Pandemic, DCH news highlighted 2021

Dickinson County Healthcare System employees and board members joined community representatives at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 12 for the hospital’s newly renovated emergency department. DCH announced at the same time the signing of a letter of intent to join Marshfield Clinic Health System. (Terri Castelaz/Daily News photo)

The pandemic didn’t end as hoped in 2021.

Locally, it calmed. Many community events resumed. Then — as in 2020 — COVID-19 infections soared in the fall, along with the number of deaths.

The Dickinson-Iron District Health Department reported no coronavirus deaths in Dickinson County from May 2021 into early September. For the year, however, the county had 30 such deaths — including 21 after Sept. 30.

In 2020, the health department had reported 64 COVID-19 deaths in Dickinson County — all but two coming in the final three months. There were 2,166 confirmed or probable cases that year. The lower death count in 2021 came despite a significantly higher (2,978) case count — showing the effectiveness of vaccines in limiting the severity of infections.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported in November that nearly 90% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care at that time were unvaccinated. According to Michigan Health Watch, the fully vaccinated accounted for 11.9% of hospitalizations and 14.5% of deaths across the state in 2021.

(Genevieve McIntyre Angeloff photo) The newly renovated scaffold at the Pine Mountain ski jump was the star attraction at the Kiwanis Ski Club’s open house in February.

Whether fed by pandemic fatigue, vaccine hesitancy or its own adaptability, the scourge went on. The U.S. was on track to exceed a million COVID-19 deaths by early 2022. There were more U.S. COVID deaths in 2021 than in 2020.

By the end of the year, the Upper Peninsula had experienced 653 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic. The reported death count for the nation of Finland over the same period was 1,564.

Finland, one of the countries around the world coping best with the pandemic, has about 5.5 million people; the Upper Peninsula just 300,000. Finland, with 18 times as many people as the U.P., has had only 2.4 times as many COVID-19 deaths.

The troublesome delta variant was followed in December by the omicron variant. Though possibly milder, omicron was believed more transmissible, sometimes evading protection from vaccines and natural immunity developed by earlier infections.

Despite the pandemic, Dickinson County Healthcare System got stronger with help from the federal government. The community hospital announced plans in October to join Marshfield Clinic Health System, easing financial worries for an organization that had veered near insolvency in 2018.

North Central’s Dylan Plunger (26) and Gavin Casperson celebrate during the MHSAA Division 2 eight-player state championship game Jan. 17, 2021, at the Legacy Center in Brighton, Mich. The Jets crushed Portland St. Patrick 70-48 to finish the pandemic-delayed 2020 season undefeated. Ten months later, North Central earned the 2021 state title, cruising past Colon 63-0 at the Superior Dome in Marquette for a second straight perfect season. (Kolleth Photography)

Already bolstered by a $16.9 million federal loan and forgiveness of a $9.1 million Paycheck Protection Program loan, DCH in December secured a $26 million capital commitment from Marshfield that includes plans for a new cancer center in Iron Mountain.

The affiliation agreement will turn DCH operations over to Marshfield once a deal is closed in early 2022. While the DCH Board of Trustees will no longer exist, input and oversight from a local advisory panel will be part of the new Marshfield-Dickinson structure.

Marshfield intends to transform health care in the community and region, DCH CEO Chuck Nelson said. “We’re stable and we want to grow,” he told the county board as the merger plan was adopted.

DCH made other advancements on its own, completing an emergency department renovation and spending millions to update diagnostic and cancer therapy equipment.

Making its first entry into Michigan, Marshfield has more than 60 locations in 40 Wisconsin communities in northern, central and western Wisconsin. The non-profit health care provider has more than 10,000 employees,

The economic news of 2021 included a December announcement that Verso Corp., parent company to two U.P. paper mills, would merge with a Swedish manufacturer. BillerudKorsnäs AB’s acquisition of Verso was expected to be completed by mid-2022.

The Swedish firm will invest about $1 billion to convert Verso’s Escanaba mill into a paperboard production site. The Quinnesec mill will continue operating as a coated freesheet and specialty papers manufacturer.

In the energy sector, the debate over Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline continued after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order in November 2020 to close the 68-year-old line. The company, based in Calgary, Alberta, filed a federal lawsuit and ignored the Democratic governor’s May 12 shutdown deadline.

Whitmer and state Attorney General Dana Nessel argued that a 4-mile section crossing the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac violates the public trust and state environmental law. Enbridge, while insisting the existing line is safe, wants to follow through on a 2018 agreement to build a tunnel beneath the Straits to contain a new pipeline.

Debates over wolf management also made headlines. In Wisconsin, hunters surpassed a state harvest quota and killed 218 wolves in just four days in February. A November hunt in Wisconsin was put on hold by a state judge, two weeks before it was set to begin.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources formed a wolf management advisory council but reached no decision on an Upper Peninsula hunt.

In mid-November, a federal judge heard arguments on whether to uphold or strike down a decision from the waning days of the Trump administration that lifted protections for gray wolves across most of the country. There was no immediate ruling.

Iron Mountain welcomed news that construction of a 95-room hotel downtown could be followed by other improvements. Michele Thomas, director of development for Marquette-based Veridea Group, told the city

council in October the TownPlace Suites by Marriott hotel is “the first of what we hope will be a multi-phase project.” The $16 million investment will rehabilitate the site of the former Timbers Motor Lodge at 200 S. Stephenson Ave.

Lume Cannabis completed a renovation project at 117 and 119 S. Stephenson Ave., opening a marijuana dispensary at a reported cost of $2.1 million. Rize Cannabis, which has Iron Mountain’s other marijuana retail license, entered a second year of operation. Rize continued a commitment to invest $5 million at its 1580 N. Stephenson Ave. facility, which includes a cultivation center.

BOSS Snowplow broke ground in October for a multi-million-dollar office expansion at its manufacturing complex on Iron Mountain’s North Side.

Systems Control of Iron Mountain acquired Keystone Electrical Manufacturing Co., headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.

In Wisconsin, S.C. Swiderski LLC, a Mosinee-based developer, committed to building new multi-family housing complexes in both Florence and Niagara.

Pandemic restrictions forced the Kiwanis Ski Club to cancel the Continental Cup ski jumping tournament at Pine Mountain, but it was hardly a quiet year for Giant Pine. The scaffold and landing hill, renovated at a cost of more than $3 million, passed International Ski Federation inspection.

With the 2022 Continental Cup set for Feb. 5 and 6, the facility is again poised to host World Cup events.

“It’s more important than ever — because we didn’t have (the ski jumps) — that the community realizes what they have here,” Kiwanis Ski Club Corresponding Secretary Susie Fox said as the 2021 event was canceled. “And the only way it’s going to continue is if they continue to support the organization that puts it on, which is the Kiwanis Ski Club.”

After 15 months of capacity restrictions, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced in late June that Michigan’s restaurants, entertainment businesses and other venues could fully open. The state was among the last to lift its caps, frustrating the business community and widening the governor’s political divide with a Republican Legislature.

Jobless rates fell throughout the year, below the levels of 2020 but slightly above pre-pandemic rates.

Dickinson County’s unemployment rate of 3.9% in November 2021 compared with a rate of 5.3% in November 2020 and 3.3% in November 2019. The reported rate for January 2021 was 6%, up by 1.5 percentage points from January 2020.

The steady recovery in jobless rates was tempered by inflation. The U.S. consumer price index climbed 7% in 2021, the largest 12-month gain since June 1982.

In January 2021, by a 4-1 vote, the Dickinson County Board adopted a resolution claiming orders of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had “eroded constitutional rights of citizens” and “placed undue burdens and restrictions on local businesses and local employees.” Although the resolution carried no legal power, it was opposed by Commissioner John Degenaer Jr., the board’s only Democrat, who said it risked minimizing the importance of public health orders.

In September, with COVID-19 cases rising, Dickinson-Iron District Health Department issued an indoor mask order for kindergarten through sixth-grade students while in a school-related setting. The agency rescinded the order just five days after it took effect, saying the 2022 state budget bill contained language putting its funding at risk if the mandate remained in place.

“It has been a very difficult decision to be forced to choose between what is best for the public’s current health situation versus the future of our essential public health programs that will hopefully continue to serve our community for years to come,” said Daren Deyaert, DIDHD health officer.

Apart from the health agency order, the Norway-Vulcan Area Schools Board approved a mask policy by a 5-2 vote at its September meeting. It included mandates based on infection counts, and drew some protests.

At year’s end, with COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, Michigan’s health and education departments urged schools to postpone or make virtual large gatherings, including sporting events, if they were not “essential.”

Michigan High School Athletic Association restrictions earlier in the year delayed the start of winter seasons until the second week of February. Once on the court, the Iron Mountain boys basketball team went undefeated through 19 games before falling to Flint Beecher in the Division 3 state championship game in April.

Along the way, the Mountaineers’ Foster Wonders set the Upper Peninsula career scoring record of 2,286 points. Now a redshirt freshman at Division 1 Southern Illinois University, Wonders paced Iron Mountain to a 90-5 record over four varsity seasons, including two Division 3 state runner-up finishes.

North Central won a pair of MHSAA Division 2 eight-player state football championships. Pandemic delays pushed the end of the fall 2020 season into January and the Jets beat Portland St. Patrick 70-48 at the Legacy Center in Brighton for their first 2021 crown.

Ten months later, at the Superior Dome in Marquette, North Central whipped Colon 63-0 to complete a calendar sweep. It was the Jets’ fourth eight-player state title in seven years.

“If they keep working hard, we can very well get back here (in the state championship game) again next year,” coach Leo Gorzinski said.

In December, junior quarterback Luke Gorzinski was named the Michigan Associated Press Player of the Year for eight-player football.

In April, three Iron Mountain wrestlers earned medals at the MHSAA Division 4 state wrestling finals, including sophomore Shawn McGuire, who placed third at 119 pounds.

Norway hosted the Michigan Little League tournament for 9- and 10-year-olds in July, with the home team advancing through a 16-team field to reach the state championship game. Greater Bay defeated Norway 4-2 for the state title.

Norway head coach Scott Sternhagen was full of praise for his team. “Second place in the state, playing in a tournament at our own field, I am proud of the boys,” he said.

Norway’s 11- and 12-year-old softball all-stars competed in the Michigan Little League tournament in Taylor, making it out of pool play as a No. 3 seed with a 2-1 record. Their run came to an end with an 8-0 loss to eventual state champion Grosse Pointe.


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