Abdul El-Sayed: 'Right scientific choice' is to mandate masks in schools
Lansing — Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and a primary opponent of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in her 2018 campaign, argued Friday in favor of the governor using her administration's power to require masks be worn by students in public schools.
So far, Whitmer and her state Department of Health and Human Services have resisted mandating masks be worn inside schools despite rising COVID-19 infection and hospitalization numbers. Instead, Whitmer's administration has strongly encouraged local school districts to institute the requirement ahead of in-person classes resuming in the coming weeks.
During a Friday press conference, multiple high-profile Michigan Democrats called on districts to approve mask policies. But some of them also suggested state government should consider acting on its own despite what they described as "very loud" opposition.
El-Sayed, the former Detroit health director, was the most direct in his comments.
"The right scientific choice here is to mandate masks," he said. "I am not in local or state government. But if you look at the guidance, it’s rather clear. I think any level of government that has the capacity to do this thing would be taking it upon themselves to lead in the face of a lot of vitriol but also to keep our children safe and potentially save a lot of folks from being ill and potentially save lives."
El-Sayed referred to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said last week, because of the highly contagious delta variant, students age 2 and older, teachers and staff inside K-12 schools should wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.
Michigan has been experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases for longer than a month and states in the southern United States are facing surges that are testing hospital capacity. Over the last seven days, Michigan reported 8,633 new infections, up 31% over the total from the previous seven days.
MDHHS has said a fourth surge is "likely."
While vaccinations are helping protect many from the virus, according to state data, those younger than 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated yet — a fact that is on the minds of health experts as schools prepare to reopen.
On Friday, the Michigan health department issued new guidance again recommending that schools require universal mask wearing for "all students, staff and visitors regardless of community transmission rate or vaccination status." State health officials took a more urgent tone in the guidance that "strongly recommends" universal mask-wearing
During a Thursday event, Whitmer said her administration was leaving the decisions on mask requirements up to individual school districts.
“At this point, we’re seeing a lot of districts moving forward and adopting mask policies," the governor said. "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.”
Pamela Pugh, vice president of the Michigan Board of Education, led a press conference Friday where an array of officials and activists, including El-Sayed and Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, called on local districts to require masks.
People on the local level are hearing "very loud voices" speak out against the mask policies and are being threatened, said Pugh, a Democrat who previously worked for the Saginaw County Department of Public Health.
"They know that these children need masks," Pugh said. "But they also know the consequences of these very loud, very violent voices."
At another point, she said people are "afraid for their positions."
"That’s OK," Pugh continued. "Because I understand that the governor wants to continue to govern. She should be able to because she has done a good job in some areas.
"But at the end of the day, we’re talking about life or death. We’re talking about children. We’re talking about their parents. We’re talking about their grandparents."
Republicans on the State Board of Education, including former state Rep. Tom McMillin, have spoken out against mandatory mask requirements. And in an opinion column published by Bridge Michigan this week, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, called the CDC guidance on masks in schools "a solution in search of a problem."
In a statement Friday, McMillin said to require local districts to mandate universal masking is "just plain horrible."
"We heard from almost 100 parents at this week's state board meeting, with the vast majority, over 90%, demanding there be no forced masking," McMillin said. "They gave account after account of the serious harm the masking does to their children. There is no credible scientific data that indicates imposing such harm on children, unnecessarily, is wise."
During Friday's event, Geiss said the GOP-controlled Legislature "definitely" will not approve a mask requirement for schools. As for whether the Department of Health and Human Services will use its powers to institute a mandate, the senator said "at this juncture," she doesn't believe the department is going to issue another mask order.
While the state health department isn't pursuing a requirement, the Genesee County Health Department issued an order on Thursday, requiring face coverings for children in kindergarten through sixth grade and workers in school buildings.
Staff Writer Karen Bouffard contributed.