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Southern Jersey Family Medical Center providing health essentials where they're most needed

ATLANTIC CITY — In a city as diverse in demographics and economic status as Atlantic City, having access to quality care can mean the difference between life and death.

Due to a variety of factors, Atlantic City has some of the worst health outcomes in the state, from infant mortality to cancer to heart disease to diabetes, data show.

Ensuring everyone on the island has access to health services regardless of insurance coverage or income level is in the mission statement of Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers (SJFMC), which has been operating in the city for three decades.

The federally funded nonprofit operates between two buildings and three city blocks on Atlantic Avenue, offering primary and preventative services, dentistry, obstetrics, gynecological and pediatric care.

“We provide all of those things right there for them,” said Destiny C. Wood, director of women’s health services for SJFMC.

Atlantic City’s poor health conditions are worsened in part due to the challenges of living in an economically depressed city, including a lack of transportation and of a grocery store, as well as poverty and adverse childhood experiences, Wood said.

“I feel like when you look at the health disparities, social determinates have a lot to do with it for us,” said Wood. “And all of those things are contributing factors to the presence of chronic health conditions.”

SJMFC was started in 1977 to provide health services for migrant farm works and has expanded through the years from seven employees to 250, serving 51,000 patients at eight sites across three counties.

The staff at SJFMC is as diverse as its patient population, which Wood said helps provide positive and culturally competent care.

“I love that we are a diverse population of not just providers, our workers, we are a diverse group for sure. But I think that patients do and will identify,” Wood said.

At its Atlantic City main office in 1300 block of Atlantic Avenue, the medical center serves more than a 100 patients per day for adult primary care and dentistry, according to the practice manager Jodine Patterson.

“We do so much to take care of patients,” Patterson said. “We see everyone and our motto is we don’t turn patients away.”

The center has a care coordination team and a chronic disease coordinator who sees all patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, as well as behavioral health issues.

“A majority of times, patients don’t really have the knowledge of what complications come from their condition,” said Yoammy Pozo-Sosa, the chronic disease care coordinator at the Atlantic City center.

Pozo-Sosa said she works to make sure patients get the best care, beyond just going to regular doctor’s visits.

Helping to reach patients where they are, SJFMC provides classes for diabetes self-care management, some of which are held at the All Wars Center in the city as participation has increased. The classes include cooking demonstrations, incentives and other methods of interactive learning, Wood said.

“The real goal of that is to engage the patients, where they’re involved in their own self-care management and decision making,” she said.

SJFMC also has a Community and Patient Engagement (CAPE) team that serves as the referral team for those patients who need services beyond what is provided the medical center.

“We find a lot of the time you give the patients the information, you may send them for a referral, but they wait to make the appointment,” Wood said.

She said the CAPE team helps connect the dots.

Quality of life

SJFMC’s second site is focused on women and children and is located in the 1100 block.

Each year, SJFMC doctors deliver 600 babies at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Mainland campus in Galloway Township. Wood said they are getting ready to roll out a doula program this spring similar to the one offered through Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative this year.

Woods said the center continues to expand its services and build community partnerships within Atlantic City to serve patients’ needs.

“Our mission here is to provide culturally proficient healthcare services and activities designed to reduce disparity,” Wood said. “Our goal with that is to improve health outcomes and improve the quality of life for the community that we serve.”

High energy, no contests, at Atlantic County Democratic convention

ATLANTIC CITY — Northfield attorney Susan Korngut got a standing ovation and loud cheers from a crowd of about 340 Atlantic County Democrats on Sunday at the Golden Nugget Casino as she accepted their nomination as candidate for Atlantic County Executive.

She will challenge longtime incumbent Republican Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, who she said represents the status quo since he has been in office since 2000, “back when I had a flip phone.”

None of the races had more than one Democrat looking to be the candidate, so there were no votes to be taken other than acclimation voice votes. It made for a less than two-hour convention, as there were no speeches from competing candidates, only four-minute acceptance speeches from the nominees.

The Atlantic County Republican Convention begins at 9 a.m. March 30 at Linwood Country Club, where the GOP will nominate candidates for the same offices.

The Democrats also nominated Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo, of Northfield, and John Armato, of Buena Vista Township, for re-election to the second legislative district, and Ernest Coursey, of Atlantic City, for re-election as Atlantic County freeholder in the first district.

Officials said 181 of 325 eligible delegates attended, along with about 340 guests.

Event timekeeper Creed Pogue, of Estell Manor, said opposition to President Donald Trump has continued to generate more interest in the county’s Democratic Party, along with Democrats’ recent successes on the freeholder board and success by women and members of minority groups.

After two female Democrats won in 2017, the board consists of four women and five men. Two freeholders are African-American. Republicans still have a clear majority at of 6 to 3.

On Sunday, Hammonton’s Nick Polito was nominated for freeholder-at-large. He will challenge GOP Board Chairperson Amy Gatto, of Hamilton Township, the first female chair in the board’s history and a manager at AXA, a financial services company. Polito is a 30-year employee of the New Jersey Transportation Authority and a real estate agent.

Electrician Steve Light, of Absecon, was nominated for freeholder in District 4. He’ll challenge Galloway Township’s Richard Dase, a seventh-grade social studies teacher.

Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman said the nomination convention is the longest continuous one in New Jersey history.

“We have a winning ticket. We win if we get out to the polls,” said Coursey, encouraging people to “get our souls to the polls and elect Democrats that will stick up for and fight for our values.”

Korngut said she was raised in Margate by a dad who was a successful businessman “who would have cut off his arm before he stiffed another,” a mom who was a beauty queen, and an African-American caretaker.

“Mabel Burns was born in Indian Trail, North Carolina,” said Korngut. “She lived on Sewell Avenue in Bungalow Park. She never lived with us, but she was there in morning and when I went to sleep at night” and was a powerful influence in Korngut’s life.

Burns’ great-nieces Nicole McPhail, of Woodbridge, and Michelle Zakee, of Union, were in the audience to celebrate Korngut’s nomination.

“We deserve a county executive who will fight for us and create local wealth for everyone, who will improve the health of our most vulnerable citizens,” Korngut said.

She said she will release specific information about what she would do as county executive in the coming weeks and months.

Law enforcement say trained dogs in schools deter shooters, save lives

CORBIN CITY — For the past five years, Joe Nick has been working out a way to save the lives of school children who are threatened by an active shooter.

Nick, the training director at Atlantic County’s John “Sonny” Burke Police K-9 Academy, has taught police dogs to sniff out drugs, bombs and subdue suspects, but his focus has widened to include training school dogs to smell ammo, guns and to engage a shooter.

“All I want to do is give another layer of security,” Nick said, who recently placed South Jersey’s first school dog, Meadow, at Cumberland County Technical Education Center in Vineland. “A dog will always continue to engage.”

In 2016 and 2017, out of the 50 active shooter incidents across the U.S., seven happened in schools. In those seven incidents, five were killed and 19 wounded, according to an FBI study.

For years, legislators and advocates have grappled to find solutions for schools, including increasing security, creating stricter gun laws and even arming teachers.

Are school dogs a viable option? As with many of the ideas proposed, reactions are mixed.

There is no evidence to suggest a school dog would work, according to Daniel Semenza, assistant professor at Rutgers-Camden’s Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice departments.

“The problem is, especially after these awful things happen, schools rush very quickly to put measures in place where there’s not any evidence to suggest that it does anything and it works,” Semenza said.

But for at least one of the parents of a school shooting victim, the dogs are a step in the right direction. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was one of the 17 victims of the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, said the school dog named in his daughter’s memory will save lives.

“The beauty of it is, you’ll never know how many lives this dog will save because it’s such a deterrent,” Pollack said at the school dog’s graduation this month. “Most of the people who do these school shootings are cowards and don’t want to go anywhere they’ll be bit.”

Since Meadow’s graduation, Nick has been getting calls from California, New York and Michigan, all inquiring about the school dogs, he said. Some are for schools, but others are for churches and private businesses — anywhere with large groups of people.

Semenza said there isn’t even a lot of evidence that shows that armed school resource officers and metal detectors work. The “gold standard” would be to measure reports of violence and threats over time at two school locations, one with the dog and one without.

Nick explained he’s completed 72 drills at the training center, using balloons to simulate potential victims and a “shooter” armed with a paintball gun, he said. Each time the dog was introduced, the number of balloons hit by the shooter was decreased dramatically.

Other considerations

But there are also the students to consider, Semenza said, and the type of environment a school could become.

“What will allow us to strike a balance to keep the children safe in school but also not turning the school grounds into a criminalized place?” Semenza asked, noting that Meadow joins a security force of 14 armed retired law-enforcement officers. “There can be downsides to having a high school environment where it doesn’t feel like a place of education, but a place that’s being guarded, which I think can change it for a lot of students.”

But school dogs are different than the law enforcement K-9s, Nick said, and a school dog adds a layer of protection “without fighting about guns.”

“The difference is the police dog has to be trained in multiple fashions and has to be used in multiple places,” Nick explained. “A school dog is trained in three facets: obedience, the nose to locate guns and ammo, and the other is to engage an active shooter.”

Students at the school have been taught to treat Meadow as if she’s working, not as a pet.

“No one pets her,” Nick said. “She looks like a mascot, but Meadow is there to protect them.”

A school dog also has the potential to save districts money they would otherwise spend on a salaried resource officer, Nick said. School dogs cost much less to train and last longer than the average police K-9, which work until they’re about 8 or 9 years old and cost between $50,000 and $75,000, he added.

While he doesn’t have an exact cost just yet, as he was able to get Meadow and her training donated to the Vineland school, he said it will be “significantly cheaper” than a K-9 and will probably work until she’s 10 or 11.

“I want everybody to understand it’s better to have and not need than need and not have,” Nick said. “Maybe we’ll never use it, but if it is where my school and my child (are), I would want it.”

Today's marijuana vote still uncertain

The bills expected to come up for a vote Monday to legalize recreational adult use of cannabis and expunge the records of those who have been convicted of low-level marijuana crimes may not be the same bills made public last week, two state legislators said.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, and Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said Sunday they are unsure how they will vote and that much will depend on what is in the final version of the legislation.

On Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy said he didn’t have the votes needed to pass the legislation in both the Assembly and Senate but that he would work on gaining votes over the weekend.

Murphy, State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin recently announced they had agreed on a bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana by those 21 and over, regulate its growing, manufacture of products and its selling, and tax cannabis at $42 an ounce.

It also would expunge the records of those convicted of lower-level marijuana possession and distribution charges and provide set-aside rules to give 15 percent of licenses to businesses owned by women or minorities and 15 percent to disabled veterans.

The public, especially younger people, has come to support the idea over time.

“There is pretty solid support, increasing every time we poll,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.

An October 2018 Eagleton poll found 58 percent favored recreational legalization, and 37 percent opposed it. Almost 70 percent said they believed it would help the state’s economy.

Koning said most residents also favor allowing people to grow cannabis at home, but that is not part of the legislation.

Following are thoughts from those who have spent a lot of time considering the issue.

Medical perspective

Lewis S. Nelson, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, doesn’t support recreational legalization. He’s neutral on it.

He is more opposed to medical marijuana, he said, because there haven’t been rigorous trials that show medical cannabis to be safe and effective for medical use.

His concerns about recreational use center around the harm it will do to a small percentage of people who will develop habitual use, or mental illnesses caused by its use.

“What percentage of society do we want to sacrifice so the rest of us can have a good time?” said Nelson, adding that 5 to 10 percent of people will develop a problem with use of it, such as amotivation syndrome, depression or other mental health issues.

“Now, if society feels it’s a good idea to have adult-use recreational cannabis, that’s a society decision,” said Nelson. “Just don’t give it the imprimatur of medical safety and use.”

He acknowledged alcohol is probably worse than cannabis because it impairs judgement and reaction time, while cannabis merely slows it.

But cannabis would add a new mind-altering substance to the mix that will become accessible to young people. People are not likely to replace alcohol with cannabis, but to add cannabis to alcohol, he said.

“I imagine it will be legal,” said Nelson. “I predict 10 years from now we will be looking back saying, ‘What did we do?’”

A philosopher’s concerns

Rutgers philosophy Professor Douglas Husak specializes in legal philosophy, and has come to think there is no good reason to penalize people for using marijuana.

“I think about criminalization, and the conditions that have to be satisfied before it is a good idea or justifiable to create a criminal offense — what the limits of state authority are,” said Husak.

“The burden of proof is always on those who would criminalize,” said Husak, who said he has never seen sufficient justification to make the use of pot a crime.

He has lost interest in related questions, such as regulation, taxation, control of the black market and where to put growing and selling facilities, Husak said.

Those other questions are important, he said, but they are secondary to the question of whether it’s ever rational or justifiable for the state to make the use of marijuana a criminal offense and punish people for it.

As for worries that already wealthy people may end up profiting most from cannabis legalization, Husak said that is the case with almost every legal drug, from coffee to pharmaceuticals.

Poison control for children and adults

Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center, said there would almost certainly be a spike in poisonings related to recreational marijuana.

“Any time a new drug is introduced, including recreational cannabis, poison control centers have consistently reported an increase in poison exposures from that drug in adults and children alike,” she said. “Many of these exposures arise from edible marijuana products, which may look enticing to young children and cause serious consequences.”

Adults can also end up in the hospital from exposure to marijuana edibles, she said, either because the adult does not realize the product contains a high concentration of THC (the psychoactive chemical in cannabis) or because they decide to “dose-stack,” or eat the product too quickly.

“Any legislation should consider how to avert such exposures — such as requiring packaging that is child resistant and does not look child-friendly; warning labels which clearly state ‘THC – Not Safe for Children;’ responsible marketing practices; and dose and pack size limitations.”

Profits predicted to be huge

From a business perspective, Lyneir Richardson, executive director of The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CUEED) at Rutgers Business School, predicted legalized recreational cannabis “will quickly be a $40 billion-dollar-plus industry. And the local economic impact will be huge.”

Richardson said the new industry would strengthen inner-city neighborhoods.

Many entrepreneurs will be people of color, Richardson predicted, and “will seek to work with the product directly — growing or processing it, selling through a retail location, providing a delivery service, etc.”

Richardson said significant profits would also flow to people selling ancillary services, such as security and irrigation systems, software, and construction.

Mel Evans  

Ashley Koning, assistant director, Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, answers a question at a New Jersey Business and Industry event Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in East Windsor, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)