Michigan issues advisory urging mask use indoors amid COVID-19 surge

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Health and Human Servicesissued a public health advisory Friday, six days ahead of Thanksgiving, recommending people wear masks at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status.

The advisory, which is not a mandate, came amid surging infection numbers in the state. It also encouraged establishments to implement policies to ensure that all people entering, including employees, wear masksand advised individuals who are not fully vaccinated or who are immunocompromised to avoid large crowds or gatherings.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel

"The increases in case counts, percent positivity and hospitalizations have us very concerned,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department.

"We are issuing the face mask advisory and are looking to Michiganders to do their part to help protect their friends, their families and their communities by wearing a mask in indoor settings and getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and flu as soon as possible if they have not already done so."

The new advisory will remain in effect until further notice, according to Friday's announcement.

The advisory said Michigan is "experiencing another wave of infection driven by the delta variant" along with an uptick in cases of other respiratory illnesses, including influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, which is more commonly known as RSV.

"The widespread use of face masks would significantly reduce the spread of these viruses," the advisory said.

As of Thursday, Michigan led the nation in new cases per population over the previous seven days, according to tracking by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state reported 3,424 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus Friday, the largest number since April 25 and a 26% increase over the tally seven days earlier.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests bringing positive results, a key metric for tracking the virus, has been trending upward for months. Last week, it hit 16.4%, the second-highest weekly rate since June 2020. Michigan's first COVID cases were reported in March 2020.

Over the previous seven days including Friday, Michigan has reported 53,575 new COVID-19 cases, a record total for a seven-day period.

State officials are encouraging residents to get their COVID-19 vaccines. The surge is affecting the unvaccinated "significantly more" than those who have been vaccinated, said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan's chief medical executive.

What happens next will depend on people's actions, she said.

"I think if we can change behavior, and we can get people to start masking and increase those vaccination rates, we have hope of this ending soon. If behavior doesn’t change, I think we’re in for a very rough winter season," Bagdasarian said.

Over the 30-day period ending Nov. 5, as increases in infections accelerated in Michigan, 27% of the new cases were individuals who were fully vaccinated, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Friday's COVID-19 press conference was the first by the department in months.

On the decision to encourage masks instead of requiring them, Hertel said, at this point, the department believes it's "most prudent" to make sure people are aware of "how serious this COVID surge is right now" and give them the ability and information "to take steps to protect themselves and others through a public health advisory." 

Hertel said the department will continue to monitor the data and will make "determinations as we see what transpires across the state."

"It is my most sincere hope that Michiganders will take this message very seriously, going into the holidays as they start meeting with their close friends and families and the people that they love and do everything that they can to protect themselves and the people that they are around," Hertel said.

During a similar surge a year ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration closed indoor dining at restaurants and suspended in-person classes at high schools and colleges to attempt to combat the rising case and hospitalization numbers.

cmauger@detroitnews.com