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As COVID surges, Michigan health director urges vaccination and masking, but mandates unlikely

beaumont_covid.jpeg
File photo courtesy of Beaumont Health
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Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel (not pictured) says getting vaccinated "is the absolute best way to protect yourself and other people" from COVID. Hertel won't commit to any future mandates for masks or other mitigation measures.

Updated November 19, 2021 at 4:33 p.m.

COVID-19 is surging exponentially in Michigan, to levels not seen since the start of the pandemic. Friday, the state reported nearly 18,000 new confirmed cases over the past two days.

The average number of new cases over the past week now exceeds 7,600—the highest seven-day average ever reported.

Hospitals are straining under the weight of the surge. Right now, more than 3,400 Michigan adults are hospitalized with confirmed COVID.

State health officials issued a mask advisory Friday. They suggested—but did not mandate—that everyone mask up for indoor gatherings or public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

— Sarah Cwiek, Michigan Radio

Updated November 19, 2021 at 3:07 p.m.

On Friday, the state issued a public health advisory recommending everyone over the age of two should wear a face mask at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status. Rising COVID-19 numbers are stretching hospitals to full capacity, and the vast majority of those patients are unvaccinated.

The state's Chief Medical Executive Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian says these metrics are “extremely concerning.”

“We’re seeing widespread community transmission in all age groups, we’re seeing troubling trends in other seasonal respiratory viruses and our health care systems are feeling the strain. I encourage all Michiganders to do their part.”

As Thanksgiving approaches, officials continue to urge thorough hand washing, mask wearing and getting vaccinated. Bagdasarian says individual behavior will determine whether COVID cases dwindle or intensify this winter.

Kevin Lavery, WDET

Original post, November 18, 2021 at 11:55 a.m.

Michigan is one of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S.

As of Thursday, Michigan had the highest daily average number of cases of any state over the past seven days, with 8,393 cases per day, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. Pediatric vaccines and booster shots are being rolled out, but colder weather is also keeping people indoors, and family gatherings for Thanksgiving are just days away.

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition spoke to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel about what the state is doing to curb the current COVID surge.

"Extremely concerning"

Many infectious disease experts say Michigan is now in a "fourth surge."

"The situation in the state right now is extremely concerning. Over the past few weeks, we're seeing a more concerning spike," Hertel said.

Major health systems have announced they are at or near capacity in their hospitals, including Spectrum Health in west Michigan, Munson Healthcare in northern Michigan, and Henry Ford Health System, which is based in Detroit.

"Our health care providers are exhausted from the past year and a half. They're continuing to care for all of the patients that they have, both COVID and non-COVID," Hertel said. "I am worried about their ability to continue to provide care to their communities."

Advice for slowing the surge

Asked what Michiganders can do — beyond getting vaccinated — to help tamp down the current case counts, Hertel offered familiar advice.

"I am worried about [health care workers'] ability to continue to provide care to their communities."
MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel

"Getting vaccinated is the absolute best way to protect yourself and other people. In addition to that, we continue to reiterate the importance of washing your hands frequently, social distancing, and continuing to wear a mask, in particular in areas that are crowded and indoor," Hertel said. "We're also seeing increases in the number of flu cases across the state, and flu can also be mitigated through those same measures."

No state mandates coming

Despite emphasizing the importance of masking, Hertel would not commit to the possibility of any future mask mandates or other state orders during a series of questions about them.

Here's the exchange as it aired on Michigan Radio:

Doug Tribou: We're seeing school districts around the state close schools because of outbreaks among both students and teachers, and kids are going in and out of quarantine because they've been traced as close contacts to someone who has COVID. I've got two daughters under 12 who both have gotten their first doses, but both have also been quarantined this year. And that's in a district that requires masks and encourages outdoor lunch. You mentioned the use of masks, but that is not a mandate from the state right now. What would it take for the state to reinstate another school mask mandate?

Elizabeth Hertel: I think at this point, everyone knows and understands the importance of masking, and in schools in particular, having those masks is really important, but not just in the classroom. It's also important to make sure that kids are masked at activities outside of the classroom, when outside of school. However, we are, and I am personally very excited that the pediatric vaccine has been approved for emergency use and encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated.

DT: I mean this with with all due respect, but you say that people understand, at this point, the importance of masking. But my day-to-day travels in grocery stores or even reporting [on] various school policies across the state show that that's really not the case. I mean, some people are masking, some people are not. It's sort of a patchwork-quilt approach.

"I can't speak to the personal decisions that everyone is making, but we understand very well that masking is an effective way to mitigate transmission."
Elizabeth Hertel on inconsistent mask use and local masking policies in Michigan

EH: I can't speak to the personal decisions that everyone is making, but we understand very well that masking is an effective way to mitigate transmission. And I think it's really important for those who have been vaccinated to remember, while vaccination does provide such protection for you, you may still be able to transmit the virus to other people who have been unvaccinated.

DT: I do think that there is a difference between a rule and a suggestion, however. I mean, we see that with a speed limit. Not everybody is going to follow the speed limit, but more people are likely to if there's a posted sign. If we don't have a mandate, can we count on masking to be the effective tool that we need it to be?

EH: I think that we can. I think that people have gotten very tired and they are fatigued. There is certainly a level of, again, fatigue [and] trauma in some instances for everything that everybody has experienced over the last year and a half in this global pandemic. And we just continue to reiterate that messaging [about masking], and encourage people to take those measures to keep themselves safe.

On the addition of boosters and pediatric vaccines

Most adults in the U.S. are now eligible for a COVID vaccine booster shot and children ages five through 11 have just begun to get vaccinated.

Hertel said the state has seen "great uptake so far on pediatric vaccines" and close to 20 percent of residents have gotten a booster. She also noted that the state's older population has been more likely to get a booster and tends to have a higher vaccination rate.

"I anticipate we'll see many boosters among that population. Every time we're able to see another group become vaccinated, we anticipate that case numbers will hopefully level out and go down," she said.

"My major concern has always been, even with the vaccinations [available], the more that the virus transmits, the more opportunities it has to mutate into new variants."

Headshot of Elizabeth Hertel
Steven Barosko
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel

The slow climb of vaccination rates

On May 13, Governor Gretchen Whitmer appeared on Morning Edition to discuss the reopening benchmarks the state was announcing at that time, tied to vaccination rates in the state. The top benchmark then was 70 percent of residents 16 and older with at least one shot of a COVID vaccine. According to state data, Michigan passed that mark on Monday. That's just over six months to go from 55 percent to 70.

What can the state do to move that percentage higher, faster?

"The best thing that we can do, and I think the state has done very well, even though the uptake seems slow, is to bring vaccines to people who may have challenges in getting to a central location to get vaccinated and making sure that we're having conversations and answering people's questions and concerns honestly and accurately," Hertel said.

Old tools vs. new tools

At this time last year, MDHHS, then under the direction of Robert Gordon, temporarily shut down indoor dining, in-person high school and college classes, and most athletics. There was also a mask mandate. Today, none of those statewide strategies are in place.

At what point does Hertel think the state would consider using those tools again?

"The good thing about where we are today is that we have additional tools to use. Not only do we have three incredibly safe and effective vaccines, and the ability for people to get booster shots with concerns about waning immunity, we also have additional treatments. The monoclonal antibody treatment, and we are anticipating the FDA to deliberate on and approve some antiviral medications that can be used effectively to treat COVID," she said.

"So, we have a lot of other additional tools at our disposal right now that can ensure that we're able to deal with the COVID transmission in different ways than we had to do that a year ago."

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

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