Regional News - April 2022

Regional News - April 2022

Health impacts of air pollution disproportionately impact community

Two new brief reports released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) find that air pollution continues to pose a threat to public health in the Twin Cities and regional centers in Greater Minnesota, with impacts falling disproportionately on communities with more residents who are low-income, uninsured, people of color, or people with a disability. 

The reports, Life and Breath: Metro and Life and Breath: Greater Minnesota, examine how air pollution affected health in 2015, the most recent year for which data has been analyzed, across the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, and in three Greater Minnesota regional centers: Duluth, Rochester, and St. Cloud. The reports build on previous Life and Breath reports that looked at air pollution’s health effects in certain Twin Cities zip codes and across all counties statewide. 

“We know that air quality and health are closely linked,” said Craig McDonnell, MPCA assistant commissioner for air and climate policy. “To see these negative health effects persist in our state’s largest population centers underlines just how important the issue of air quality is, especially for those Minnesotans who are disproportionately affected by pollution.” 

While Minnesota’s air quality has improved over the past few decades and meets federal standards, even low and moderate levels of pollution play a measurable role in premature deaths and hospitalizations across the state. The report also found: 

  • In the Twin Cities metro, air pollution played a role in 10 percent of all deaths (about 1,600 people) along with nearly 500 hospitalizations and emergency room visits for heart and lung problems. 
  • Air pollution was estimated to play a role in 280 deaths in the three Greater Minnesota cities studied, attributable to: 
  • 8 percent of all deaths in Duluth 
  • 10 percent of all deaths in Rochester 
  • 8 percent of all deaths in St. Cloud 
  • Across all studied cities, pollution-related deaths were more prevalent than deaths from accidents, which make up 6 percent of all deaths. 

The findings are consistent with previous reports, demonstrating that air quality poses a persistent public health problem despite overall improvements in air quality. Between 2008 and 2015, for example, fine particles (PM2.5) pollution improved by about 30 percent and ozone pollution improved by nearly 10 percent in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. 

In all of the cities studied, the report found communities facing discrimination, barriers to access and structural racism generally had the highest estimated rates of air pollution-related death and disease. These structural inequities, along with other social and economic stressors, lead to higher levels of heart and lung disease that make residents in marginalized communities more susceptible to the effects of poor air quality. For example, ZIP codes with the largest percentage of residents of color had more than five times the rate of asthma emergency room visits related to air pollution compared to areas with more white residents. 

“The burden of air pollution falls heavier on some communities within our cities than on others, contributing to preventable deaths and worsening heart and lung disease,” said Dr. Brooke Cunningham, assistant commissioner of MDH’s Health Equity Bureau. “It seems like we all breathe the same quality air. The differences are not always visible. Those ‘invisibilities’ are why it’s so hard to tackle the structural causes of health inequities. This report provides crucial information to move forward toward a healthier Minnesota for all.” 

Reducing air pollution is part of state agencies’ overall strategy to address structural inequities in health care, housing, and other social factors that influence health. The findings of the Life and Breath reports, along with other MPCA and MDH analyses and community conversations, will inform where to direct resources for pollution reduction as well as efforts to address health inequities.  

(Source: Minnesota Department of Health) 

Street name is changed 

Community leaders celebrated the official renaming of Dight Avenue to Cheatham Avenue in south Minneapolis to honor the legacy of John Cheatham, who became the first Black fire captain with the Minneapolis Fire Department in 1899. He is believed to be the city’s first Black firefighter. 

Cheatham, who was born enslaved in 1855, worked out of Fire Station 24 until his retirement in 1911. The station is about two blocks from the newly renamed street. Cheatham Avenue runs from 34th Street East to 43rd Street East in south Minneapolis. The old namesake of the street was Charles Fremont Dight, a physician and Minneapolis alderman who founded the Minnesota Eugenics Society in 1923. He was also a Hitler supporter. His beliefs that people of color and people with disabilities were inferior were called out recently. 

City Council Member Andrew Johnson worked with community members on an application to rename street and they ultimately voted Cheatham as someone worthy of having the honor. 

“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Captain John Cheatham and his fellow Black firefighters who so courageously stepped up to serve and protect the residents of our community, despite the unending racism and oppression they faced,” Johnson said. “Seeing John Cheatham’s name raised high serves not just as a reminder of his legacy, but also his example, which is one for all of us to follow.” 

“I am very excited, extremely proud and thankful of the fact that the City of Minneapolis is honoring the legacy of Captain John Cheatham in this way,” said Minneapolis Fire Chief Bryan Tyner. “I have always believed that I stand on the shoulders of those pioneering Black firefighters who came before me. As the first Black fire captain in the city’s history, Captain John Cheatham certainly presents a broad set of shoulders. His perseverance and service made it possible for me and others to serve this city as Black firefighters and set the path for me to eventually serve the city as its fire chief.” 

“The newly named Cheatham Avenue serves as the border for St. James AME church, founded in 1860. It is the oldest Black institution in our state,” said LaJune Lange, a retired Hennepin County District Judge. “The dishonor has been removed by renaming the street after a man who dedicated his life to serving all the residents of Minneapolis in their time of need.” 

(Source: City of Minneapolis) 

More group homes have closed 

Cardinal of Minnesota has closed 10 of its 55 group homes, leaving families to struggle to accommodate their loved ones. The company is a long-term care provider for people with disabilities. The closing of these 10 homes across Minnesota will affect almost 30 individuals who are receiving services from the provider.  

Years of funding problems and staffing shortages are to blame for the closures. In southern Minnesota, other providers such as Bear Creek Services are at capacity and experiencing staffing shortages, so they don’t have the capacity to take in any more residents. 

Linda Driessen, executive director of Bear Creek Services says they haven’t been able to compete with the economy and provide employees a livable wage.  

“We’re working people to death. And so what we really need is for us to at least be able to compete with other employers here in town,” she said. 

Rochester City Council Member Kelly Kirkpatrick has a sister who’s been living in a Cardinal group home for many years. 

“Those clients aren’t going home to parents that can physically handle what needs to be done – and my sister with cerebral palsy has significant intellectual as well as physical disabilities and needs a walker, so a house that’s ADA compliant is really helpful for her,” she said. 

Kirkpatrick said group homes haven’t been receiving the reimbursement they need since 2014, so they can’t afford to pay workers what they’re worth. 

“The big deal is we’ve got over 50 individuals that are going to be released, are they going to nursing homes? Are they going to assisted living if they don’t have a home to go to? There are no beds available in this county to place anyone, they’re all taken,” Kirkpatrick said. 

(Source: KIMT-TV) 

Mental health supports an issue 

St. Paul Public Schools recently averted an educators’ strike. Minneapolis Public Schools settled a strike after two weeks. One big issue in both districts is student mental health. 

Many Minneapolis school counselors have caseloads topping 450 students — almost twice the workload recommended by the American School Counselor Association. St. Paul schools have one counselor for every 230 students. 

District officials and teachers union leaders agree the need for those mental health services is higher than ever and that boosting support for students is a priority. But coming up with a staffing plan to do that — and how to write it into a contract — was a sticking point at the bargaining table amid stalled contract negotiations. 

Union leaders have been pushing for contract language to ensure each school has a team of counselors, social workers and school psychologists. District leaders, however, say adding such clauses can limit flexibility as they address shrinking enrollment and budget shortfalls. 

“I just keep wondering, if we really want the same things, why is it taking so long to get there?” said Kelsey Clark, a school counselor at South High School in Minneapolis and a member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers bargaining team. 

Educators and lawmakers across the state and country have been raising the alarm about growing student mental health needs, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

President Joe Biden mentioned the issue in the State of the Union address last week, and a fact sheet released by the White House said Biden will propose $1 billion in fiscal year 2023 to help schools hire more counselors and psychologists. 

The workload for school counselors is an issue across Minnesota, which had one counselor for every 592 students — the fourth highest ratio in the nation — during the 2020-21 school year. The year before, Minnesota schools averaged one counselor per 630 students. 

Lawmakers in St. Paul have proposed legislation meant to address the high caseloads for the state’s school counselors. If approved, the measure would require every public school in the state to employ at least one full-time school counselor and would bar principals from assigning counselors to other duties, such as serving as lunch monitors or supervising study halls. 

Thomas Lucy, a member of the St. Paul teachers’ negotiating team who works in the Office of Special Services, acknowledged that the district added behavioral intervention specialists and social workers in 2020. But the needs of students are even more acute after two years of pandemic-fueled quarantines, distance learning and sporadic in-person instruction. 

“We all know our kids are really struggling,” he said. 

(Source: Star Tribune) 

New trackchairs unveiled 

By early summer, a few Minnesota state parks will offer a means for disabled visitors to move through trail landscapes in ways they maybe never thought possible. 

Five parks will have an Action Trackchair for use. The chairs are part all-terrain vehicle, part beefed-up electric wheelchair, and designed with tank-like treads to navigate rugged terrain if necessary. 

A pilot project by the Department of Natural Resources, the wheelchairs are located at Camden (Lynd), Crow Wing (Brainerd), Maplewood (Pelican Rapids) and Myre-Big Island (near Albert Lea) state parks. A fifth chair will be placed soon, and all should be available to use by early summer, said Jamie McBride, a DNR parks and trails consultant. The specialized chairs are made by Action Manufacturing in Marshall  and cost $14,500 apiece. 

Plans to get the chairs in some Minnesota parks began about two years ago. McBride said sustainability was top of mind when deciding which parks received chairs. Some criteria included trail lengths, surfaces and their condition; the staff’s capacity to manage use of the Trackchairs; the presence of rare plants and invasive species; and physical barriers. 

He said that park infrastructure didn’t change to accommodate chairs, although Maplewood was selected because of some trail improvements suited to a Trackchair, including access to the park’s highest point, Hallaway Hill, known for its vistas. 

Each park will have at least one suggested trail for the chairs. McBride said each park also will manage its own reservation system, and the chairs are free to use. To date, all state parks allow power-driven and manual mobility aids provided they comply with park regulations. 

McBride said the DNR will evaluate the demand for the chairs and users’ experiences, among other things, before deciding whether to expand the program to more parks. Money from the state’s Parks and Trails Legacy Fund helped pay for four of the chairs. A fifth was donated. 

“This is a pilot program and a lot of things have to fall into place to broaden it,” McBride said. 

Brad Strootman, who manages outdoor projects for Action Manufacturing, said the joystick-controlled chairs are used on public lands in 16 states. 

(Source: Star Tribune)