Ingham Co. rescinds mask mandate for students; Oakland, Wayne waiting

The health department for one of Michigan's largest counties will rescind its mask mandate next week, ending a nearly six-month requirement for thousands of students as at least one other health department considers doing the same. 

“We are at a point in this pandemic in which public health strategies will begin to shift more towards personal responsibility as we learn to live with COVID-19 long-term,” said Linda Vail, health officer for the Ingham County Health Department.

Six of the state's 45 health departments still have mask mandates: Ingham, Washtenaw County, Wayne County, Oakland County, the Benzie-Leelanau District and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which encompasses six Northern Michigan counties, said Norm Hess, executive director for the Michigan Association of Local Public Health.

But the number may drop as some states with the nation's strictest COVID-19 public health measures start to drop their masking requirements.

Washtenaw County officials indicated Thursday that county may be on the same path as Ingham County. 

"With declining cases and improved hospital capacity, we are reviewing and watching carefully," said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, a spokeswoman for the Washtenaw Health Department. "We do expect to announce updates soon — likely tomorrow." 

Since the omicron variant surge reached a peak, the number of cases in Michigan has dropped from a daily average record of over 20,000 in early January to about 3,800 on Wednesday, the latest data available. The number of adult hospitalizations has been cut nearly in half to 2,371 Wednesday from a Jan. 10 record of 4,580.

Health departments in Genesee, Kalamazoo, Kent and Ottawa counties dropped their mask mandates in recent weeks because of triggers in their rules that required the lifting of the mandate based on the availability of vaccines for school-aged children.

Health departments in Oakland and Wayne counties have expressed hesitance to do the same based on federal data showing the transmission of the virus is still high there. 

In each of the counties dropping mask mandates, local school districts still can decide to require the measure in the absence of a countywide rule.

Nationally, statewide mask mandates are expiring this month and next month in locations such as Oregon, Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut. New York and California have announced plans to rescind their mask mandates for businesses, but have remained mum on when the same restrictions might lift in K-12 settings.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said she wants to move into a “new phase” that balances risk, opens group activities and schools, and would see institutions like the Congress return to non-remote voting and hearings. 

“I think we need a new phase, and there's a bunch of us who are pushing the White House to really use the State of the Union as a sort of declaration of that new phase,” Slotkin said. 

“We've made a serious effort to talk to people about vaccines, and they've made their choice for the most part,” she added. “We can't wait for everyone to have some big change of heart in order to get back to our lives.”

The hook for the new phase, Slotkin said, should be kids under age 5 soon becoming eligible for vaccines, which she said will be a psychological marker for many parents to know their children are as protected as possible.

Living 'with COVID-19 long-term'

Ingham County's health department said its decision was based on large decreases in the county's case rate as well as dips in hospitalizations and increases in the number of eligible individuals who have been vaccinated.

The mask mandate was issued Sept. 2 and its rescission will be effective at midnight Feb. 19. The department also will eliminate its quarantine and isolation procedures for students who may have had close contact with a COVID-positive individual.

The decision came as the county remains engaged in an about 15-month fight with a religious school over the mask mandate. The religious school's suit is scheduled for an en banc hearing before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Ingham County's Vail acknowledged Thursday that indoor masking remains the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Ingham County is recommending the same, she said, just not requiring it. 

“As a public health agency, we will continue to support local school districts by recommending evidence-based public health measures, educating on current guidance and practices, and making recommendations for staying safe and healthy," Vail said. 

Weekly cases per 100,000 people in Ingham County have decreased 78% over the past two weeks, while hospitalizations in the county have decreased about 34% since the height of the omicron surge, she noted. 

Additionally, nearly 40% of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 years and 62% of students between the ages of 12 and 15 have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, Vail said. That exceeds the state averages in those age groups of 26% and 48%. 

In total, about 73% of Ingham County residents have received their first dose of the vaccine.

Vail said she delayed the rescission of the order to Feb. 19 to give school districts time to prepare students, board members and staff, especially if they want to impose district-level policies in the absence of a county mandate. 

Michigan State University's mask mandate was issued prior to Ingham County's requirement — on Aug. 1 — and will remain in place until further notice, MSU  spokesman Dan Olsen said.

Oakland, Wayne hold out

Oakland and Wayne counties are remaining firm with their mask mandates, which are tied to the CDC's transmissions ratings.

Oakland County spokesman Bill Mullan said the county’s health division will not start thinking about removing its masks and other precautions until there’s a greater drop in infections.

“In our original order, the mask mandate was tied to the CDC’s transmission report that they publish online by county,” Mullan said. “We’re still at high transmission, according to the CDC. 

“But there may be other factors our Health Division may want to weigh in on,” he added. “Obviously, at some point, they’re going to have to start looking at things like vaccination coverage, boosters, things like that.  That will certainly weigh into the decision."

Parents from Walled Lake Consolidated Schools have sent demand letters to Oakland County officials and school district leaders seeking an end to mask mandates and the use of public funds to enforce them.

In Wayne County, Health Department spokeswoman Tiffani Jackson referred to the county's mask mandate that was issued on Aug. 27 and “remains in effect until community transmission for Wayne County is categorized as ‘moderate’ by the CDC for at least 14 consecutive days, or until further notice by the Wayne County Local Health Officer," according to the county's order. 

The CDC rates Wayne County’s community transmission as “high.” 

The county did not say what metrics the health officer would draw on to make that decision. Jackson didn't provide a statement. 

The CDC’s website said: “Everyone in Wayne County, Michigan should wear a mask in public, indoor settings,” but that “mask requirements might vary from place to place.”

In the county's school system, the mandate remains in place. 

But the county's intermediate school district made it clear that school officials aren't health experts and remain uncomfortable with being the target of political attacks over mask mandates.

"Schools in Wayne County have implemented mitigation measures recommended by the state, followed quarantine and close-contact guidance recommended by the county, with one goal in mind — the health and safety of all students and staff,” said Daveda Colbert, superintendent of Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency, in a statement to The Detroit News.

“There is a lot of anger and frustration towards schools who are simply following the law and guidance. It is my hope that resentment would no longer be directed at them, as they are simply following the law. Schools are not the place for a discussion on the legality of public health laws.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writers Karen Bouffard and James David Dickson and the Associated Press contributed.