Science says school masks work. Public opinion is another issue in Michigan

The science is clear: Masks in schools can prevent the spread of COVID-19, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has steadfastly resisted growing calls for a statewide mandate.

That’s partly because of several other factors — the uneven spread of the virus among Michigan’s two peninsulas, divided public opinion and the belief that local officials are best positioned to make the decision.

The Whitmer administration said that, because of relatively low infection rates, it does “not feel a statewide mask mandate is warranted at this time,” according to a statement from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’re seeing some increases, but nothing that indicates a spike that would require action …, “ the statement reads. “Local health departments are in the best position to determine local needs.”

That’s where Whitmer, who said throughout the pandemic that she is guided by science, may be right.

Although new infections have increased 50 percent in September in Michigan to 2,941 cases per day, the state still ranks in the middle of the pack nationally — 27th among all states in its infection rate of 35 cases per 100,000 residents.

That’s lower than neighboring states — none of which have statewide school mask mandates: Wisconsin is at 79 cases per day per 100,000, Ohio, is at 51 cases, and Indiana is reporting, on average, 38 cases per day per 100,000. Illinois, which has a mandate, is at 21 cases per day per 100,000.

And the virus is spreading at far different rates within Michigan, from areas of relatively low infection (18 to 22 cases per 100,000 residents in Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties) to hotter zones like northern Michigan (70 cases per day per 100,000.)

Whitmer is not alone among governors in resisting a statewide mandate. Nationwide, only 11 states have one, and all but 10 of them are controlled by Democrats.

Among voters, public opinion in the state and nationwide is deeply split.

Calls for Whitmer to issue a mandate have intensified in recent days, however, in part because of confusion over a patchwork of local regulations and fears that COVID is spreading rapidly once again.

More than a quarter of all new infections in September, 27 percent, were among those under 20, while every day, an average of 370 children 12 or younger are getting infected, state records show. Youth hospitalizations remain rare.

“Children and school staff would be better served by a statewide mandate,” said Lisa Peacock, health officer for two Michigan health departments covering six counties in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula.

She has faced withering criticism for issuing a local mask mandate but said the science is clear.

“To me the evidence and the need for it is overwhelming,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”

But with residents deeply divided on the issue, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Whitmer hasn’t acted, said pollster Richard Czuba.

“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t because we are so polarized on these issues,” he told Bridge Michigan. “It’s delusional, frankly, to think what is happening with COVID is disconnected from politics.”

Mounting research

The debate comes as studies increasingly show the efficacy of masks in schools, and Michigan case trends show school outbreaks are more prevalent in areas without mandates.

  • review of more than 1,000 schools in two Arizona counties found that COVID-19 outbreaks were 3.5 times more likely in schools without mask mandates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That study identified 191 outbreaks among the schools. Of those, 113 or 24 percent of schools with no mask requirements had an outbreak compared to 16 outbreaks (8 percent) in the 210 schools with mandates from the beginning of the school year.
  • Another CDC study of 520 counties nationwide found that those with mask mandates saw new cases rise at less than half the rate of those without mandates. In counties with mandates, they were adding 16 daily cases per 100,000 school children compared to 35 cases per day per 100,000.

In Michigan, anecdotal evidence also suggests there are more outbreaks in districts without mask mandates: 177 of 289 current outbreaks, or 61 percent, occurred in districts without a mask requirement, even though just 35 percent of students statewide attend class in those districts.

In Macomb County, 11 of the 12 current reported outbreaks have occurred in the 242 schools not covered by a mandate, or 4.5 percent. There is one reported outbreak among the 59 schools (1.7 percent) that have a mandate.

In neighboring Oakland County, where the health department issued a mask requirement for all schools, there are nine reported outbreaks among 325 schools, or 2.8 percent.

Mandates still enacted, albeit locally

In the absence of a statewide mandate, 15 of 45 local health departments — and numerous school districts — have adopted local policies, and been deluged with anger from upset parents and community members.

“We have so much work to do and the politicization is making it so much harder to do,” said Robert McCann, director of the K12 Alliance, a school advocacy group in southeast Michigan.

“All of our educators are saying, ‘We’re following the orders of health experts,” he said. “We aren’t health experts.”

In recent weeks, anger has spilled over at public meetings and an enraged motorist tried to run a Kent County health official off the road.

This week, Whitmer signed the state’s $70 billion budget that included GOP-backed language that would deny funding to local health departments that issued mask mandates — a provision Whitmer said is unconstitutional but nonetheless caused a handful of agencies to drop their mandates.

The confusion — and fear over “angry protest mobs” “bullying local officials” — prompted Michigan Association of Local Public Health to ask the state to issue a statewide mandate.

Speaking to Bridge on Wednesday, the group’s director, Norm Hess, said he understands Whitmer’s dilemma.

“We recognize and respect  that there are many other factors that she needs to consider before she uses a (mandate) of that significance,” he said.

One of those factors is public sentiment: Even though 57 percent of people support mask mandates in public places, far fewer want a statewide mandate on schools.

According to a recent poll for the Detroit Regional Chamber, nearly half of parents — 46 percent — feel parents should decide whether their child wears a mask to school.

Just 30 percent of parents feel the state or local government should make the call and 15 percent would prefer the schools to decide on mandates.

The divide on masks and mandates is split by party: Even though there is overall support for mask mandates in public places, 65 percent of Republicans oppose them, while 92 percent of Democrats support them, he said.

“If you look at it from the political perspective, the Whitmer administration appears to reflect where the voters are,” said Czuba, who conducted the poll.

The Republicans vying for a shot to run against Whitmer in 2022 have all made her pandemic policies a centerpiece of their campaigns.

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