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Ingham County lifts school mask mandate as health department returns to more "traditional" role

Students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school on Monday in Miami Lakes, Fla. Miami-Dade County public schools require students to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Marta Lavandier
The Ingham County Health Department used their power more "judiciously" in making the decision to lift the school mask mandate.

The trend lines look pretty clear: COVID numbers are receding in Michigan, from infections to hospitalizations to death rates. The most immediate ripple effect appears to be among county health departments, where officials have started dropping mask mandates for schools. Oakland County, Benzie-Leelenau, and Washtenaw County have all announced their mandates will be ending this month, but the first to make the call was Ingham County.

“When we had this order in the first place, we didn't even have a vaccine for five to 11-year- olds,” Ingham County health officer Linda Vail said. “And so really, we were kind of in a very different situation.”

The decision to drop a school mask mandate was informed by “scientific data and public health expertise,” Vail said. A steep decline in case numbers and higher than average vaccination rates among both adults and school-aged children made Vail comfortable rescinding the order. While Vail made clear that the risk of COVID is not yet over, she said the county is longer in the kind of emergency that would justify the health department exercising their power to impose mandates. At this point, she added, it is important for health officials to get back to a more traditional role.

“Health department recommendations will continue, and they should be used to guide decision-making even as we're in the pandemic, but without the need for additional state or local orders. Because that is really the traditional role of public health authorities, where we generally aren't in the process of issuing emergency orders, but providing guidance and our public health expertise to guide that decision making.”

Although the county mandate will expire February 19, school districts still have the authority to require masks in their buildings.

By leaving these decisions in the hands of communities, Vail said the Ingham County Health Department will be in a more effective position should they need to intervene down the line.

“We have to use our power judiciously as health officers rather than abuse them or overuse them, so that when we do use them, they're taken very seriously.”

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Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.
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