Michigan urges masking indoors, vaccines as COVID-19 surges

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LANSING — Faced with spiking COVID-19 infections, Michigan health officials issued a public health advisory Friday recommending everyone age 2 and older wear a mask at indoor public settings regardless of their vaccination status.

The guidance also said public-facing businesses and other establishments should implement masking policies and encourage compliance. Unvaccinated or immunocompromised people are urged to avoid large crowds and gatherings.

The state stopped short of requiring face coverings, keeping with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s shift away from such mandates earlier this year as vaccines became available.

The officials pleaded with people to get the vaccine, a flu shot and, if eligible, a coronavirus booster dose as the state deals with a fourth surge in cases since the pandemic started. The step came before the holiday season, when families in the state with the country’s highest per-capita weekly infection rate will gather indoors to celebrate.

Michigan’s seven-day daily case average was about 8,400 as of Wednesday, surpassing a pandemic high from nearly a year ago, and up from roughly 4,600 two weeks before, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Roughly 73% of infections, 72% of hospitalizations and 76% of deaths were among the unvaccinated or those partially vaccinated over the most recent 30-day period for which there is complete data, said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s chief medical executive. At Spectrum Health, a 14-hospital system in West Michigan, 86% of 359 patients were unvaccinated. Of those in intensive care units, 90% were unvaccinated and 97% of those on ventilators were unvaccinated.

“Today, we are at another crucial point. We have a chance to turn the tide and these rising numbers. We have done it before. But whether or not we do will depend on everyone in Michigan,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS).

The advisory will be similar to existing guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which urges both the vaccinated and unvaccinated to be masked in public if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission — like Michigan.

Metrics presented on a call with reporters are “quite troubling,” Bagdasarian said. “If behavior doesn’t change, I think we’re in for a very rough winter season.”

The positivity rate was above 15% in all regions and higher than 20% in three — Grand Rapids, Saginaw and Jackson. The case rate was trending similarly to the state’s surge in the fall of 2020. Confirmed COVID hospitalizations among adults, meanwhile, were at 82% of their peak last spring.

“It’s putting a strain on health care resources and caregivers and is quite difficult,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan.

MDHHS, citing CDC guidance, backed specific recommendations for holiday gatherings. People gathering with multiple households from different areas of the state or country should consider precautions such as getting tested for COVID. Universal masking is urged in households where someone is unvaccinated, at increased risk of the virus or has a weakened immune system.

Bagdasarian said although it is “fantastic” so many older adults are vaccinated, younger age groups at risk of transmitting the virus at school and large gatherings should get the shots to “nip this in the bud.”

Hertel continued to encourage schools to require masks, noting kids ages 5 to 11 only became eligible for the vaccine a couple weeks ago. Asked if she may again mandate them in all school buildings like last academic year, she said she could not predict the future.

“We’ll just continue to watch what’s happening across the state and continue to make determinations based on that,” Hertel said.

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