By Carol Stiffler

All students at Tahquamenon Area Schools district are now learning from home, a change made by the school board in response to concerns about the safety of bringing students into school when mask wearing turned out to be erratic and unenforceable. Unless something changes, the next time any TAS student steps inside an actual classroom will be January 4.

Though some teachers were relieved, other community members, like internist Dr. Patricia Gill, were concerned. Gill launched an unofficial petition on Facebook, asking community members to join ranks in asking the school board to reconsider the decision.

Gill’s petition has been virtually “signed” upwards of 135 times, with new names still being added to the list.

“As a physician I am aware of the risks and benefits and find the benefits outweigh the risks,” Gill wrote in her petition request. “I think the board acted in error and respectfully urge them to call an emergency meeting and fix this.”

Nearby, the boards of education at Engadine Consolidated Schools and Three Lakes Academy discussed the options but chose to keep their K-8 students in person until they are forced home by mandate or necessity.

To help tackle the mask issue locally, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development recently visited at least one store in Newberry, issuing citations and giving the store three days to bring employees and customers into compliance with the mask ordinance.

The different approaches speak to the difficulty in responding to a pandemic, one that LMAS Health District spokesperson Kerry Ott feels daily.

“From my observation, It’s split right down the middle,” Ott said. She continues to focus on asking the communities to help the health department by doing the small things of wearing masks, staying home when they’re sick, keeping a distance from anyone not in their household, and washing hands regularly.

“We are trying our best to protect people,” Ott said. “We just need people to help us.” From Ott’s perspective, compliance is assistance.

“Hospitals need to be able to care for anyone who needs medical care,” she said. “That really is a big part of our concern right now. If hospitals become overrun, where do the heart attacks go? Where do the people in the car accident go?”

There are no ICU units in the hospitals in the district’s four counties, Ott said, and beds in regular hospital rooms are limited. According to Michigan’s designated Coronavirus website, there are 58 ICU beds in the U.P., and 46 of them are currently in use. The U.P. has 122 ventilators, and 14 are currently in use.

The department asked local residents not to gather for Thanksgiving, but she knows some did anyway. The health impact of those choices can’t be seen yet.

“A week from now, 10 days from now,” she said, “I don’t know what we’re going to see. Christmas could be rough.”

Contact tracers with the state of Michigan have become overwhelmed, Ott said, so LMAS recently brought their contact tracing efforts back in house. Volunteers from other departments are training to assist.

Since cold and flu season is also dawning, some people will experience symptoms of illness and be unsure whether they should get tested. That’s a question to bring to your doctor, Ott said.

If you start to feel unwell but haven’t been told you were exposed to COVID, Ott says a discussion about your symptoms will help you and your doctor decide if you need to be tested for COVID.

The unpleasant PCR test – the one that goes deep into the sinuses – is more accurate than the nasal swab, or antigen test, Ott said. People who develop symptoms while in quarantine will be given the more accurate test.

Of course, the recent good news about early success in vaccine trials has offered hope, but Ott says there are two concerns about the vaccine:

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – the ones showing such promise – require an initial shot and a follow-up booster shot.

“The other thing is: Will the people agree to be vaccinated?” Ott asked. “I don’t know. There’s such resistance to the masks… It’s going to be another challenge.”

Info box

According to the state of Michigan there are:

Within LMAS:

2 COVID patients at Helen Newberry Joy Hospital, and the hospital is 21% full

0 COVID patients at Munising Memorial Hospital, and the hospital is 36% full

0 COVID patients at Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital; occupancy data is incomplete

0 COVID patients at Mackinac Straits Health System, and the hospital is 7% full


Outside LMAS:

29 COVID patients at U.P. Health Systems Marquette, including 10 in ICU, and the hospital is 67% full.

22 COVID patients at War Memorial Hospital, including 4 in ICU, and the hospital is 76% full

38 COVID patients at McLaren Northern Michigan – Petoskey, including 22 in ICU, and the hospital is 50% full.

45 COVID patients at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, including 20 in ICU, and the hospital is 71% full

Statistics as of November 30, 2020.