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Top doc told Whitmer school mask mandate would curb virus

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun photo
State of Michigan
State of Michigan
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive and chief deputy health director

Michigan’s top doctor said Wednesday she told Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state health director that reinstituting a mask requirement in K-12 schools would likely lessen the spread of COVID-19, but she added there are other factors at play.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy health director, reiterated that she is “concerned” about the coronavirus’ potential impact on schools as the delta variant takes hold. The state Department of Health and Human Services last week strongly recommended universal masking in schools regardless of vaccination status but stopped short of requiring it.

“We do understand that there currently is a law that would allow us to be able to implement that mandate, but at this time the governor and the director have not made that determination,” she told reporters. When pressed, she said she had “recommended that if a mask mandate were in place and it were followed, it would likely reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”

On Tuesday, superintendents expressed frustration over having to decide about masks, a publicly contentious issue for them and school board members before the new academic year begins. Just three county health departments — Genesee, Kalamazoo and Allegan — have mandated them, specifically for K-6 students, teachers and staff.

Republican lawmakers last week warned the health department in Kent, the state’s fourth-largest county and home to Grand Rapids, that requiring masks could cost it state funding.

The Democratic governor and her administration mandated masks last school year. But the requirement and indoor capacity restrictions were lifted in June after a third surge dissipated, and she has said she does not anticipate reinstating the face covering mandate.

Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said school districts and local health departments “should work together to put in place universal mask policies to keep students safe and ensure that in-person learning can continue this year.”

Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Education, countered that the decisions should be made by health experts.

“Should a health department choose to issue a directive based on available data, our school districts will respond appropriately. However, anything short of a clear directive from health officials is neither helpful or appropriate at a time when we should all be focused on what is best for our students,” he said.

Asked what would be lost if there were a mask mandate, Khaldun said: “I cannot speak to that. I do know that my lane is to provide public health guidance, but I also recognize that there are many other things that have to be considered when it comes to implementing a mandate.”

Michigan has “high” transmission of COVID-19, like almost all states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which recommends that people in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission be masked in indoor public spaces. The state’s case, positivity and death rates continued to rise over the past week but remain lower than in much of the U.S, according to data released Wednesday.

Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the state Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, said models estimate a continued increase in hospitalizations and deaths over the next four to six weeks, maybe longer. The unvaccinated account for at least 95% of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths, she said.

Dr. Dennis Cunningham of the Henry Ford Health System in southeastern Michigan said some so-called breakthrough cases have occurred among people who were vaccinated, but the impact so far has been “very mild.”

“People are not coming to the emergency department. ... They’re not dying. The message is the same: This will keep you out of serious health problems,” Cunningham said of the vaccine.

Most of the states hit hard by the more contagious delta variant, including Florida, Missouri, Louisiana, Arkansas and Nevada, are about a month ahead of Michigan in terms of when their case rates started to rise, Lyon-Callo said.

She noted that COVID-19 hospitalizations among children nationwide reached a record high in recent days and said almost half had no reported underlying conditions. Children under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated. About 29% of Michigan kids ages 12 to 15 and 38% of teens ages 16-19 are fully vaccinated.

“Although most children tend to have mild infections compared to adults, being sick with COVID-19 can take individuals out of the classroom,” Lyon-Callo said. “And if there is spread within the classroom, it can result in others missing school time as well.”