Mask guidance for vaccinated covers 46% of Mich. population

Lansing — Nearly half of Michigan residents live in counties where the federal government is urging the fully vaccinated to wear masks in public indoor settings because transmission of the coronavirus is “high” or “substantial.”

The guidance affected 33 counties as of Monday — including large ones such as Oakland, Macomb and Ingham — up from 10 mostly small, rural counties when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations were issued nearly a week ago. The counties are home to more than 4.5 million residents, 46% of the state’s population.

Michigan’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was 678 on Saturday, an increase from 241 two weeks before. The case rate, 76.8 per 100,000 people, was lower than in all but four states based on data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Alan Vierling, president of Lansing's Sparrow Hospital in Ingham County, said it appears "right now, we're on the front end of a surge." 

"We were at zero patients three or four weeks ago, now we're at 13," Vierling said. "The admissions are for sure going up — going up with people who are not vaccinated, so it's very consistent with what you see on the national news.

"We're seeing increasing numbers on the testing side as well as on the positivity side."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she does not plan to reinstate a mask requirement but has urged people to get vaccinated and wear a face covering when inside and among groups. Nearly 57% of residents ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, which is shy of the national average of 58%. Michigan’s vaccine rate ranks around the middle of the pack among states.

Six counties have “high” transmission rates, which means they had at least 100 new infections per 100,000 residents over the past seven days, a test positivity rate of at least 10%, or both. Twenty-seven counties have “substantial” spread — a weekly case rate of between 50 and 99.9 per 100,000 people, a positivity rate between 8% to 9.99%, or both.

The new CDC guidance on mask-wearing won't result in any changes internally at Sparrow because the health system never went away from mask-wearing or social distancing, Vierling noted. 

"We've done those things continually, so we're continuing on the path we've been on," he said. "This is our fourth or fifth (surge), so for us, there's not a new plan to dust off. 

"It's let's just get our plan back out that we've exercised (multiple) times before, and let's just get ready for it." 

Potential for 'huge disaster'

The CDC guidance has prompted criticism from Republican leaders nationally. But at Beaumont Health, the state’s largest system, a physician said people should probably return to universal masking when they are going to stores or gathering indoors in large groups.

“If it helps prevent spread, then it helps prevent replication of the virus and would help prevent any further infections with the delta variant or any future variant. That’s why we need to get on top of this right now,” said Dr. Joel Fishbain, medical director for infection prevention at Beaumont’s hospital in Grosse Pointe.

Fishbain expressed concern that vaccinated people can spread the delta variant, but he said vaccination remains “very, very good.” Just 0.06% of Beaumont’s vaccinated patients have tested positive, he said.

“The vaccine works and prevents the vast majority of people from becoming severely ill, getting admitted and dying,” Fishbain said.

The Beaumont expert warned of the potential for a “huge disaster,” an explosion of cases particularly among the unvaccinated, including those who are ineligible for shots — kids younger than 12. While infected children tend not to get sick or as sick as adults, he said, they could spread the virus to vulnerable people.

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association has received anecdotal evidence from its hospitals of slow growth in hospitalizations and test positivity, said John Karasinski, a spokesman for the association. On July 30, the total number of COVID-related hospitalizations stood at 389, an uptick from 308 the previous week. The state’s hospitalization totals are expected to be updated again Tuesday.

“We’re certainly concerned by the growth of cases recently, especially with the increase in transmissibility of the delta variant,” Karasinski said.

Michigan's mask mandate was lifted for vaccinated individuals on May 15 — 385 days after the mask mandate was first put in place — and extended to unvaccinated individuals on June 22.

Whitmer began wearing her mask indoors again at a July 27 press conference as the CDC recommended increased mask-wearing to prevent transmission of the highly contagious delta variant.

"Getting vaccinated and wearing masks when we are inside and close together will always be a smart thing to do as long as COVID is around — and COVID will be around for a while," she said. 

Still, the governor stopped short of advocating for rules requiring mask usage. 

"I do not anticipate another pandemic order, not in the near future and maybe not ever," Whitmer added. "The fact of the matter is we now know a lot more about this virus. We have vaccines."

Counties see uptick

In Oakland County, where the positivity rate from July 21-27 was about 3.7%, officials said Monday there are no plans to put a mask mandate in place despite the "substantial" transmission risk designation by the CDC. The second-most populous county in Michigan announced July 24 that more than 70% of its adult population was vaccinated.

The county health division on Monday noted an increase in positive cases, "a substantial portion of which is the delta variant."

"Oakland County Health Division reminds all residents, vaccinated and not vaccinated, that wearing a mask while in public indoor spaces and social distancing, in addition to immunization, are the most effective means for limiting the spread of the virus," county spokesman Bill Mullan said.  

Macomb County, the third most populated county and one also rated a "substantial" risk by the CDC, does not plan to put a mask mandate in place either, county health department spokesman Scott Turske said Monday. 

Ingham County, meanwhile, contends there is variation between state-level data and the information that the CDC is relying on to classify Ingham County as being at risk of “substantial” transmission. State of Michigan data put Ingham County in the “moderate” transmission category, said Madison Van Epps, a spokeswoman for the Ingham County Health Department.

“Our state-level data is more accurate, and it is the data that we have used for over the last year to guide our decisions,” Van Epps said.

Muskegon and Jackson counties — both of which are considered to be "substantial" risk — have had recent outbreaks that have drawn warnings from health officials. 

The state health department on July 24 warned concertgoers who attended the Faster Horses Festival in mid-July to get tested after a virus outbreak was traced back to the event. Dozens of cases have been linked to the event so far. 

On Monday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also urged people who attended the Muskegon Bike Time motorcycle event in mid-July to get tested. At least 16 cases had been traced back to the event. 

“Attendees at Bike Time may have been exposed and are urged to get tested based on CDC’s latest guidelines," Michigan's Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said in a Monday statement. "Our best protection against the virus is the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. I urge all eligible Michiganders to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Associated Press contributed.