Local health officials are again calling on Michigan’s leadership to institute a statewide mask mandate for K-12 educational institutions to curb coronavirus transmission and keep students in-person for the 2021-22 academic year.
The Michigan Association for Local Public Health sent a letter Friday, Sept. 24, to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel, asking for a mandate “at the very least until this COVID-19 wave has passed.” It was the second “urgent call to leadership” from the association this month.
In the letter, the association’s executive director, Norm Hess, said the situation “transcends the public health crisis.”
“Leaving COVID-19 control response to local officials has put many of them in professional and personal danger,” he wrote. “Angry protest mobs in local communities around the state are bullying local officials and preventing them from implementing local mitigation measures.”
Ness referenced an incident from last week when a man tried to make a citizen’s arrest on the Barry-Eaton District health officer at a county meeting. The individual claimed the county health officer, Colette Scrimger, who put a county-wide school mask mandate in effect, was impersonating an officer. Scrimger was not arrested.
Elsewhere, a 42-year-old Grand Blanc woman was jailed for threatening the life of the health officer in Genesee County, and the Kent County health officer said a woman tried to run him off the highway twice.
The state health department strongly recommends that school districts and county health departments enact school mask mandates, but there isn’t a requirement. Additionally, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said school boards, working with parents, represent the best way to “move forward and protect kids and their workforce.”
“You shared with us your belief that local residents would more readily accept a local mandate,” the letter to Hertel reads. “We confidently report this has not worked as planned.
“The inclusion of “unenforceable” prohibitions on local health authority in the budget bill is already increasing local confusion and dissent. Local health officers report reinvigorated opposition to COVID mitigation measures based on this development.”
Asked about the letter Monday, Sept. 27, a spokesperson for MDHHS said the state continues to monitor COVID-19 numbers very closely, and doesn’t feel a statewide mask mandate is warranted at this time.
“We’re seeing some increases, but nothing that indicates a spike that would require action under the Public Health Code,” reads an MDHHS statement. “Local health departments are in the best position to determine local needs. We deeply empathize with local health officers across the state who are doing their job and what they believe is right to protect their communities.
“Although we support everyone’s right to voice their opinion in dissent, local officials do not deserve to be threatened in any way, particularly when the actions they are taking are intended to protect the health and safety of all residents in their communities.”
Without a statewide mask requirement in schools, the association is concerned the impending wave of COVID-19 illnesses will result in “a steady return to virtual learning in Michigan school districts, one by one, and all that comes with it — for parents and school employees, businesses and the economy.”
As the calendar flipped to September, Michigan’s count of active COVID outbreaks linked to schools jumped from 11 to 45, to 228. As of last Monday, Sept. 20, there were at least 1,730 students and staff infected by those outbreaks, according to MDHHS. A total of 71 classrooms, grades or entire schools have had to close due to COVID-19 exposure or excessive number of individuals who were sick.
The state health department estimates that nearly 65% of the 1.25 million students enrolled in traditional public schools have to wear masks under current local policies. Health officials said they thank those schools and local health departments, and encourage others to follow suit.
Counties where school districts do not have mask rules are reporting higher case rates since the start of the school year, according to MDHHS data.
COVID vaccines aren’t yet available to youth under the age of 12, which leaves a large portion of students unprotected against illness. Even for those teens who are eligible for a vaccine, only 35.1% of 12-to-15-year-olds, and 42.5% of 16-to-19-year-olds are fully vaccinated as of Sept. 24.
Read more on MLive: