Health officials say political battles over emergency orders don’t change the fact that wearing a mask in public will save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an emergency order Monday requiring face coverings in public spaces, restricting gatherings and limiting the capacity of bars and other venues. The order reaffirms a handful of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders that were invalidated by the Michigan Supreme Court last week for reasons unrelated to the orders’ ability to prevent COVID-19 spread.
MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said his emergency orders, based on a law that was not challenged in the Supreme Court case, take necessary steps to protect public health. The orders took effect immediately and expire on Oct. 30.
In a Monday news release, Gordon said wearing masks can reduce the chance of transmitting COVID by about 70%. He also warned that congregating in indoor spaces is a high-risk activity, regardless of whether people are wearing masks.
A total of 128,923 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Michigan as of Monday, with 6,816 deaths linked to the virus. Gordon credited Whitmer’s orders with flattening the state’s “curve” of weekly infections and reducing deaths since the spring, but warned the risks are rising as the temperature drops, kids return to school and flu season approaches.
Michigan is averaging 884 new cases per day over the last week, which is the highest seven-day moving average since late April. The most common recent outbreaks have been reported at schools, college campuses, long-term care facilities, and social gatherings.
Public health experts across the state still recommend wearing masks, practicing social distancing and avoiding large numbers of people. Without these measures, it’s likely that more people will get sick and more people will die.
“If we do away with masks and people stop wearing them and businesses stop requiring them, I definitely think the risk of a spike in cases is very high,” said Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health. “It’s safe to say, if we don’t wear masks, there will absolutely be more cases, and, yes, it will increase hospitalizations. To what degree, it’s hard to say but both will occur if people stop wearing masks.”
Sullivan said masks are not perfect, but there is mounting evidence to show wearing masks limits community spread, despite complaints to the contrary.
Wearing a mask doesn’t provide complete protection to the user, but it does limit their ability to spread airborne particles that could carry the virus. Masks limit how much of a virus the wearer can inhale however, and there’s growing understanding that the amount of virus you intake likely plays a role in your inflammatory response, or how serious your case is.
“The current legal dispute over government authority to impose certain restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19 does not change the science or the public health measures that everyone should take to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Henry Ford Health System.
Local health departments around the state stressed to their communities since the ruling that wearing masks and limiting interaction with strangers remain important steps to preventing COVID-19 from spreading.
The Ingham County Health Department issued its own emergency orders under the Public Health Code over the weekend. Under the orders, mask-wearing in public is required, restaurants must operate at 50% capacity or a maximum of 125 customers, public gatherings are limited and businesses must screen employees for coronavirus symptoms.
Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said the idea is to layer together multiple “essential” measures that work in concert to minimize the risk of outbreaks. People shouldn’t relax their behavior in light of the Supreme Court ruling, she said.
“We don’t want to slide back,” Vail said. “We finally got people aware of the fact that they aren’t going into bars and restaurants, they aren’t going into stores, they aren’t going into public places without wearing a mask. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t lose ground.”
Lisa Peacock, health officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, said people should wear masks and limiting gatherings regardless of whether they’re required to. The department is responsible for residents in Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties, each of which recorded under 200 confirmed cases.
“This virus, without a vaccine or cure, continues to be a threat,” Peacock said. “There are only so many tools that we have in our toolbox, and those are isolation, quarantine and all the safety precautions that we’ve been taking.”
Even in rural parts of the state, health officials say it’s important to institute public health orders regionally or statewide.
“We have seen wave after wave of cases,” said Mark Cheatham, health officer for Mid-Michigan District Health Department. “We’ve got outbreaks in churches, we’ve got outbreaks stemming from weddings and funerals. Then it dies down, and things kind of go into a lull, and then it comes crashing back again. That’s kind of what I expect to happen until we see a vaccine; continuing waves. That’s going to result in more people sick, that’s going to result in more hospitalizations and even deaths.”
The Van Buren/Cass District Health Department attributed a spike in Cass County cases to “lack of personal prevention measures and community gatherings.” There have been a total of 647 confirmed cases and 17 deaths linked to the virus in Cass County, which has a population of 51,787.
In the last two weeks, Cass County experienced the fastest rate of spread in months. The county averaged a daily percent positivity rate of 7%, more than double the rate recorded throughout September.
“The message from Van Buren/Cass District Health Department is clear: measures to prevent COVID-19 have not changed,” the health department wrote in a Tuesday press release. “We encourage our community to respect both the court’s decision, the Emergency Order and the advice of medical experts by continuing with important COVID-19 prevention measures.”
Sullivan, the infectious disease expert, said the importance of wearing masks during the upcoming cold and flu season is “10 times higher” than in the summer months. Social distancing becomes much less practical during winter months where people remain indoors, he said.
“I encourage people to keep wearing masks,” Sullivan said. “Wear a mask when you go into public buildings, when you have trouble maintaining distance, and in crowds. They work. They suppress the level of the virus and they keep people out of the hospitals.”
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