Michigan health chief questioned repeatedly about why state hasn’t issued mask mandate

Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo discusses virus trends

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, of MDHHS, at a May 12, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan’s top doctor was questioned repeatedly Wednesday about why the state hasn’t issued a mask mandate if it could help slow the spread of the COVID delta variant, particularly in schools.

16 takeaways from Michigan COVID update: Delta spread, mask mandates, third vaccine dose

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, joined the question-and-answer portion of a presentation given by Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, the top epidemiologist in the state.

Data supporting mask mandate

During her 24-minute presentation, Lyon-Callo offered data that suggests masks continue to be an important tool as the delta variant becomes the predominant form of COVID in Michigan.

She said places that have issued mask mandates since the delta surge began have seen a slower rate of increase in COVID cases than those that have not issued new mandates.

“While other factors could have also contributed, jurisdictions with mask mandates tended to experience slower spread of COVID-19 during the delta surge thus far,” she said.

Lyon-Callo specifically referenced masking in schools, showing data that emphasized the importance of prevention measures for children under 12 years old because they aren’t eligible for the COVID vaccine.

Khaldun pressed for answers

At the end of the presentation, the first question to Lyon-Callo was, “Have you recommended to the governor that she institute a statewide requirement that students wear masks in school, and if you haven’t, can you explain why and why not?”

The moderator of the briefing said that question isn’t in Lyon-Callo’s purview.

“I do think that would be within her purview because she would be an advisor,” the next reporter said, before asking his question.

When Khaldun interjected later in the session to answer a question about Michigan’s vaccine supply, the conversation returned to masking.

Here is the exact back-and-forth between Khaldun and reporters:

“Given the data laid out here today, especially with the risk of transmission in schools, why isn’t MDHHS requiring masks now, mandating them like some other states have done?” a reporter asked.

“I’m concerned about what is happening, what could potentially happen with our schools,” Khaldun said. “We have put out and updated our guidance last week, and specifically recommended that schools implement a universal mask requirement so we can protect our students, keep them in-person learning. We continue to work very closely with our health departments, providing information to our superintendents, as well.

“We do understand that there currently is a law that would allow us to be able to implement that mandate, but at this time, (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) and (MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel) have not made that determination,” Khaldun said.

“Did do recommend it to her, doctor?” she was asked.

“Throughout this entire pandemic, it has been my job to always recommend public health interventions and policies that will be protective, and I’ve continued to do that throughout the past several weeks, as well,” Khaldun said.

“Did you specifically recommend to the governor and to the director of MDHHS that we implement a mask mandate in schools?” Khaldun was asked.

“I have recommended that if a mask mandate were in place and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” Khaldun said.

“Has the governor given you any explanation, or can you provide us with any explanation, on why we’re not doing that then?” another reporter asked. “I think we’re all coming from a place where the data on these slides is so stunning, the risks to these kids seems so strong. What is there to lose at this point by having the mask mandate?”

“I cannot speak to that,” Khaldun said. “I do know that my lane is to provide public health guidance, but I also recognize that there are many other things that have to be considered when it comes to implementing a mandate.”

“Can you give us an idea, though, of some of those considerations so we can present them to people?” Khaldun was asked.

“I cannot at this time,” Khaldun said. “I would defer to the director.”

At this point, the briefing ended.

Michigan’s top doctor was questioned repeatedly Wednesday about why the state hasn’t issued a mask mandate if it could help slow the spread of the COVID delta variant, particularly in schools.

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Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.