COVID-19 cases jump among Michigan kids with schools in session

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

COVID-19 infection rates among Michigan K-12 students are climbing as their schools reopen for the new year, raising concerns about what could lie ahead in a state where cases and hospitalizations have been trending upward for weeks.

New infections among individuals ages 10 to 19 are now increasing at a faster rate than any other age group, according to data this week from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The numbers showed a 38% jump in new infections among individuals ages 10-19 and a 10% jump among those ages 0 to 9 over the previous seven days. No other age group had a seven-day increase in new cases of more than 5%, according to the data. The tallies were based on the date of a person's onset of symptoms.

The 10-19 age group also had the highest seven-day daily average for new cases at 330.7, according to the state's data. The second-highest average was 283.1 for the 20-29 age group.

However, the number of pediatric hospitalizations tied to COVID-19 remains low — 19 with confirmed virus cases on Wednesday. And the state has reported only 16 deaths linked to the virus among individuals 10 to 19 for the entirety of the pandemic compared with nearly 20,600 deaths overall.

While the vast majority of children who get COVID-19 will have only mild symptoms, a small percentage will face severe illness, said Dr. Matthew Hornik, a pediatrician in West Bloomfield and the president of the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"With the number of kids (with the virus) going up, you’re going to see the number with moderate and severe symptoms go up as well," Hornik said.

The threat to kids is greater at the beginning of this school year than it was last year because of the highly contagious delta variant, the fact that many more schools are in person and people being less cautious about the virus, Hornik said.

During the last month, the portion of Michigan's overall new cases that were in children ages 0 to 9 was 8%, double the 4% share of cases the age group held for the entirety of the pandemic as of Aug. 13, according to a Detroit News analysis. Children younger than age 12 are currently not eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Izzy Hall, 14, gets her first COVID-19 vaccination at the Beaumont Hospital, Troy, vaccine clinic on May 19, 2021. Hall is among the young people in the state of Michigan who have had the virus.

Emily Hall, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Beaumont Health's Troy campus, knows firsthand how the virus can spread among young people and then to adults who are more vulnerable.

Last fall, Hall's daughter, who was 13 at the time, went to a sleepover where she got COVID-19. Then Hall, her husband and her three other children all became infected. Hall said she herself was admitted to the hospital for a week and had a fever that lasted 33 days.

Her daughter, Izzy, whom Hall described as active and healthy, was in bed for 14 days.

"She couldn't walk," Hall said. "She felt like her legs were breaking."

The inconvenience of wearing a mask is minimal compared with the hardships some face when they get COVID-19 and the financial pain it can cause, Hall said. She said she was off work for four months.

"It changed the course of our year," said Hall of Washington Township, who now gets to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations as part of her job, which she described as her story coming full circle.

Masks in schools debate

The rising infection numbers among young people in Michigan could boost pressure on public health officials to impose mask requirements for schools across the state, a tense subject that is dividing parents and politicians. Supporters see the mandates as the best way to protect students, while opponents argue they infringe on parents' rights.

Currently, 43% of the state's school districts have mask mandates for students in all K-12 grades, according to the health department. In a letter sent Tuesday to Pamela Pugh, vice president of the State Board of Education, state Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said at least 60% of Michigan's 1.4 million students are covered by mask mandates implemented by their school district or local health department.

So far, Hertel has declined to issue a statewide mandate through an epidemic order that would require all students in Michigan to wear masks. In her letter to Pugh on Tuesday, she continued to defend the stance.

"Districts and local public health leaders should work together to implement mask mandates. When they collaborate, we can create buy-in at the community level, leading to better outcomes and better adherence to policies that keep people safe," Hertel wrote. "MDHHS recommends every district adopt a mask mandate so they can keep their students, staff, and parents safe while allowing students to continue to learn and grow in the classroom."

Pugh, a former public health official in Saginaw County, has urged Hertel to issue a statewide mask requirement. The Democratic officeholder said it was "quite troubling" that the health department has not exercised its authority on the matter.

"Please know that I understand that these are difficult decisions to make in the political climate that we live in," Pugh wrote. "However, I am truly having a hard time settling with the thought that our children, teachers and parents must experience illness instead of public health stepping up to do what we are called to do, exercise the art of prevention to protect the health of people and community."

Increases among children

Hertel's letter to Pugh came the same day the state health department released a new weekly data update on COVID-19 in Michigan, specifically finding the proportion of kids with COVID-19 is increasing.

"Case rates among children are higher in counties where school districts do not have mask policies," the presentation added.

Numbers from the Michigan Department of Health and Human show individuals under the age of 20 are helping drive to the state's increasing COVID-19 infection rates.

COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations have been trending upward in Michigan for more than six weeks. Over the last month, the age groups of 0-9 and 10-19 have seen their portion of the state's overall COVID-19 cases grow by larger amounts than any other age group by far.

A slide from a Sept. 14, 2021, presentation by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shows increasing COVID-19 rates among students in the state.

As of Aug. 13 — before the wide majority of Michigan schools opened for the new year — children ages 0-9 comprised 4% of all of the infections and those ages 10-19 were  11.9%.

Over the period from Aug. 13 through Wednesday, children ages 0-9 comprised 8% of cases, and those ages 10-19 were 14.4%, increases of 4 percentage points and 2.5 percentage points, respectively.

The only other age group with an increase in its proportion of the total is those 30-39, which comprised 16.4% of the cases since Aug. 13. As of Aug. 13, the age bracket made up 15.5% of the overall cases.

'A very simple tool'

Since the beginning of August, an impassioned debate has been playing out across Michigan at local government meetings over whether masks should be required in schools.

On Wednesday, an organization called Michigan Parents Alliance for Safe Schools launched a petition asking for a statewide mask mandate. One of the group's members, Emily Mellits of Macomb County, said as of Thursday, about 4,000 people had signed the petition.

Mellits said she has two children in a school district that doesn't require masks. The new group wants to protect children's safety but also ensure that in-person classes can continue.

The trend of new cases among students is "concerning," she said.

"That's preventable," Mellits said. "That’s preventable with a very simple tool that we could all do tomorrow ... a mask."

As the new numbers came this week, Republicans in the GOP-controlled state Legislature have continued to argue the decision on whether to wear a face-covering to school should be left up to students' parents.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee approved a set of four bills that would limit the ability of schools and local health departments to impose mask requirements in K-12 buildings.

About a dozen parents spoke at the meeting against mask requirements. Kristena Liles of Oxford, a mother of three, said her daughter in kindergarten is speech-delayed.

"She cannot learn how to properly format her sounds and articulate words properly with everyone wearing a mask around her," Liles said.