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Despite progress, disparities among the races remain in healthcare
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Across the country, Minnesota is known for its high-quality health care system. Yet despite the state’s inclusive reputation, quality care hasn’t traditionally been available to its growing number of minorities, including those in southern Minnesota.

The deep inequalities in the state’s health care system were recently the subject of an in depth discussion led by MPR News host Angela Davis. For the talk, Davis was joined by a quartet of local health care leaders who primarily service the state’s minority communities.

Like so much else, inequalities within the state health care system were highlighted during a turbulent 2020. At both the local and national level, statistics have shown a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color. In Minnesota and across the nation, the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin also struck a chord, igniting national protests against racial inequality.

In Minnesota, legislators passed a bipartisan resolution declaring racism to be a public health emergency. A bipartisan House Select Committee was established to examine the poisonous effects of racism in Minnesota and produced a 45-page report on the topic.

Local work

Locally, HealthFinders has played a crucial role in providing care for communities of color. At a meeting of the Northfield Hospital + Clinics board last fall, Charlie Mandile, executive director of HealthFinders Collaborative, which provides health care to Rice County’s low-income, uninsured and underinsured, pushed his fellow board members to take the lead in addressing racial inequity.

Mandile expressed concern at statistics showing Black and Latino Rice County to be four to five times more likely to be represented in the state’s COVID case numbers than their white counterparts, but not surprise. Instead, he said it’s a predictable result of deep-rooted inequality which has left Black and Latino residents more likely to work in essential jobs and less comfortable taking time off work if they feel sick, as well as more likely to be plagued by chronic health conditions like diabetes.

Even though the inequalities may remain deep, Mandile said HealthFinders has made major strides in reducing them. In large part, that’s because providers fluent in Somali and Spanish as well as English who have built trust with their patients.

HealthFinders has focused on taking a comprehensive view of a person’s health. Mandile emphasized that health happens “in communities, not in clinics” and the clinic is focused on helping its patients to live healthier lives rather than just treating them when they are sick.

Allina Health’s David Albrecht, CEO of Owatonna Hospital and District One Hospital in Faribault, said that Allina is also focused on reducing health care disparities and reaching out to patients of color.

Albrecht said that employees at both hospitals undergo significant bias training, and efforts to hire a more diverse staff have also been made a priority. However, he said that it’s often difficult to recruit care providers from minority communities, particularly in greater Minnesota.

“These issues will continue to be a focus, I do know that,” he said. “There’s not a quick fix here and it will take time and understanding.

One driver of distrust among many patients of color is a lack of diversity among care providers, said NorthPoint’s CEO, Stella Whitney-West, CEO of NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, a community health clinic in north Minneapolis, who was among the panelists on Davis’ MPR show.

“When your provider is from the same community you are, they’ve had many of the same experiences you’ve had,” she said. “You don’t’ have to go through the struggle of trying to explain some of the concerns that you have.”

COVID concerns

According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s COVID-19 data, Latino Minnesotans have been six times more likely to die from the virus than white Minnesotans and nearly three times more likely to contract it. Smaller but still significant disparities appear when comparing cases and deaths among Black Minnesotans with their white counterparts.

While Minnesota does not report vaccination data by race/ethnicity, 17 states do, and the data among those states is striking. According to a data analysis of 14 states by CNN, white Americans have received the vaccine at roughly twice the rate of Blacks and Latinos.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, said in an interview with the New England Journal of Medicine that the vaccine rollout should prioritize people of color.

According to Fauci, socio-economic barriers that have traditionally made it more difficult for people of color to access healthcare have been a major factor in disparities seen in the vaccine rollout.

Part of the challenge has also been combating disinformation. Minnesota’s Somali community has been a hotbed in recent years of anti-vaccination information, which led to a significant Measles outbreak in 2017 and other challenges.

To help reduce disinformation about the vaccine, Allina Health’s Albrecht noted that the hospital has put together Somali-language information regarding its safety. However, other challenges run much deeper and have been more difficult to deal with.

Even if the vaccine is offered to them, Fauci said that he understands why Black and brown Americans are hesitant to take it, noting that in the past, the U.S. medical system has sometimes used people of color as “guinea pigs” for untested treatments and care approaches.

“They don’t, can’t and should not forget about it,” he said of the history of discriminatory medical research practices. “It happened and it was shameful.”

Whitney-West expressed surprise that about 20% of care providers at the clinic she’s led for a decade initially said they wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the vaccine. According to Whitney-West, many of those care providers were unnerved by the speed of the vaccine’s development and worried that they would once again be used to test a potentially unsafe treatment.

However, Whitney-West said that most of those providers who initially said no have since been vaccinated. She said a successful education campaign as well as providers who led by example were factors in convincing some to take the vaccine.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon expands ice fishing contest in second year

Some people just love to fish – no matter how cold it gets.

With weekend temperatures dropping below zero, the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Owatonna organization is betting on the most loyal of anglers to come out for their second annual ice fishing contest.

“Minnesotans are hardy people, so I know we will have some dedicated people who will come out on Saturday,” said Cassie Kohn, the treasurer for BTYR and co-planner for the ice fishing contest. “In Minnesota we are known for fishing – whether it’s hard water or open water – it’s just about being able to socialize and get outdoors.”

In the inaugural year, the contest focused on the children of active military service members in Steele County. This year, however, Kohn said they wanted to expand it to include all veterans and active service members and their families.

“Previously we didn’t know what the turnout would be, but this second time around we knew a little bit more about what we were doing,” Kohn said. “We also have more corporate sponsors, which allows for more money for prizes, and we know we have enough space on the lake to provide it.”

The ice fishing contest will take place on Saturday morning at Lake Kohlmier in Owatonna and is open to all veterans, current service members and their families living in Steele, Waseca, Dodge, Rice, Freeborn and Mower counties. Prizes will be awarded to top fish for both adult and child classes and door prizes will be given out during the free event.

“It has been amazing the outpouring of support in our community and by a lot of local businesses,” Kohn said. “Our veterans and our military families are the backbone of America – we have our freedom because of them and the sacrifices they go through.”

Kohn knows about the sacrifices of military families all too well, as her children’s father is currently deployed. She said she knows they are missing their father and that it is hard for families in similar situations not to feel they are going through it alone.

“Our National Guard and Reserve families probably feel that isolation even more because when you’re active duty, you’re generally living on or near base and going through a deployment with a large group of people you’re with almost every day,” Kohn said. “But these families, they are spread out throughout the state and country, so it can feel very isolating and lonely if you don’t have a big avenue or family around to lean on for support.”

Bringing similar families together is one of the main goals for Kohn and her other co-planners. She emphasized that finding camaraderie within a similar group is essential in finding some sense of normalcy, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemics when social events are limited. Kohn said she plans to continued expanding the contest every year and that the help of the local community is currently making that possible.

“We appreciate our communities in Owatonna and Steele County,” Kohn said. “They really support our Beyond the Yellow Ribbon initiatives by helping our organizations give back to those service members and their families.”

Owatonna High School goes online for career fairs, class registration
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This pandemic has forced students to dive deep into the digital world. While some of these switches to virtual learning will only last as long as the pandemic, others have changed for the good as school officials look toward the future.

In their annual update to the Owatonna School Board Jan. 25, high school Principal Kory Kath and other staff presented a snapshot of the work that is happening within the school and the visions they have for the future of the high school.

Assistant Principal Hollie Jeska said the high school remains in contact with students and families about post-graduation information via the Compass newsletter, which includes information about career pathways, academic planning, college preparation and internship opportunities.

School counselors hosted virtual career fairs and school partners had to get creative in their outreach. Made in Owatonna, an initiative to introduce students to various careers, will be offered to students through a livestreams this month. This month students will explore careers in human services, such as law and public safety, beauty and wellness, and mental health and wellness. A panel of experts will be live on Zoom to talk about their careers and answer students’ questions.

Educational assistants and paraprofessionals are scheduling times to meet with students virtually on distance learning days for additional progress check ins. High school teachers have implemented synchronous and asynchronous coursework to engage a variety of learners, according to Jeska.

“Our teachers have really thought outside the box to make sure they are meeting those kids’ needs,” Jeska said.

With the recent end of the first semester, high school educators are analyzing student success thus far and have started to identify some students that are eligible for the schools no credit plan.

“Students have been provided some opportunities to work with a licensed teacher to make up some work to make sure that they are gaining the knowledge and information they need to meet the standards to receive credit for the course,” Jeska said.

Five teachers within the high school have been identified with working with the students in the program for the remainder of the semester. Other teachers have taken their own initiative to work with individual students who are struggling in their class. Additional interventions and support were provided by education assistants, the Relationships, Education, Accountability, Character and Hardwork program and special education.

As the year continues to progress, Jeska said the high school will continue to offer professional development resources to its staff, including more training on the online learning platform Schoology and more opportunities to engage with students using technology.

New this year, the high school has started using Naviance, a program to help prepare students for life after graduation. Through Naviance students can explore careers, take interest assessments, learn about post-graduation programs, search local scholarships and internship opportunities. Students can apply to colleges through the program, plan their high school electives to align with their career goals, request transcripts and letters of recommendations while also monitoring their application’s progress.

“So not only is it very helpful on our end to have everything housed in one place, it’s very nice for families because they can go in and see this transcript (was sent) on this day, and this letter of recommendation you’re still waiting on,” school guidance counselor Tamara Langlois said about Naviance.

Registration will also look different this year as the high school will be shifting to a paperless model to offer students a more interactive experience when signing up for classes. All registration will be completed virtually. The registration guide will include hyperlinks to student testimonials and class information presentations. School officials hope the updated guide will help students choose classes that align with their prospective plans following high school. Registration will also remain open for a longer period of time, rather than just for one night, allowing students a chance to explore class options.

Kath says the high school has been pushing co-teaching this year, meaning the school is looking to provide general education classes with good teaching support for special education and English-language students.

“This year we were able to create 10 partnerships, both in EL and special education,” Kath said. “We’ve had really good conversation from our content teachers as well as our specialist about what an incredible opportunity this is to partner.”

These partnerships have impacted over 300 students this past semester and have provided critical language and content interventions, according to Kath. As the high school continues the rest of the year, school officials will collect data on student success, educators will receive ongoing co-teaching professional development and the school will survey teachers on intervention techniques.

Owatonna student selected for the statewide ExCEL award
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An Owatonna student is one of 36 students statewide to be honored with the Minnesota State High School League’s ExCEL award.

Junior Ava Hess has been selected as a recipient of the Excellence in Community, Education and Leadership (ExCEL) award. This award recognizes state high school juniors who are active in school, fine arts and athletics while showing leadership skills and a responsibility to their community.

Hess was among several other nominees reviewed by a panel of independent judges. In a previous interview with the People’s Press, Hess said past ExCEL nominees and winners were people that she looked up to. She also hopes to leave a positive influence on younger students.

Hess is involved in National Honor Society, Student Council, Honor Roll, SHOC (Students Helping Others Choose), Link crew, soccer, band, pep band, marching band, solo/ensemble competition and the Minnesota Band Director Association Honor Band.

She has volunteered and participated in Adopt a Highway, Boo for Food, Steele Relay for Life, From the Heart, Music Boosters of Owatonna. She is a church volunteer, an elementary tutor and student representative with the Owatonna superintendent on a high school advisory committee. She was also involved in organizing a carnival fundraiser for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

Hess and other ExCEL winners will be featured on 45TV during the 2021 winter tournament and be invited to participate in a ceremony during the Class AA girls basketball state tournament in March, according to the MSHSL website.

Hess was nominated for the ExCEL award alongside fellow junior Connor Ginskey back in December. The two were acknowledged at a Jan. 25 school board meeting.

“These two students not only inspire excellence for adults, but also for their peers in the school,” Superintendent Jeff Elstad told the school board.