Wednesday, December 7, 2022

With COVID-19 on the decline, Ingham County waves goodbye to educational mask mandates

February 21, 2022
Discarded mask left on a sidewalk in East Lansing on Feb 20, 2022
Discarded mask left on a sidewalk in East Lansing on Feb 20, 2022 —
Photo by Evan Freeman | The State News

The trend of COVID-19 is starting to fall in a downwards curve across the country, and many states are acting in measure. Some Michigan counties, including Ingham County, are responding to the shifting trend of Omicron cases by lifting mask mandates within the following week, leaving residents of East Lansing to wonder if the community is prepared for a change.

Ingham County Health Department announced on Feb. 10 that emergency orders for masks in educational institutions and quarantine and isolation emergency orders for contact in school settings would be lifted at midnight Feb. 19. Students or staff who test positive or are exposed as close contacts may continue to be excluded from school under the Michigan Public Health Code and Administration Rule.

At this point in the pandemic, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said she saw a shift in cases and data to move forward in a different direction with the COVID-19 strategy going forward.

“Just the fact that the vaccine is available is not enough to say, 'OK, we're done.' We have to have 5- to 11-year-olds getting vaccinated.” Vail said. “I was looking at about 40-to-50% vaccination rate ... but we did reach that 40% mark with the 5- to 11-year-olds in terms of being vaccinated.”

Here's why – originally, at the beginning of the fall semester on Sept. 7, Vail issued the original Ingham County mask mandate that was later updated on Nov. 8, which stated the mandate would remain in effect until Feb. 19 at midnight, which has held steadfast. 

“Hospitalizations, as an indicator, tend to lag behind cases and cases could be dropping while hospitalizations are rising,” Vail said about the Feb. 19 renewal date for the mandates. “By that time, we had about a 40% drop in hospitalizations.”

Seeing that the order was held to revision with supplemental issues in hand with the Michigan Public Health Code, the trends of cases fell to an average of 17.8% positive test results as of Feb. 11 and an average of 100 cases per 100,000 people in Ingham County, as of Feb. 16. Average daily cases are the average number of new cases a day for the past seven days to calculate fluctuations in cases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, counties that are above 100 new cases per 100,000 people are considered high, which Ingham County has held onto through the new year to early February.

“In terms of that shift in public health response the announcement on Wednesday from the state where rather than really focus on metrics and using metrics to define (what stage) you should be wearing masks indoors,” Vail said. “When we set up metrics, we set up metrics based on the environment we had at the time. No vaccine, a lot of unknowns about the virus.”

Cases within the last two weeks, however, have plummeted by 78%, and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have declined by 34.2%, according to the health department's statement on their website. Compared to the surge set on by omicron in late December 2021 all the way to early February, the steady decline of cases is projected to continue to drop in the coming months.

Currently, nearly 40% of 5- to 11-year-olds and 62% of 12- to 15-year-olds in Ingham County have received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is higher than the state-wide average for both age groups. Ingham County ranks third in the state for vaccinations among these age groups, which contributed to Vail's decision to end the educational mask mandates.

Ingham County is not the only Michigan county to follow the decline, as the counties of Wayne and Oakland strategically watch Ingham’s transmission levels of the state capitol – the actions of Ingham last Thursday have already resounded across Michigan. Similar actions may very well soon be taken before the end of the month at Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan’s main campus is located.

School boards are now at the reins of choosing whether or not to mandate face coverings in their institutions and relying on the merit of their students and faculty. Michigan State University falls under the Ingham County jurisdiction, but the administration’s choices are not ready to reflect the health departments' just yet.

“At this time, our mask requirement remains in place.” MSU Deputy Spokesperson Dan Olsen said. “We have not made any definitive decisions about lifting that mask requirement.”

With the decision up to schools – now more than ever, student sensibility coupled with administration policy will define if the curve continues to shift downwards or begin to ride the wave again. 

“Our indoor mask requirements were in place before many local requirements for indoor masks,” Olsen said. “We will continue to have conversations about when an appropriate time might be to lift some of those requirements.”

MSU administration will continue to uphold masking protocols inside campus buildings and ticketed events, as Vail warns areas with high positivity rates to maintain masking policies for added risk levels. 

“As a public health agency, we will continue to support local school districts by recommending evidence-based public health measures, educating on current guidance and practices, and making recommendations for staying safe and healthy,” Vail said in a press release.

While Ingham County believes East Lansing is ready to remove the mask, many residents wonder if the community is ready. Are students going to be responsible for their own health and the safety of others?

To Ph.D. student of computer science Michael Langford, the independent factor for this mandate’s reversion will be those who, regardless of the mandate, do not mask, and students who have been faithful to regulations will know when to mask up.

“I’m not opposed to it,” Langford said. “Regardless of what I believe – unless there is a worse strand that comes out and there is a more visible problem, people aren’t going to instantly become more willing to participate in regulations.”

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For the safety of all students, parents knowing when to have their child stay home will be more important than ever as guidelines loosen and East Lansing begins to recover. Students should not come to class if they feel ill or sick and should take a PCR or rapid antigen test to see if they test positive for COVID-19. At-home rapid COVID-19 tests can be ordered and shipped online completely free at COVIDtests.gov.

“I think that we can only expect people are going to be less tolerable as time progresses, so people aren’t going to instantly become more responsible without masking,” Langford said. “Especially if they were not willing to mask before, why would they mask now?”

The Together We Will page instructs that face coverings must be worn by everyone — including all faculty, staff, students, alumni, vendors and visitors — while indoors at all times, following guidance from the CDC recommendations on masking in crowded public areas. 

Vail urges all citizens of East Lansing to wear KN-95 masks as they protect better than cloth masks and keep water molecules inside, blocking respiratory droplets.

If the trend of cases continues to fall throughout the spring semester, other COVID-19 era mandates may end if sensible masking can be executed properly throughout Ingham County.

“Hopefully, things don’t get worse,” Langford said.

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