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The year ushered in a new phase of the pandemic, one in which many Minnesotans returned to more normal day-to-day life. But it also marked a return to health issues that had gone largely ignored during the first two years of COVID-19: Mental health problems, addiction, viruses including RSV and the flu, Lyme disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s. One thing stayed the same: Health inequities persisted.
And in June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, turning Minnesota into an abortion-access “island” in the five-state area. Repercussions of the decision continue to reverberate in both the medical and political arenas.
In addition to covering those harder-hitting stories, we highlighted a few bright spots: We wrote about why Black people in Scott County live longer than almost anywhere else in the country, a new pediatric clinic for underserved populations, and a new program to treat racial trauma.
The following stories chronicle health equity in Minnesota in a year that continued to challenge health care workers and the general public, especially communities of color. As we plan our health coverage for 2023, we’d love to know how you’re feeling! Send health story ideas to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. On Twin Cities COVID wards: A younger, whiter wave of patients. And a whole lot of burnout.
Reporter Joey Peters interviewed four nurses about their experiences working in hospitals overwhelmed by COVID cases. In their own words, they talked about the most challenging time of their careers. Many medical workers left the profession, reporting burnout. Others are struggling through. “It was hard working through it,” Wilson Ekinde, a registered nurse at M Health Fairview St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood told Peters. “I cried a couple of times. But you go home, take a shower, and you don’t talk about it. Especially with my kids. My wife is a nurse, too, and she has her own stories about COVID from where she works. You try not to talk about it much, because you just get burnt out.” Later in the year, nurses went on strike to fight for better wages, staffing and patient care.
2. U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, putting people of color at disproportionate risk of harm, experts say.
The day the Supreme Court announced its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Sahan Journal reporters talked to local health experts about how the ruling would affect people of color. On what was a hard day for these reproductive rights advocates, experts made time to take our calls.
I talked to Dr. Rachel Hardeman, director of the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity at the University of Minnesota, who explained why people of color would be put at heightened risk. People without the resources of money, transportation, and time off of work will be hard-pressed to travel out of their state to obtain safe, legal abortions, she said.
“Oh man, that’s what breaks my heart,” she told me. “Obviously, we know it’s dangerous and unjust for all people, but the burden will fall hardest on Black, Indigenous, and other racialized groups–as well as nonbinary people and people with lower socioeconomic resources.”
Another expert talked about performing the last abortion in South Dakota on a media call.
“When we performed our last abortion in South Dakota, the last patient I saw had a story very similar to many I see,” said Dr. Sarah Traxler, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood North Central States. “She was a young mother who already had children, struggling to make ends meet, and couldn’t imagine bringing another child into that circumstance. She was able to make decisions for her and her family that were right for her…for women of South Dakota, this is no longer a reality.”
We also wrote about how Minnesota safeguarded abortion access, and how to access services safely.
3. Minnesota Muslims find a safe place to recover from alcohol addiction: the mosque.
Muslims often face extreme stigma for alcohol addiction, because Islam prohibits alcohol consumption. But nurse Munira Maalimisaq didn’t let that stop her from bringing substance-abuse treatment to mosques.
Joey Peters reported on the Muslim support groups that bring 60 people together in two local mosques to talk about addiction. The groups provide a lifeline for many in the East African community who grapple with speaking publicly about the issue because of the shame associated with substance abuse.
4. ‘Slow-minded’ becomes ‘unique mind’: Somalis in Minnesota create new terms to define autism and build acceptance.
Until recently, there hasn’t been a word for “autism” in the Somali language. Reporter Hibah Ansari talked to local parents who are hoping that more positive language around the neurological and developmental disorder could help remove stigma.
One of the words, maangaar, translates to “unique mind.”
Anisa Hussein told Ansari that the term describes her own children in a positive light.
“We need to teach the community. To do that, we have to come up with the language,” she said. “The Somali population, they’re more speakers, they’re more an oral community. For example, they make poetry. If we find the terms, it’ll be easier to understand.”
There is still much work to do, however: The false perception that the measles vaccine causes autism led to local clusters of measles cases at the end of the year.
5. How does long COVID affect Black and Latino people? A new University of Minnesota brain project will look for answers–a process that starts by changing who participates in COVID studies.
Back in the earliest days of the pandemic, Dr. Guilin Oz, a University of Minnesota professor and brain researcher, realized something: Research on how the new coronavirus affects the brain would need to start ASAP. In addition to the direct repercussions on patients who developed neurological problems, she knew that a widespread virus that impacted the brain could threaten ongoing brain research. If 90 percent of the population got COVID, how would brain researchers distinguish between issues related to COVID and independent brain issues?
And since it quickly became clear that people of color were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, Oz and colleagues committed to assembling a diverse cohort of Black and brown participants. “We don’t want to learn about long COVID only in the white population,” she told me.
Early findings of the study could be out in the new year.