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New alert system in place: MCHD to use automated phone calls for notifications

MARQUETTE — The Marquette County Health Department announced Tuesday that it will begin using the Michigan Health Alert Network to notify the public of COVID-19 positive test results and exposures as part of an effort to streamline contact tracing.

Through the system, residents can be alerted of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, a possible COVID-19 exposure within the community or a local school, as well as quarantine period duration. The alert will never contain personal health information about individuals, officials said in the announcement.

People will be alerted through a generated telephone call that will come from the phone number 1-866-998-3678 or may show up on caller identification as MIHAN.

The health department recommends all area residents program this number into their phones so they recognize it is a call from the local health department.

Officials emphasized that it is “very important that you listen to the entire message” if a call is received.

Recipients of the phone messages are asked to use their telephone keypad to acknowledge receipt of the message. “These responses will let us know whether you understand the information,” the announcement states.

“It is crucial you select a response. The alert software will save considerable staff time and allow us to distribute information to the public with less delay.”

This follows the health department’s Nov. 11 announcement that it would start prioritizing contact tracing in response to the increase of COVID-19 cases in the area, with children under 18, those living and working in high-risk settings and those at higher risk for severe illness being prioritized groups.

Grants available for U.P. small businesses

The Pure Michigan Small Business Relief Initiative will use federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding to provide $10 million in grants statewide to meet the needs of small businesses disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

A total of $500,000 will be available for eligible small businesses in the Upper Peninsula. Applications will open on Dec. 15.

Grants up to $15,000 per eligible businesses will be awarded on a first-in basis. Grant funds can help businesses meet working capital needs, including payroll expenses, rent or mortgage payments and utility expenses in the following industries:

≤ Restaurants, bars and other food and beverage service providers;

≤ Travel and tourism destinations such as lodging providers;

≤ Live-event venues and movie theaters;

≤ Conference and meeting facilities;

≤ Ice skating rinks, indoor water parks and bowling centers; and

≤ Gyms and fitness centers.

To qualify for grants, businesses must meet eligibility criteria including but not limited to:

≤ Be a business in one of the above industries;

≤ Be in compliance with local and state orders related to COVID-19;

≤ Be a for-profit entity;

≤ Have a physical establishment in the Michigan county of application and not be a home-based business;

≤ Provide goods or services to multiple clients or customers;

≤ Be current, or in a payment plan, on all local, state and federal taxes due through Jan. 1, 2020;

≤ Have an active and valid state license or registration, if applicable;

≤ Is not an adverse party to litigation involving the state or municipality;

≤ Business or business owner not filing for bankruptcy in the last 10 years;

≤ Can identify a need for payroll, rent or mortgage payments, and-or utility payments necessary to continue or restart business operations relative to the grant amount;

≤ Had annual gross revenues in 2019 greater than $25,000;

≤ Has at least two employees, including the owner or owners; and

≤ Has fewer than 50 employees, including full- and part-time workers and owners, on a worldwide basis.

NMU completes semester

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Michigan University was able to offer face-to-face instruction throughout the fall semester, university officials announced.

NMU was able to offer in-person classes through the last five days of classes when the state’s temporary three-week pause on in-person classes took effect, according to a university release.

The university will continue to offer face-to-face instruction in its winter semester, which starts in mid-January, officials say. It has created $1,000 Transfer UP Scholarships for students who want to start at NMU or transfer from another college or university.

“We are proud that we did it. NMU students had the real college experience. In addition to living in dorms, apartments or their own homes, they had in-person face-to-face instruction in a safe campus environment with social distancing, masks and lots of Plexiglas to protect professors and students,” NMU President Fritz Erickson said in the release.

Erickson said testing, contact tracing, masks and social distancing were important safety protocols required of all NMU students, faculty, staff and administrators for the entire semester.

“All students and employees were given shallow nasal swab tests before school started and we continued with surveillance testing throughout the semester,” Erickson said.

NMU Board of Trustees Chairman Steve Mitchell said offering in-person instruction throughout the semester was the result of a “fully engaged” board of trustees along with Erickson’s “outstanding” leadership.

“(Erickson and his team) created a comprehensive COVID-19 plan and then implemented it flawlessly,” Mitchell said in the release. “We tested all NMU students and employees for COVID-19 at the start of the year and continued with surveillance testing all semester, which really helped us control the problem. But we could not have succeeded without our tremendous faculty that did incredible work, and a student body that followed the rules, wore masks and avoided large gatherings.”

To learn more, visit www.nmu.edu.

Blue Cross Blue Shield extends COVID-19 cost-sharing waiver

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the Blue Care Network will continue to waive cost-sharing for members who are diagnosed and treated for COVID-19 through March 31.

The temporary benefit was originally set to expire Dec. 31, a BCBS news release states.

The extension ensures members will not pay out-of-pocket costs, including copays, deductibles or coinsurance, for medical care associated with COVID-19.

The temporary waiver applies to all commercial and Medicare Advantage plans offered by Blue Cross and Blue Care Network, a company release states.

Members have not had to pay cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment since March when the first cases of COVID-19 were announced in Michigan, according to the release.

As a result, BCBSM has paid more than $25 million to support the cost-share waivers.

BCBSM has put more than $1.3 billion behind a multifaceted response to the COVID-19 crisis, including more than $230 million behind COVID treatment, officials say.

More information about coronavirus and advice on where to seek care if members come down with symptoms can be found on the company’s blog, www.MIBluesPerspectives.com or its website at www.bcbsm.com/coronavirus.

Nessel joins coalition

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced she has joined a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general representing 43 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories urging Congress to extend CARES Act funding until the end of 2021.

The coalition sent a letter on Monday to Congress urging members to extend the Dec. 30 deadline.

“The CARES Act has provided needed financial support to our communities during this particularly difficult period in our nation’s history, and given the current status of the pandemic, that assistance will be needed well into the new year,” Nessel said in a news release. “As our country continues to face the challenges presented by COVID-19, we must make every effort to work together toward recovery, and Congress has the opportunity to do exactly that by extending this deadline.”

With several pending solutions, including bipartisan extension measures in both the House and Senate, the attorneys general urge Congress to pass one of these measures to give states and local communities more time to use the COVID-relief resources.

In anticipation of unprecedented costs and economic disruption stemming from the pandemic, Congress passed the CARES Act in March as the pandemic hit. The move provided more than $2 trillion in economic stimulus to state and local governments in an effort to combat the impacts of the coronavirus.

One of the restrictions placed on the funding, however, limits the money’s use to expenses incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.

“This time frame likely made sense in late March when the CARES Act was passed, but we have learned a great deal about COVID-19 in the past seven months,” the letter states. “Among other things, we know that the pandemic will continue to challenge communities well beyond Dec. 30, 2020, a deadline that now seems unreasonable.”

As the pandemic goes on, state and local governments will continue incurring COVID-related expenses next year, the attorneys general said, and by extending the deadline, communities nationwide will be able to be more strategic with the use of CARES Act funds.

Physicians urge caution

Michigan physicians, speaking as members of the Committee to Protect Medicare on Tuesday, urged restaurants to help keep people safer by avoiding a rush to reopen and pausing indoor dining to minimize infections.

The physicians’ call came as one Detroit-area restaurant owner, Joe Vicari, circulated a letter asking other restaurant owners to defy health department orders prohibiting indoor dining. A current Michigan Department of Health and Human Services order pauses indoor dining until Tuesday.

“COVID-19 is an opportunistic pathogen always on the lookout for a human host, and prematurely reopening dining rooms while infections remain high is to serve people to the coronavirus on a silver platter,” said Dr. Ijeoma Nnodim Opara, an internal medicine pediatrics physician in Detroit, in a statement. “All of us want people to get back to work and businesses to reopen responsibly, but Mr. Vicari’s call to reopen no matter the health risk is reckless. Data and evidence show that restaurants, bars and cafes are places with the highest likelihood for COVID-19 transmissions, and as physicians, we urge these businesses to help reduce infections by following expert scientific advice so we can all do our part to help keep people safer.

“Reopening restaurants while COVID-19 ravages Michigan and hospitals are running low on beds and staff will risk the lives of customers as well as countless servers, cooks, cashiers, dishwashers and their families.”

According to an article in the Detroit Free Press, the letter urges restaurants to unite and fight back, pointing out that the industry cannot survive another extended closure.

Christie Mastric can be reached at cbleck@miningjournal.net. Lisa Bowers can be reached at lbowers@miningjournal.net.

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