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9 Michigan counties drop orders requiring masks in schools

Face mask

Schools, colleges and day care centers will decide whether or not to still require masks.

Nine Michigan counties on Friday dropped masking requirements for schools and day care facilities, pointing to sharp declines in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and many children’s ability to get vaccinated.

The announcements by Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties in metro Detroit and six counties in the northern Lower Peninsula came a day after Ingham County in the Lansing area lifted its mandate. Once the orders end on Feb. 18 or Feb. 28, there will be no more countywide restrictions.

“As we see our critical measures of vaccinations, hospital admissions and cases moving in a direction that tell us the COVID-19 impact on our community is greatly improving, the time is right to remove the mask order for daycares and educational institutions,” Dr. Russell Faust, Oakland County’s medical director, said in a statement. “We must remain vigilant, however, while we remain in a pandemic.”

The local health officials strongly recommended masking in public indoor settings, including educational settings. Schools, colleges and day care centers will decide whether or not to still require masks.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration lifted a broad statewide mask mandate in June after it had been in effect for over a year. Many large counties and some small ones issued their own orders at the start of this school year to reflect federal and state guidance.

Lisa Peacock, health officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan — which covers Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties — and the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, said the state’s weekly infection rate is down 67% from three weeks ago. Nearly 2,400 adults were hospitalized with the virus, half the tally from a month ago.

Parents have had ample opportunity to get their kids vaccinated, she said. About 21% of 5- to 11-year-olds, 43% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 48% of 16- to 19-year-olds are fully vaccinated statewide. Children are at lower risk of severe illness or death than older people.

“A public health emergency order is only a temporary strategy, only exercised when other methods of protecting the public’s health haven’t been possible or effective,” Peacock said.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who said the health department anticipates ending its mask requirement by Feb. 28, cautioned that people thought the virus was “done with us” last summer before it raged back.

“This time I think we can feel hopeful that the light at the end of the tunnel is for real,” he said.

But the Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools, which advocates for masking in schools, said the entire state still has high transmission rates according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It said many kids are unvaccinated, those under 5 are not eligible and there are shortages of early treatments to help immunocompromised people avoid a serious bout of COVID-19.

The group called for counties, school districts, charter academies and private schools to explain what they will do about masking if cases surge again. It said masks should still be required until local case rates drop to moderate or low levels as defined by the CDC.

“We are distressed, but unfortunately not surprised, at the premature and risky move to remove protections at the county level, and we predict it will lead to removal of mask requirements at the district level, as well as more illness and missed school, which no one wants,” said Emily Mellits of Macomb County.