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Michigan's local health leaders want statewide K-12 mask mandate after threats, harassment

Kristen Jordan Shamus and Dave Boucher, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

DETROIT — An angry resident suggested last week that the Barry-Eaton District health officer should be put in a gas chamber, and a citizen's arrest was attempted at a public meeting.

There have been death threats, too — all because health officials put mask requirements in place for students in K-12 schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

"It's awful," said Nick Derusha, president of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

"A lot of the public health measures that we know will help keep people safe have been politicized throughout the pandemic — anywhere from vaccinations to wearing masks — and it is bringing out the worst in people."

The vitriol has been amplified even more now that the state Legislature has passed a budget bill including a provision that would withhold state funding for public health services if local health departments enact or enforce mask rules for K-12 students as of Oct. 1.

That's putting growing pressure on school and health department leaders, said Norm Hess, executive director of the local public health association.

"Conditions are continuing to deteriorate and have become even more volatile at the local level," he said Friday, the same day the association sent a second appeal to Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department, pleading for a statewide school mask mandate.

"One of the reasons we had heard from the state that it was preferable to have local orders is the notion that people would be more likely to comply with a local order than with a statewide order, but we are not finding that to be true."

On Friday, the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department announced it had "regretfully" rescinded its school mask mandate. That's because if the budget bill is signed as-is by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the department won't be able to pay for essential public health services like infectious disease control, immunizations, hearing screenings and vision services.

"Without this funding, we will lose important programs along with several staff positions," said Daren Deyaert, health officer for the western Upper Peninsula health department district.

"It has been a very difficult decision to be forced to choose between what is best for the public's current health situation versus the future of our essential public health programs that will hopefully continue to serve our community for years to come."

Whitmer's office has said she will approve the budget, but her spokesman, Bobby Leddy, said Friday it won't come at the cost of public health.

"Gov. Whitmer has always said that she would protect public health measures that save lives and oppose any attempts to undermine or restrict basic lifesaving actions throughout this pandemic," Leddy said.

"We are still completing a thorough legal review and will have more to say when the governor signs this legislation next week, but this dangerous language which ties the hands of public health professionals is unconstitutional and the governor will declare it unenforceable. The state of Michigan will not withhold funding from local health departments for implementing universal mask policies or quarantine protocols in local schools that are designed to keep students safe so they can continue learning in person."

Though Whitmer's office pledged to maintain funding to local health departments, she has said in recent weeks that her administration is not considering any broad pandemic mandates — whether it be for COVID-19 vaccines or masks in schools.

Those decisions, she has said, should be made by local health departments and school districts — even when angry parents storm public meetings, threatening those health officials and school leaders, even when maskless students press their way into schools, saying mandates are unenforceable.

"The state's approach to push this down to the local level is not going well," Derusha said. "It's putting local health officers and local school superintendents in an impossible position that we are ill equipped to handle and it should not be done that way. This is a statewide issue. The state should be taking action here."

That's especially true, he said, as COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations grow and a rising number of coronavirus outbreaks are being identified among schoolchildren.

K-12 schools were the source of the largest number of coronavirus outbreaks statewide last week — with 218 new and ongoing outbreaks as of Sept. 20, the health department reported. Its data showed more transmission in schools where masks were not required.

 

Every day in the last week, more than 315 Michigan children under the age of 12 have been newly diagnosed with the virus — that's a rise of 80 cases in kids per day over the week before. Statewide, children ages 10 to 19 have the highest rate of infection, health department data show.

And hospitalizations among children also are climbing. On Friday, 35 children with suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus had been admitted for treatment at hospitals statewide. That compares to just 13 children hospitalized with suspected or confirmed cases two months ago.

Despite those trends, a statewide mask mandate is not "warranted at this time," said Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

"We're seeing some increases, but nothing that indicates a spike that would require action under the Public Health Code," Sutfin said in an email to the Free Press.

"Local health departments are in the best position to determine local needs. We deeply empathize with local health officers across the state who are doing their job and what they believe is right to protect their communities. Although we support everyone's right to voice their opinion in dissent, local officials do not deserve to be threatened in any way, particularly when the actions they are taking are intended to protect the health and safety of all residents in their communities.

"As of today, nearly 65% of students in traditional public schools are protected by the mask guidance that we've offered. We thank the schools and local health departments that have enacted this simple and effective protective measure and encourage others to follow suit to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our state."

Derusha said local health officers need more support than that.

Their jobs are being threatened by county commissions. Their lives are being threatened and their families are being harassed.

"We live in these communities that we serve," said Derusha, who also is the health officer for the LMAS District Health Department, which includes Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft counties. "People know where we live. They know where we work."

Some of his colleagues have installed security systems in their homes, and some have had to call police when they've been threatened. Many have retired or left public health altogether since the pandemic began.

"It's frightening," he said.

Derusha is hopeful this latest appeal to Hertel won't also be ignored. The first letter, sent on Sept. 8, was never even acknowledged.

"It makes us feel abandoned," he said. "We've been doing everything within our power to help keep our citizens safe. And at this point, it is clearly a statewide issue.

"I fear the situation locally will only get worse and more people will get sick."

Vic Michaels, an assistant superintendent with the Archdiocese of Detroit who oversees COVID-19 policies for 87 Catholic or private schools in six counties, said it's also been a trying time for school leaders trying to wade through the public health advice about masks and the strong opinions of frustrated parents.

If the state budget provision prohibiting local health departments from enacting mask requirements is enacted, it places the burden squarely on the shoulders of school leaders.

"To ask a principal who has no education in health, like the health departments do, to make that decision is not fair," he said. "We need to work with our health departments ... and count on their advice on whether a school should be masked or not."

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