Michigan health officials drop K-12 schools masking recommendation

CDC to update federal masking guidance in coming weeks

By: and - February 17, 2022 9:34 am

Detroit Public Schools Community District student and teacher | Ken Coleman photo

State health officials announced Wednesday that they are no longer recommending masking in K-12 schools and other indoor public spaces because people have access to vaccines and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are decreasing — although they remain far higher than they were at this point last year when the shots were just being rolled out.

Michigan has not had a statewide mask mandate since June 2021, but the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) this year has urged local leaders to implement school mask requirements. Some county health departments and school districts did so, but many of them are now dropping those requirements, as the Advance has reported.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Lansing Community College, Feb. 16, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

“This is good news for Michigan,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a press release. “While Michigan hasn’t had statewide mask policies since last June, this updated guidance will underscore that we are getting back to normal. Let’s keep working together to build on our momentum so we can keep our kids learning in person.”

Daily COVID-19 case numbers in Michigan have dropped from about 20,000 in January to approximately 2,000 this week. Experts said the state’s numbers are going in a positive direction, although they noted that case numbers are approximately two to three times higher than this time last year, and COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are also higher than last year.

“For the past several months, we have been in a response phase as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, DHHS chief medical executive, said in a press release. “With the continued decline in cases and hospitalizations, we are now entering a post-surge, recovery phase. As we move through the phases of our COVID-19 response our recommendations will be updated to reflect the current status of transmission, but we will continue to prioritize public health and promote health and wellness for all families and communities.”

Some Michigan doctors and other health experts support mask mandates and told the Advance this week that dropping them could once again cause a rise in cases and hospitalizations.

While schools are no longer urged to have mask mandates, universal masking is still recommended in such “high-risk congregate settings” as long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, jails, hospitals, and similar locations, the DHHS said in a press release.

Health officials also specified that while they are dropping their official recommendation that school districts require masking, they said education officials should still “consider local conditions and work with their local health departments to determine mask policies for school districts, public meetings and large events.”

DHHS also noted that masks “are an important tool in mitigating spread of COVID-19 and individuals who may be at risk of infection or who feel better protected when masked should choose when they feel comfortable masking.” Last fall, the University of Michigan and the DHHS released data that showed students in K-12 schools with mask mandates had lower rates of COVID-19 transmission than those at schools without requirements.

“Individuals and families should assess their own risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission and make choices about when it makes sense to wear masks,” DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said. “We want to make sure individuals and local communities have the information and tools they need to make choices for their families based on their personal situation and local community conditions.”

CDC is ‘cautiously optimistic’ 

Meanwhile, the federal government will likely update its guidance on masking and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts in the coming weeks as the omicron surge continues to wane, U.S. public health officials indicated Wednesday. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing that the agency will continue looking at community spread, case counts and hospitalizations to determine its guidance.

But she noted hospital capacity, especially the ability to treat emergency cases like heart attacks and strokes, will be part of future guidance about when and where people need to wear masks.

“Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues need to wait in line,” she said. 

The CDC currently recommends people wear masks indoors in public if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission, a threshold that includes the vast majority of the United States. 

The agency also recommends masking indoors in public areas for anyone older than 2 who isn’t fully vaccinated, as well as people with underlying medical conditions. 

‘We seem to let our guard down too quickly, and the virus comes roaring back’

The new guidance could bridge the gap that has grown between what Americans hear from their local and state governments, and what the federal government says they should do to address the ongoing pandemic. 

During the last few weeks, states that put indoor mask mandates in place in December at the beginning of the omicron surge have announced sunset dates for those mitigation efforts during late February or in March.

Walensky said she anticipates updated CDC guidance “will intersect in terms of timing.”

“Omicron cases are declining, and we are all cautiously optimistic about the trajectory we are on,”  Walensky said. 

Compared to the first week of February, she said, the seven-day daily average of new cases for the week of Feb. 8 decreased by about 40%, hospital admissions dropped by 28% and deaths decreased by 9%. 

Walensky said that even after the CDC updates its guidance on masking, there will be certain times when people still need to wear good quality masks, including the 10-day window after they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

Tom Inglesby, White House COVID-19 senior policy adviser for testing, said that in addition to making masks available for free for adults at pharmacies and community centers, the Biden administration is working on a program to distribute high quality masks for children.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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