CDC guidance: All but 2 Michigan counties should mask up

COVID-19 transmission is high enough in all but two of Michigan's 83 counties that an overwhelming majority of Michigan residents should be wearing masks while in public under federal guidelines, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

People who live in areas where there are "high" or "substantial" number of COVID-19 cases should wear masks in public indoors, or outdoors if social distancing isn't possible, to prevent the spread of the delta variant. 

The number of counties that meet that threshold climbed from 33 on Aug. 3, when the new CDC guidance was announced, to 81 as of Saturday, according to CDC data. 

Missaukee and Roscommon Counties, which sit next to each other in the northern Lower Peninsula, are listed as having "moderate" rates of community transmission on the CDC's COVID-19 Tracker.  No Michigan counties have a "low" rate of transmission. 

In comparison, three weeks prior, seven of the state's 83 counties were considered "low" rates of transmission, and 44 were considered "moderate," meaning the CDC was recommending fewer than half of all Michigan counties wear masks indoors in public. Only six counties had "high" transmission rates.

That matches a trend seen nationally as the delta variant has spread. Across the country, most states have been marked as "high" transmission communities. Many states, including Indiana in the Midwest and nearly all of the states along the Gulf Coast, are ranked as being entirely high transmission.

The places in the United States that are still considered low transmission are among some of the least-densely populated. That includes rural counties in places like Idaho, Nevada and Nebraska, some of which only have a few thousand or even a few hundred people living over several hundred square miles, 2020 census data shows. 

The CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.

On Monday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended her decision to forgo a statewide student mask mandate, arguing Michigan finds itself in circumstances much different than last year when executive orders were one of the only options available to protect people. 

Now there are vaccines, and better mask and social distancing guidelines, she told reporters at a Monday press conference. 

“We now have tools so that we can take action to protect ourselves and those around us,” Whitmer said. “And we know that districts in large measure wanted the ability to make those decisions at the local level.”

But Michigan State University Epidemiologist Dr. Nigel Paneth, an emeritus university distinguished professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and pediatrics, said it's clear that people need to go back to masking. 

"We jumped the gun a bit in June when we said we don't need masks as of July 1. I think everybody was trying to accommodate the anti-maskers, and I think it was a mistake then." 

Michigan on Monday reported 3,920 new COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths over three days as a health association said statewide hospitalizations tied to the virus have now exceeded 1,000.

On Monday, amid ongoing concerns about the more contagious delta variant, the tallies from the state Department of Health and Human Services pushed overall totals to 933,394 cases and 20,123 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The latest figures reflect cases and deaths from Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Michigan's COVID-19 hospitalization and new infection numbers have been trending upward for a month.

The state has reported 10,807 new cases over the last week, up 14% from the 9,467 cases disclosed over the previous seven-day period.

Asked about the virus progressing from 33 to 81 counties with high or substantial transmission in three weeks, Paneth wasn't surprised. 

"They're not masking, they're not vaccinated," Paneth said. "And if you're not masking and not vaccinated, you're asking for trouble."