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Northern Michigan health officials hope schools will mandate masks

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Brett Dahlberg
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WCMU News
Dr. Christine Nefcy, the chief medical officer at Munson Healthcare, describes COVID-19 trends in Northern Michigan in a virtual news conference on Tuesday.

Health officials in Northern Michigan said Tuesday that they will not require students and staff to wear masks for the start of the school year, but they’re making the strongest possible recommendation in favor of masking.

Both the state and local health departments in Northern Michigan say the decision is up to school districts.

Dr. Jennifer Morse, the medical director for District Health Department No. 10, which covers 10 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula, said she was following the guidance of the state department of health and human services.

“We recommend, as MDHHS does, that the schools mandate the masking, because they have better ability to enforce those rules,” Morse said. “We would rely on the schools to enforce any order we would place.”

At least one county health department in Michigan is requiring masks in its local schools. In her order, Genesee County Medical Health Officer Dr. Pamela Hackert said the state’s public health code gives her the authority to enforce masking for students and staff.

Other local health departments have said they might order the school districts in their jurisdiction to require masks.

Slowing vaccination rates in Northern Michigan are leaving the region vulnerable to a surge in COVID-19 cases as the school year approaches, health officials there warned.

Dr. Christopher Ledtke, an infectious disease expert at Munson Healthcare, said he hopes schools will require masks for teachers and students, especially children who are too young to be eligible for vaccines.

Without masks or vaccines, young children -- and the older people who care for them -- are vulnerable to contracting the virus in schools, Ledtke said. “Masking should be recommended in that setting, and ideally mandated, as there is very little other protection, and we are in the upswing of a significant surge”

Ledtke said vaccination rates in parts of Northern Michigan are similar to rates in Florida where COVID-19 cases are rising quickly and hospitals are running out of nurses and intensive care beds.

He said if trends continue, some Michigan hospitals could be overwhelmed within weeks.