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Michigan's top doctor: School mask mandate would likely reduce COVID spread

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's top doctor disclosed Wednesday that she advised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration that a statewide requirement for students to wear masks would likely help combat the spread of COVID-19.

Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun's acknowledgement came on a call with reporters as the Democratic governor has, so far, left the decision on whether to mandate masks up to local districts and county health departments. While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal indoor masking for schools, dozens of districts have declined to impose mask requirements, and others are facing intense local debates over what to do.

"I have recommended that if a mask mandate were in place, and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools," Khaldun responded when asked specifically if she advised Whitmer and the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, Elizabeth Hertel, to impose a mask mandate for schools.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, left, Michigan’s chief medical executive, addresses the media as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer listens on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

Then, Khaldun said her "lane" was to provide public health guidance and there are "many other things" to be considered. Asked what those things were, she responded that she couldn't say "at this time."

The comments, which appear to conflict with Whitmer's past pledges to "follow the science," came Wednesday as many schools prepare to reopen for the new year and as Michigan reports increases in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Among the districts that have approved mask mandates are Detroit, Lansing and Flint. Those that have decided against requiring masks include the Troy and Fraser districts, while the Rochester system recommends but doesn't require masks inside buildings. 

It wasn't clear Wednesday how many school districts would start classes before Labor Day using waivers approved in past years by the Michigan Department of Education.

Michigan has approved waivers for 181 school districts, including new this year 45 intermediate school districts as well as 34 local districts and charter schools. The ISD approvals give hundreds of individual districts the option of starting early.

In a Tuesday statement, the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators said if health officials desire universal masking, "various laws in the state of Michigan empower those individuals to require face coverings."

At least three county health departments have used their power to impose mask requirements for students, including the departments in Kalamazoo and Allegan counties, which announced Wednesday their orders for kindergartners through sixth-graders.

The Wayne County Health Department has strongly recommended but not required masking in schools. And the Oakland County Health Division said Wednesday it plans to release its guidance for schools this week.

"The health division will strongly encourage all students, teachers and staff wear masks, physical distancing and hand washing as among the key strategies to reduce COVID-19 transmission in schools," according to an Oakland County Health Division statement.

During a presentation on coronavirus data, Sarah Lyon-Callo, the state's epidemiologist, described her statistics and projections as "a fairly grim picture." The state's coronavirus case rates have been increasing for longer than a month, and the state is now considered to be at the "high" level for community transmission, according to the CDC.

States in the southern U.S. are experiencing surges in hospitalizations because of the highly contagious delta variant. Those states are about a month ahead of where Michigan appears to be currently when it comes to a fourth wave of the virus, Lyon-Callo said.

"It's important to look at these states and see what their experiences have been," she said.

Lyon-Callo said the state will likely continue to see increases in COVID-19 infections for four to six weeks. Based on patterns, the state's COVID-19 hospitalizations will likely continue increasing through September with a possible peak in late September or early October, Lyon-Callo said.

As of Wednesday, 845 adults were hospitalized in Michigan with confirmed coronavirus cases, up 13% from the tally a week earlier.

Lyon-Callo also said the delta variant will increase the transmission of the virus among children in Michigan. The percentage of Michigan's overall COVID-19 cases that are those under the age of 10 was higher last month than it's been overall for the pandemic, a slide she presented said.

"Multiple states ... are having extremely rapid surges in pediatric hospitalizations and we could have a similar experience here if we do not make use of mitigation measures," she said.

Asked if Lyon-Callo had recommended that Whitmer impose a statewide mask mandate for schools this fall, a state health department spokeswoman intervened and said the question wasn't in Lyon-Callo's purview. Khaldun later responded to another question, adding that she's concerned about "what could potentially happen with our schools."

Currently, children under the age of 12 can't get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the number of kids hospitalized with the virus nationally is on the rise. According to state data, there were more than 1.4 million students in Michigan last year. About half of them — nearly 700,000 students — were in fifth grade or lower.

"We do understand that there currently is a law that would allow us to be able to implement that mandate," Khaldun said. "But at this time, the governor and the director have not made that determination."

Khaldun said it's her job to "always recommend public health interventions and policies that would be protective."

"I have continued to do that throughout the past several weeks as well," she said.

State legislative Republicans have spoken out against mask requirements for schools. During a TV appearance earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the school mask mandates are the "dumbest thing" that could be done.

"There's no reason to have mask mandates in schools," Shirkey said. "I think parents should absolutely make the decision on whether they want their kids to be masked up in schools. But there should be zero mask mandates for schools."

Last week, Whitmer said her administration was leaving decisions on whether students and teachers should be required to wear masks up to individual school districts.

“At this point, we’re seeing a lot of districts moving forward and adopting mask policies," Whitmer said then. "I think that’s the right thing to do. I’m glad to see so many, especially here locally in Ingham County, have taken it very seriously.

"I anticipate other schools will be following suit.”

As of Wednesday, Michigan has reported 925,377 COVID-19 cases and 20,076 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The state reported its first infections in March 2020.

From Jan. 15 through July 28, about 98% of Michigan's cases have been people who are not fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.