwin County is not participating and will be counted by the state, but Gladwin and other communities within the county will participate individually.

Clare County is not participating in LUCA and will be counted by the state.

Guthrie said, “I’m going to do the best I can to review areas that didn’t sign up to participate, but I’m at the largest level. I’m going to supply whatever addresses I can find that the census doesn’t have, but I might not have them all myself.”