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Health officer explains why Ingham County is rescinding mask mandate for schools

Two children in profile, wearing masks and backpacks. You can see a door and whiteboard in the background.
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Some school districts have decided to keep in place masking rules for now.

This weekend, the Ingham County Health Department is lifting an emergency order tied to the pandemic.

Doing so will rescind a months-long masking requirement in educational settings.

This comes as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also removes its recommendation for masks to be worn indoors in most situations.

Schools will still have the discretion to require students and staff to wear face coverings, but it will no longer be mandated.

Districts like Lansing Public Schools, East Lansing Public Schools and Waverly Community Schools have kept in place masking rules for now.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail about the change in policy.

Interview Highlights

On some of the reasons why the mask order was rescinded

We have a number of other things available to us in terms of the ability to mitigate and deal with COVID, including treatments and other mitigation layers and things like that. And this was just a time to shift as we did with quarantine and isolation where basically the state has announced that we won't be doing broad public contact tracing for that, but that we will educate the public about that.

On the difference between emergency mandates and recommendations

Recommendations are basically a long standing public health strategy. This is what we do in public health, we eventually shift from emergency orders, which were never intended to be permanent. They're temporary during a very emergency situation where we're trying to understand everything and figure out the best ways to deal with things. Then we pivot to recommendations.

On the new phase of the pandemic we're entering

We are heading into and we know that we are going to have to live with COVID. We're heading into probably COVID as endemic, and we're going to have patterns of surges. And we're going to have to deal with ramping up, you know, our messages around guidance relative to that, and that's really going to be based on predictions of where we're headed around surges, what we're seeing around the country in terms of variance, and a little less so about metrics, because the metrics that we were using two years ago are very different in the context that we are experiencing today.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This weekend, the Ingham County Health Department is lifting an emergency order tied to the pandemic

Doing so will rescind a months-long masking requirement in educational settings.

Schools will still have the discretion to require students and staff to wear face coverings, but it will no longer be mandated.

Linda Vail is the county’s health officer, and she joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Linda Vail: Thank you, Sophia. Good to be here.

Saliby: Why was now the time to rescind these orders?

We basically are in a period of time where we've gone through our omicron surge.

Vail: Well, we basically are in a period of time where we've gone through our omicron surge, which is, at the time we put out metrics related to rescinding the mask mandate, we were down 78% over the last two weeks in terms of cases in the county and 73% in the region. Those numbers have continued to decline. Hospitalizations were down 34% and have continued to decline.

At the same time, we have about 40%, maybe even more at this point in time, of our five to 11-year-olds, and 62% of our 12 to 15-year-olds vaccinated. While we could do better, that actually does exceed the statewide averages of 26% and 47.5% making us really one of the highest vaccination rate counties in the state when it comes to those two age groups.

And, you know, we have a number of other things available to us in terms of the ability to mitigate and deal with COVID, including treatments and other mitigation layers and things like that. And this was just a time to shift as we did with quarantine and isolation where basically the state has announced that we won't be doing broad public contact tracing for that, but that we will educate the public about that.

And we will do our core case investigation and contact tracing in high risk congregate settings and leave the other to kind of, to the public. And that's where we are now with masks as well.

Saliby: Wearing a face covering indoors, especially in schools is still highly recommended by your health department. You know, why are we removing the mandate if it's still that important as a recommendation?

Vail: So, we shift to recommendation as well. Keep in mind a mandate is an emergency order, and at some point in time, two years into a pandemic, it's very difficult to keep claiming it's an emergency.

Keep in mind a mandate is an emergency order, and at some point in time, two years into a pandemic, it's very difficult to keep claiming it's an emergency.

We're in a very different spot, even with similar case rates than we were a year or two years ago, in terms of what we know about this virus, what we know about severity at this point in time.

We're seeing hospital numbers drop even when cases were high. So, omicron presented really a different situation in terms of metrics that showed high case rates, which at one point in time was a trigger, but because of its less severity, it really, the case rates was not a really good metric to be looking at in order to do that.

Also, like I said, recommendations are basically a long standing public health strategy. This is what we do in public health, we eventually shift from emergency orders, which were never intended to be permanent. They're temporary during a very emergency situation where we're trying to understand everything and figure out the best ways to deal with things. Then we pivot to recommendations.

Omicron presented really a different situation in terms of metrics that showed high case rates, which at one point in time was a trigger, but because of its less severity, it really, the case rates was not a really good metric to be looking at in order to do that.

Saliby: Most counties that still had mask rules on the books for schools announced they were rescinding them in the past week or so just like Ingham County. Was this a coordinated move by health officials like yourself?

Vail: Oh, we did have some conversations. Yes. It was not completely coordinated. I think we're all, you know, looking at kind of the same numbers and the same metrics. So, there were a number of conversations. Yes.

But in terms of timing, you know, part of it just has to do with, you know, looking at the numbers and what's going on with omicron cases dropping, hospitalization cases dropping, vaccination rates in these age groups, which, you know, similarly, were happening across all of these counties at about the same time.

Saliby: When it comes to COVID-19, what would merit a shift back into that emergency mode, again, you know, putting in a mask mandate or quarantine guidelines or something like that?

Vail: I think it would take a variant that caused severity of illness much beyond what we're seeing right now, and not only that has some sort of basically ability to evade or elude, you know, get around the vaccine. So, the vaccine is not working on it anymore.

Whether that ever happens or not is a total unknown. We would hope not. A lot of science says that generally, variants become less severe as we move along. But this has proved to be an unpredictable virus. And it would take a situation like that to move to probably stronger recommendations at first, and, you know, really stronger recommendations about additional mitigation measures and guidelines before we ever got to a point of emergency orders, again with COVID.

We are heading into and we know that we are going to have to live with COVID. We're heading into probably COVID as endemic.

We are heading into and we know that we are going to have to live with COVID. We're heading into probably COVID as endemic, and we're going to have patterns of surges. And we're going to have to deal with ramping up, you know, our messages around guidance relative to that.

And that's really going to be based on predictions of where we're headed around surges, what we're seeing around the country in terms of variance, and a little less so about metrics, because the metrics that we were using two years ago are very different in the context that we are experiencing today.

Saliby: On that note, you have said this policy change comes with accepting personal responsibility in keeping everyone safe. What does that mean to you?

Vail: That means we continue to recommend best practices and that schools and people are going to make choices. The other thing we do have now, at this point in time, is significant more availability of N95, KN95, KF94 masks, so that those folks who are concerned are able to wear a mask that protects themselves.

The other thing we do have now, at this point in time, is significant more availability of N95, KN95, KF94 masks, so that those folks who are concerned are able to wear a mask that protects themselves.

Cloth masks are more effective at source control. In other words, protecting others from the wearer, though they do have some efficacy. Their efficacy runs about half what a KN95 mask, maybe a little bit more than half. And so, you can now, basically, go into a school environment and say, "Well, I'm going to wear a KN95 mask, and whether people around me are wearing masks or not, that mask is protecting me."

So, that's another thing that has moved along and gives that personal responsibility to those who choose to continue to believe in these recommendations and guidance and choose to mask themselves.

Saliby: Linda Vail is Ingham County's health officer. Thank you for joining me.

Vail: Thank you so much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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