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Capital City Sunday: Police Reform, Rural Health Care & Vaping ties to COVID-19

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MADISON (WKOW) --- Police officers are at the center of a heated debate that aims to change how they work in their communities and a former Madison police chief believes part of the problem is officers are given too many responsibilities. 

After weeks of national protests over police brutality, former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said community control over departments used to work, but said the root of the problem lies within the culture.

“We were being asked to do too much at times and maybe we were not the appropriate people to do those things,” said Wray. “But we won’t start to change things if we don’t recognize there’s this philosophical shift in transforming police departments where there’s community involvement.”

Wray served as chief from 2004 to 2013 and was with the department for nearly 30 years. 

As a retired chief, Wray ran a program to help officers improve their relationships with communities to help build trust. When asked if those relationships are improving, he called trust is a “delicate thing.”

“One single incident can throw you off, every call, every encounter, but eventually people will understand you as a human being. Yes, police officers wear uniforms but in those uniforms, they are human beings and they have to engage with community members in that regard,” said Wray.

As for progress on police reform, there’s been some after President Trump signed an executive order that bans chokeholds -- unless an officer’s life is at stake, creates a database to track officers with excessive use of force complaints, and provides funding to departments that need to train officers in de-escalation tactics. 

Democrats in Congress are pursuing their own proposals to outright ban chokeholds, an idea Wray supports, and require all officers to wear body cams.

Republicans’ proposal focuses more on state and local control by incentivizing them to take action on police reform instead of a national approach.

“Nothing will change unless you get at the culture of policing and the culture of departments.”

Rural Health Care During COVID-19

Rural hospitals are facing new challenges during the pandemic after shifting services online, which is creating budget woes for providers whose finances are already stretched thin.

Tim Size, Executive Directors of Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, said non-emergency medical procedures, which were postponed during COVID-19, generates 40-60% of their income, according to estimates by the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

After nearly 3 months of postponing these appointments, Size worries about the future of rural care. 

“The financial losses are real and it will take a couple of years on all cases to make up these losses,” said Size. 

He called the financial hit a reminder for lawmakers when they revisit their budget. 

“We will need the most help with Medicaid funding.”

Most appointments and surgeries in Wisconsin are back up and running. Size said it's a reminder for people to come in for their care.

“Rural hospitals are among some of the safest places around … our biggest concern is the really sick people who are postponing care and lack of awareness where their care could become urgent.”

A majority of hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin are screening patients before they come in with temperature checks, masks, and are following social distancing guidelines. 

Vaping and COVID-19

There's new evidence people who use vaping products or electronic cigarettes are prone to have worse outcomes if tested positive for coronavirus.

UW Health said a few studies have made the connection between smoking cigarettes, vaping aerosol, and COVID-19, which are known to cause lung inflammation and lowered immune function, both associated with more severe cases of COVID-19. 

“What they are drawing these conclusions from is, you know, you are damaging your lungs with a combustible tobacco product or vape product, you may be injuring your lungs and we want the best care for our lungs at this time,” said Dr. Megan Piper, a Researcher at the UW Tobacco Research Center. 

During the pandemic, state health officials are also seeing a massive decline in the number of people reporting lung complications due to vaping. 

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services, which tracks vaping-related injuries, said there have only been 8 confirmed or probable cases reported in 2020. Last year there were 103 cases of severe lung disease among people who admitted to vaping. 

A DHS spokesperson said local health departments are still investigating cases as they come, but said, "the illnesses associated with vaping have tapered off."

State health officials said they don't know the reasons for the decline but suggest it could be due to the changes in the formulation of THC vaping products and fewer people using them. 

In 2019, CDC identified Vitamin E Acetate as the potential culprit behind thousands of vaping illnesses.

“People producing these THC products have learned from this and have really improved their manufacturing standards and are doing a better job of keeping out the Vitamin E Acetate out of the products,” said Dr. Piper.

Last year a DHS investigation at the peak of the vaping epidemic found 89 percent of the 27 cases that reported lung disease due to vaping was tied to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Another reason for the decline could be due to a flavor ban on Juul products and raising the tobacco age to 21 in Wisconsin, according to Piper. 

“If your source for vaping products was informal, meaning you got it from someone from school, you no longer have those connections and your supply may have gone away,” said Piper. 

The dramatic change in those reporting lung complications also comes after vaping devices found their ways into the hands of teens, even though it was illegal for them to use. 

Vaping was an alarming trend that a high school principal said is “taking over his school” when testifying to lawmakers to raise the tobacco age to 21. 

The bill, which was signed into law, raised the legal age for sale, purchase, possession of cigarettes, nicotine, tobacco, and vaping products.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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