The state’s top doctor said Wednesday she has advised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that a mask mandate for K-12 schools would help keep children safe when they return to classrooms this fall, but Whitmer and state health department Director Elizabeth Hertel have yet to take action on that recommendation.
“I have recommended that if a mask mandate were in place and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive for the state health department during a news conference. “I am concerned about what is happening, and what could potentially happen, with our schools. We have put out and updated our guidance last week and specifically recommended that schools implement a universal mask requirement so we can protect our students, keep them in in-person learning.
“We continue to work very closely with our local health departments, providing information to our local superintendents as well,” she added. “We do understand that there currently is a law that would allow us to implement that mandate. But at this time, the governor and the director have not made that determination.”
Why not, Khaldun couldn’t say.
“I cannot speak to that,” she said. “I do know that my lane is to provide public health guidance, but I also recognize that there are many other things that have to be considered when it comes to implementing it.”
Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said the state is urging local school districts to create their own mask requirements. Despite Khaldun’s recommendation, Leddy confirmed the governor is still not considering a statewide mask mandate for schools.
“As school districts prepare for the upcoming school year, it is our hope that schools will offer in-person instruction by putting in place appropriate mitigation measures,” Leddy said. “That’s why school districts and local health departments should work together to put in place universal mask policies to keep students safe and ensure that in-person learning can continue this year.”
Leddy noted that nearly 60 local school districts in Michigan have issued mask mandates so far – that amounts to roughly 11 percent of the state’s 537 school districts.
“Most children cannot be vaccinated and will be spending hours together inside classrooms,” said Sarah Lyon-Callo, the state’s top epidemiologist and director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health.
New data released Wednesday by the state health department showed that requiring masks could reduce the rate of coronavirus infection by 40 percent to 75 percent in K-12 schools.
Projections suggest that as many as 90 percent of unvaccinated schoolchildren could be infected with the virus before the end of the fall semester if universal masks and testing protocols are not put in place, Lyon-Callo said.
“Vaccination is of course important, however the correct use of a well-fitting mask, KN95s, N95s, can be useful,” she said. “Making use of physical distancing, the use of testing and screening and staying home when sick continue to be important in our fight against COVID. We know these methods work.”
Lyon-Callo highlighted a University of Michigan model that showed if one elementary school child infected with the delta variant attends a class of 25 students and no masks are worn, it would take just three hours to infect half the other students in that room. The rate of spread drops considerably with universal masking, even if those masks are not perfectly worn.
Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer for Henry Ford Health System, urged everyone – vaccinated or not – to wear masks as a growing number of children are sickened by the virus.
“We are already seeing children who are ... testing positive,” he said. “We are seeing that there are hospitals around the nation that are filling up with pediatric patients because of COVID. So COVID is not sparing children at the present time.”
Munkarah and other health leaders are concerned that without higher vaccination rates and universal masking in schools, “we might get into a situation where our children’s hospitals will be overrun,” he said.
The delta variant is about twice as transmissible as the alpha variant, also known as B.1.1.7, that hit Michigan so hard in the spring, Lyon-Callo said. It now accounts for about 99 percent of the cases that undergo genomic sequencing in Michigan, and is threatening to push the state into yet another surge.
Those at highest risk are people who are unvaccinated, which includes young children who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
But mask requirements for schools is a polarizing topic, and mandates are opposed by many prominent Republicans.
The Michigan Republican Party issued a statement this week denouncing mask mandates, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, called mask requirements “the dumbest thing.”
Shirkey argued children are at extremely low risk from COVID-19, pointing to data that shows a small number of children who have died nationally from the disease.
However, more than 1,900 kids were hospitalized over the weekend because of COVID-19, the most of any point during the pandemic. And they also can develop Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, which occurs weeks after the initial coronavirus infection and leads to hospitalization in about 70 percent of kids who get it, Lyon-Callo said.
There also are long-haul COVID-19 symptoms that can plague children for months after they contract the virus.
“About one in 20 kids have symptoms for up to a month after they’ve ‘recovered’ from their active infection,” Lyon Callo said, adding that children also can be indirectly impacted by the virus if they lose loved ones or caregivers who contract it.
Lawmakers in at least eight states banned mask requirements in K-12 schools while 10 others and the District of Columbia have put in place rules requiring them in schools, according to an Aug. 10 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
President Joe Biden announced Wednesday afternoon that he has directed U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to use “all of his oversights authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators.”
“If you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who’s trying, you know?” Biden said. “We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”
Requiring masks, Munkarah said, is a safety issue that’s supported by national and international data.
“It is unfortunate that they are mixing safety and science with politics at the present time,” he said. “I mean, what is the next thing? Is the Legislature going to decide which medications that we can give or we cannot give based on the science that is out there?”
The state health department has the power to issue a mask mandate for all Michigan schools. Local health departments can also issue mask requirements for the counties they cover. The Genesee County Health Department issued its own mask mandate last week, requiring them for teachers, staff, and all children ages 5-11 who are too young for vaccines in all educational settings, including schools and camps, countywide.
But Khaldun’s comments about the other factors Whitmer and Hertel must consider before requiring masks for school-age children statewide highlights broader policy and political questions for the governor and her team.
Last fall, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled a 1945 emergency powers law unconstitutionally shifted some authority from the Legislature to the governor. However, Whitmer stopped using that law for new pandemic restrictions, instead turning to the head of the health department and a public health law entirely unaffected by the court’s ruling.
Hertel has the power to issue a mask mandate now; the department temporarily banned in-person classes for high schools and colleges in late 2020, but Hertel and Whitmer are choosing not to use that power now.
“The state is committed to ensuring that Michigan students and educators are safe in the classroom,” said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the state health department, in an email message to the Free Press.
She referenced the department’s strong recommendation for school districts to adopt universal masking policies and other mitigation measures to slow the spread of the virus.
“Some local health departments and school districts have already moved forward to require masks in schools; we applaud their efforts and encourage all Michigan districts to follow their lead. We continue to work closely with school administrators and local health departments to advise on masking and prevention strategies and will continue to monitor the school population closely.”
The delta variant has caused a crisis in many southern states, as hospitals fill up and people die. In Michigan, case rates, hospitalizations, deaths and the percentage of positive tests are all rising, too, Lyon-Callo said.
Michigan now has moved to a high transmission rate under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s thresholds, she said. That means that more than 100 new cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents have been confirmed in the last week. The percentage of positive coronavirus test is now at 7.7 percent statewide, and has steadily climbed over the last seven weeks.
The number of outbreaks across the state also is growing, up 36 percent in the last week to 183 outbreaks, led by manufacturing and construction sites, social gatherings and child care settings, Lyon-Callo said.
While the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are effective in preventing severe disease and death from the delta variant, the strain has led to some breakthrough infections even in fully vaccinated people. However, people who are fully vaccinated are far less likely to be sick enough to be hospitalized or die.
About 54.9 percent of Michiganders ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and have gotten either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine; nearly 60 percent have gotten at least one dose, state data shows.
Because even fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus to others, the CDC now recommends all Americans wear masks indoors in public places and health officials urge anyone who has yet to be immunized to get vaccinated now.
Since the pandemic began, the state has confirmed more than 922,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 20,000 deaths.