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Residents in these 6 Michigan counties should wear masks indoors, according to the CDC

Atoms via Unsplash

Under revised guidance released by the CDC Tuesday, residents in six Michigan counties should resume wearing masks indoors, even if they’re fully vaccinated.

That’s according to state data released Wednesday, which uses CDC criteria to determine where community transmission is currently “substantial” (Alpena, Hillsdale, Gogebic, Kalkaska, and Mason counties) or “high” (Branch County.) 

This comes after the CDC announcement yesterday, advising fully vaccinated people to resume wearing masks “in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission,” to reduce “the risk of being infected with the Delta variant and possibly spreading it to others…”

The CDC defines “substantial” transmission as more than 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last 7 days, or 8-9% of the week’s COVID tests coming back positive. “High” transmission means 100 or more new cases per 100,000, or above 10% positivity.

But it wasn’t immediately clear how residents of those six Michigan counties were supposed to know these recommendations applied to them. On Tuesday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said she would not be reinstating a statewide mask mandate. Asked whether the state health department would be issuing advisories to those counties, state health department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said residents can find that out on the CDC’s website.

“They can look at the CDC COVID Data Tracker and use their best judgement on when to wear a mask,” said Sutfin. “Once again, this is a recommendation, not a requirement. [The CDC tracker] looks fairly up to date as far as data. It’s likely the risk levels won’t change that much day-to-day.”

(In fact,  at the time of publication, the CDC’sown website shows a slightly different picture based on older data, listing 10 Michigan counties in the “substantial” or “high” risk categories.)

“We do also understand how difficult this is,” said Rebecca Burns, the health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency. “To tell them that at this point that, even though they’re fully vaccinated, the right thing to do is to put a mask back on when you go indoors, is going to be hard for some people to understand.”

Burns said their local health department would issue a press release sometime Wednesday, alerting residents that transmission levels are high and encouraging them to wear masks. The change is coming now, she said, because new evidence indicates that fully vaccinated people can carry and transmit the delta variant, even if they remain largely protected from severe illness or hospitalization themselves.

“And the more we see and understand what's going on with the virus, the more we learn about it. That's why recommendations change, and why yesterday, earlier in the day, a fully vaccinated individual wasn't recommended to wear a mask indoors. But at the end of yesterday, they were. Because we continue to learn more and based on the science, we continue to change our recommendations.”

At El Cerrito Mexican Restaurant in Coldwater (the Branch county seat) owner Nick Troullinos says he and his employees had already resumed wearing masks - but not because of the CDC’s guidance. He saw another restaurant have to shut down recently after several staff members tested positive for the virus. “I’m concerned,” Troullinos said. “I don’t want to scale back and downsize again. Or at worst, close again. I lost eight months last year, combined with this year, when I didn’t operate.”

But he doesn’t plan to ask customers to do anything differently. “Some of them come in with masks, some not. They prefer no masks, to tell you the truth. But to protect my employees, myself, and my customers, we wear masks.”  

On Wednesday, the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department issued a press release, saying both counties currently have a “substantial” rate of community transmission, and encouraging all residents to wear masks indoors.

“ At this time, in Cass and Van Buren County, mask wearing is recommended for all individuals – fully vaccinated and unvaccinated – while indoors in public. We share in the frustration brought on by the length of this pandemic and the changing recommendations and requirements. While we are still learning about this virus and the new, more serious variants, what we do know is that the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is our best defense against the virus.”

Statewide, about 4% of all COVID tests are positive, up from 3% last week, according to a state data report released Wednesday. Cases have been increasing the past few weeks as well, with about 29 new cases per million people. “Twenty-one new outbreaks were identified in the past week,” the report said. “Most new outbreaks and most new and ongoing outbreaks within Skilled Nursing Facilities and Long-Term Care” residential centers.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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