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Running through recovery
  • Updated

EAU CLAIRE — Jared Knutson has run many miles on his road to recovery.

On Saturday morning, he tacked on 13.1 more as part of a half marathon organized by Hope Gospel Mission for residents who have taken up running during their stay at the Hope Renewal Center for Men on Eau Claire’s west side.

“I’m probably in better shape than I’ve ever been before,” Knutson, 32, said Friday prior to the race.

After struggling through alcohol and drug addiction in his 20s with multiple stints of sobriety and relapses, Knutson went to Hope Gospel Mission on Aug 20, 2019, for help.

“I had been at rock bottom in my life and didn’t want to get back to rock bottom,” he said.

During his time in the mission’s Renewed Hope Program, he incorporated more physical fitness into his lifestyle as he went through recovery.

“When I got here, I was able to pay more attention to it and make it more of a focus,” Knutson said.

That included weightlifting, bicycling, running and other sports, usually alongside fellow residents who replaced old habits with healthy ones.

“There’s more to it than just the physical activity,” Knutson said.

While running the men share stories about their day, challenges they’re facing, lessons learned at the mission and talk about God.

The relationships created during those runs help support morale, Knutson said, acknowledging the long process of recovery includes both ups and downs.

“We want to lighten the load for these guys,” Knutson said. “Activities like this seem to do that.”

At first Knutson’s runs were just one to two miles, but he felt the urge to push himself farther. When he worked his way up to three- to five-mile range, Knutson would have aches and pains afterwards, but that didn’t deter him. Continuing to get stronger, his runs would stretch to seven and then 10 miles, ultimately leading to the 13.1-mile half marathon distance.

Seeing Knutson and others at the mission enjoy going on runs together, Rich Chryst, resident assistant at the men’s facility and an avid runner himself, thought it would be good to organize a race for them.

The residents had set their sights on running the half-marathon course in the 2020 Eau Claire Marathon, but that large May race was called off due to the coronavirus pandemic and they weren’t interested in doing a virtual race.

So instead Chryst, who enjoys participating in community road races, chose to put together a half marathon event just for the residents.

“I wanted to have something a little more official than a group run,” he said.

Chryst ordered T-shirts, got volunteers and used a course map from the Eau Claire Marathon to host the race for the nine Hope Gospel Mission residents who chose to run it in early October.

On Saturday they did it again, this time with about 14 runners accompanied by volunteers on bicycles who kept them on course and would hand them water bottles and bananas along the way.

Chryst, about to turn 64 next month, was among the runners and glad he was able to join the residents he cares for at the Renewal Center.

“I’m here to help these men on their path to becoming the men that God wants them to be,” he said.

Both Knutson and Chryst believe that good physical health does a great deal to help people recovering from addiction.

“A healthy mind and body will lead to much better long-term success,” Chryst said.

Knutson noticed that residents who work on their physical health have a higher tendency to complete Hope Gospel Mission’s recovery program and graduate from it.

The enthusiastic and affable Knutson has already graduated from Renewed Hope but continues to live at the mission through its Discipleship Transitions Program, which allows those who have gone through recovery to stay a year longer to serve as a leader and mentor to other residents.

Other residents go on runs daily, but Knutson said his job — working for a Chippewa Falls company that installs freight elevators and conveyor systems throughout the Midwest — means he now has to fit exercise in around his work schedule.

Virus testing strategies, opinions vary widely in US schools

MISSION, Kan. — Children are having their noses swabbed or saliva sampled at school to test for the coronavirus in cities such as Baltimore, New York and Chicago. In other parts of the U.S., school districts are reluctant to check even students showing signs of illness for COVID-19.

Education and health officials around the country have taken different approaches to testing students and staff members — and widely varying positions or whether to test them at all as more children give up virtual classrooms for in-person learning. Some states have rejected their share of the billions of dollars the Biden administration made available for conducting virus tests in schools.

Officials in districts that have embraced testing describe it as an important tool for making sure schools reopen safely and infections remain under control.

They note that the virus might otherwise elude detection since young people with the virus often are asymptomatic and most teachers have been vaccinated.

But many school administrators and families, weary of pandemic-related disruptions, see little benefit in screening children, who tend not to become as sick from COVID-19 as adults. Meanwhile, each positive test that turns up at a school can trigger quarantine orders that force students back into learning from home.

In Nebraska, Superintendent Bryce Jorgenson said he doubts parents with children in the Southern Valley Public School District would embrace school-based virus tests. His rural, 370-student district eliminated its mandatory mask policy in March.

“I can tell you right now, I would say that not just in our district, but in many districts around, there is not an appetite for that at all,” he said of ongoing screening. “I don’t know as a leader, too, if I want to get into testing kids because we don’t test kids for any other virus, really.”

Elected officials in Iowa and Idaho made their opinions known by turning down millions in federal aid for voluntary COVID-19 testing in schools.

“Here’s your $95 million back,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, declared on Fox News after commenting that in her view, President Joe Biden “thinks that COVID just started.”

In Idaho, the state House of Representatives rejected $40.3 million in offered funding.

“Schools are not medical facilities, and we shouldn’t want to place that responsibility and liability on our schools,” Republican state Rep. Tammy Nichols said in an email. “That is why we have medical facilities and staff who are licensed, certified and insured to handle those things.”

Experts are divided about how worthwhile it is to test for the coronavirus inside schools as more people are vaccinated and confirmed cases decline.

Joshua Salomon, a professor of medicine at Stanford University who supports screening students, said the procedure could help curb outbreaks involving more contagious variants.

“Basically, it gives you an insurance policy against things we may not be able to anticipate,” Salomon said. “The virus has really kind of caught us off guard in a few instances.”

But Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said the nation’s vaccination program makes the tests less useful because immunized individuals are so much less likely to get infected. At the same time, she said, false positives in school settings carry significant consequences when they cause a return to online learning.

Screening tests have played a key role in reopening plans for schools in New York City and liberal-leaning states like California and Massachusetts.

Some districts, like Baltimore City Public Schools, use so-called pooled testing methods that combine multiple samples from students in kindergarten to eighth grade; a positive result leads to everyone in the pool being quarantined. The district is using individual saliva-based PCR tests to screen its high school students..

“By doing this screening testing, you can actually catch the cases early, and that is really effective at preventing transmission,” Cleo Hirsch, who oversees the testing in Baltimore’s public schools, said.

In Chicago, surveillance testing for COVID-19 was part of the district’s reopening agreement with the teachers union. For elementary students who are at least 10, the district tests a percentage at random, focusing on ZIP codes with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases. The district tests a sampling of high school students citywide. The tests require parental consent.

In Massachusetts, which also relies on pooled testing, the collected data indicates a positivity rate within schools of 2 cases for every 1,000 people, said Russell Johnston, a senior associate commissioner at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“That just again gives us enormous confidence in the mitigation strategies that we have available in the schools,” he said.

Oregon is beginning to pilot testing of unvaccinated school employees and plans to expand the health surveillance effort to children attending overnight summer camp before deciding how to proceed in the fall. Some school administrators have expressed trepidation about adding surveillance testing, state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said.

“COVID has added 12 new challenges every hour for them on top of everything else they were already burdened with,” Sidelinger said. “So many of them just kind of, I think instinctively, said, ‘No, you cannot ask us to do another thing.’”

In Minnesota, the 8,500-student Edina Public Schools has quarantined hundreds of close contacts of students with positive results. The district began a “Test The Nest” surveillance program at its high school and middle schools in mid-March in an attempt to identify individuals without symptoms who are carrying the virus, spokeswoman Mary Woitte said.

But Nicole Schnell, of the group Edina Parents 4 Progress, opposes the expanded testing, saying a single positive case can lead to massive disruptions.

Schnell said her daughters, age 15 and 18, spent two weeks quarantined in the fall and another two weeks in the spring despite testing negative because they were considered close contacts of people who were infected. Her 17-year-old son decided to keep attending classes virtually because he didn’t want to risk a potential exposure that might force him to miss the spring baseball season.

“I have seen firsthand effects of keeping kids out of society,” Schnell said, adding that one of her children was diagnosed with depression after being quarantined. “We are not just talking about out of school. We are talking about out of any sport that they play, out of any activity, out of anything outside, out of seeing their friends, because of a potential positive exposure.”

County fairs around Wisconsin preparing for in-person events

MADISON — With the Wisconsin State Fair returning this summer, county fairs around the state are also gearing up to return to in-person events this year.

Tom Barnett is coordinator of the Oneida County Fair. His county was one of many that decided to cancel its fair last year due to concerns about COVID-19. But Barnett said they decided at the start of this year that they would be bringing back the fair no matter what in 2021.

“We were counting on the vaccine to come out and people feeling more comfortable,” Barnett said. “So we decided way back then that one way or another ... that we were going to have a fair.”

Barnett said the county fair committee tried to keep some fair traditions alive through social media last year, even hosting a livestream version of their annual “Sexiest Men’s Legs In a Kilt” contest.

He said more community members participated than they expected, but many residents are eager to see the fair return in person, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Kathy Ambrosius, administrator of the Brown County Fair, said fair organizers across the state feel the same way.

She said it was “emotional and stressful” for many organizers to see so many fairs cancel in 2020.

“All of the fairs that I’m aware of are onboard to have their fair this year,” Ambrosius said. “We are one big fair family. We all share things back and forth and we’re very optimistic this will be a great year for all of us.”

Brown County was one of the few who hosted a fair last summer, and Ambrosius said they’re planning to follow many of the same safety protocols during this year’s event.

“We bought a lot of equipment like sanitizer stands, those types of items. That’s all brought us into this year,” Ambrosius said. “We’ll be using those same safety equipment, the same signage, and still have the hand sanitizers.”

Like many local fairs, Ambrosius said Brown County relies on sponsors to help cover event costs. She said they lost a few business sponsors in 2020 due to the economic impact of the pandemic, but others stepped up their donations to cover the losses.

Barnett said losing business sponsorships was one of the major reasons the Oneida County group chose to cancel last year’s event.

But his fair committee decided to try something new this year, holding a 12-hour livestreamed telethon to raise money for the event. Barnett said they brought in around $7,500 in donations.

“The community really came together,” Barnett said. “We had a lot of just your average citizen donating money. We had businesses stopping in personally with a check. It was just fantastic. They were coming to us and showing that they wanted to continue their support of us.”

Barnett said this year’s fair will look largely the same as previous years, but with increased handwashing stations and sanitizing procedures to try to prevent virus spread.

He said at this point in the pandemic, fair organizers feel it’s up to individuals to take personal responsibility for following public health recommendations.

“We are pretty confident that people are aware of the safety precautions that need to be taken, if there are any at that point,” Barnett said.