GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Kent County Health Department and Ottawa County Department of Public Health have issued public health orders requiring masks to be worn by students inside preschool through sixth grade schools.
The goal, health officials say, is to protect vulnerable people and those who can’t get vaccinated from the virus, slow the spread of the virus and keep kids in classrooms.
“This was a necessary decision as we are seeing rapid increases in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant,” Kent County Administrative Health Officer Adam London said in a Friday statement. “It also appears as though this variant may be more likely to cause serious illness and hospitalization, so we need to take precautions to keep our children healthy and in school.”
The orders require masks for everyone regardless of vaccination status inside buildings that have preschool through sixth grade classrooms. There are exceptions for people under the age of 4, though masks are advised for children as young as 2, for certain medical conditions and for vaccinated teachers who work with children who are hard of hearing.
The orders will remain in effect until 60 days after a vaccine is authorized for children as young as preschool or until counties are considered in low risk for virus spread by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least a week.
“Vaccinations prevent most COVID-19 infections,” Ottawa County Administrative Health Officer Lisa Stefanovsky stated. “However, many of our students are too young to be vaccinated so our Order seeks to protect them and slow the transmission of the coronavirus in our schools and community.”
One week ago, the Kent County Health Department was not yet prepared to issue an order. Since then, the county has been moved from the CDC’s “substantial” risk category for virus transmission to “high,” the worst level.
“We wanted to give every opportunity for other interventions to work. ” London told News 8 Friday. “Last week when I spoke to the community, I said that this is an imminent danger; it’s coming our way. But I also realized at that time that our schools and our parents had the opportunity to do the right thing and to require masking on their own. It’s now clear from my conversations with school leaders that that’s not going to happen across the county.”
Grand Rapids Public Schools, Holland Public Schools and Wyoming Public Schools had decided to require masks in all schools and Forest Hills Public Schools for all K-6 and all unvaccinated students. Other district had left it optional.
The health departments in Allegan and Kalamazoo counties announced Wednesday that they were requiring masks in kindergarten through sixth grade schools, probably until six weeks after a vaccine is OK’d for children as young as 5.
Officials with Public Health-Muskegon County said they had no plan for a mandate as of Friday.
CASES TICKING UP IN MICHIGAN
Michigan is seeing an increase in cases driven by the highly transmissible delta variant, having averaged nearly 2,100 new cases confirmed each of the last two days — that’s up from about 1,345 the previous two days. The average positivity rate creeping up toward three times the 3% threshold that public health officials say shows community spread is controlled. The average case rate is up 600% since a late June low, though it remains slightly lower than it was at the same point last year.
Earlier this week, the state’s chief epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo reminded parents that children can catch the virus and become very sick from it, and that kids under the age of 12 are at risk because they can’t yet get vaccinated.
“The proportion of all cases that are made up of all children has been increasing in the last month,” Lyon-Callo said during a virtual briefing Wednesday. “Children can also be sources of outbreak, and this was true even before the delta variant.”
She said other states have seen large spikes in children being hospitalized with the virus as delta surges. Children are also at risk for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, more commonly known as MIS-C. While that’s rare, it can make children very sick or cause death.
“We do have concern that, over the coming weeks as people are going in doors more, and congregating more in doors, that we will see more pediatric cases of COVID-19 diagnosis, and hospitalizations,” Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Rosemary Olivero said Friday.
Without the vaccine, Olivero said the mask is an effective way to avoid the virus.
“If you are wearing a mask, you’re less likely to inhale those respiratory droplets. It’s not perfect, but it does decrease the amount that you would inhale,” she said.
LONDON SAYS HE WAS UNAFFECTED BY LAWMAKERS’ CALLS
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is also strongly recommending universal masking in schools, though it has stopped short of issuing an order.
The decision on masks has both health and political implications. It comes a week after groups protested both for and against mask mandates outside the Kent County Health Department.
Democratic state lawmakers have publicly called for mandates after local Republican legislators sent a letter to London urging him to let local school boards decide on mask policies and threatening to use tools including “the power of the purse” if he didn’t comply.
London said he wasn’t swayed by either side.
“I really need to focus on what my charge is, what my job is, my responsibility,” London told News 8, “which is to look at the data, the science, the epidemiology and try to determine what’s best for the community. “