Language of mask orders in Michigan budget confuses health department mandates

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LANSING, MI – The governor’s office urges county health officials to retain K-12 mask warrants amid confusion over state budget provisions 2021-22 that seek to ban health services to issue COVID-19 rules.

The budget bill passed earlier this month by the Michigan legislature contains language inserted by Republicans that seeks to restrict the powers of local public health departments trying to control the community spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office reiterated its position on Friday, saying health services should ignore the budget guidelines as “unconstitutional.”

Despite state assurances, several county health departments have already used the budget, which was seen as a victory for Republican lawmakers in negotiations, to justify decisions to reverse mask orders.

Health departments covering Allegan, Berrien, Dickinson, Iron, Barry, Eaton, Branch, Hillsdale and St. Joseph counties have all cited the state budget for overturning health mandates.

“Local health departments should keep their mask policies in place,” said Robert Leddy, spokesperson for Whitmer.

“As the governor has made clear, budget provisions that attempt to prohibit these policies clearly violate the state constitution,” Leddy said. “The state of Michigan will continue to provide funding to local health departments that implement universal mask policies or school quarantine protocols to keep students safe so they can learn in person. “

Whitmer enacted the budget on Wednesday, but vetoed a handful of articles and declared “unworkable” language that threatens funding for health services that issue COVID-19-related warrants.

Related: Whitmer enacts Michigan budget, praises bipartisan nature of negotiations

The first payments of state funding under the new budget will be made by next week, regardless of a county’s health status, the governor’s office said.

Still, some local health departments have released statements suggesting they could lose state funding if they don’t remove their COVID-19-related mandates.

A statement from Branch-Hillsdale-St. The Joseph Community Health Agency said Thursday it was forced to reverse recent public health orders or could lose $ 1 million in state funding.

The Tri-County Health Agency on Thursday declared its Sept. 22 health ordinance requiring employers, educational institutions and people in Branch, Hillsdale and St. Joseph counties to self-quarantine after close contact exposure with a person infected with COVID-19 is no longer midnight on October 1.

Related: West Michigan Health Department cancels order for K-6 masks, citing fears of losing $ 1 million in funding

A press release from the agency said the decision was made after Whitmer signed the 2022 state budget.

Although Whitmer called the budget language unconstitutional, the agency’s legal advisor said the governor’s position had not been tested in court.

“The branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency cannot risk losing this vital local public funding that supports vital community programs and services, including vaccinations, infectious disease control, sexually transmitted disease control and prevention, hearing screening, vision services, food protection, public water supply, private groundwater supply and on-site wastewater management, ”said an agency statement.

While acknowledging that the mask requirement is “an effective and evidence-based mitigation strategy to reduce the risk of transmission for vulnerable populations in school settings,” the Allegan County Health Department released on Thursday. a statement saying that language in the state budget “jeopardizes the future funding of the health department.” whether a mask order remains in effect.

The Michigan Association for Local Public Health released a statement Thursday urging health departments to continue doing what is best for the health of their communities.

“(Health departments) did not issue any school mask orders or quarantine orders as a political gesture,” said Norm Hess, executive director of the public health association.

“The Delta variant affects children. This wave of illness has been steadily increasing in the state for over a month, and our deep concern is that when the hot weather soon ends and everyone comes back indoors, it will skyrocket. We hope we are wrong. But if we are not, it is a travesty to play politics with public health, and we will all suffer the consequences together. “

Hess said local health officials are “stunned” that Michigan officials will “willfully escalate” the conflict between health departments and county councils by leaving language in the budget upon approval.

Some county commissions and local health agencies don’t believe Whitmer’s declaring the language unconstitutional offers sufficient protection against legal challenges, Hess said.

“Some of them will be canceling their prescriptions today, not because they want to, but because they cannot in good conscience risk losing the funding they need to maintain vital public health programs. over the coming year, ”she said.

The Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools and the Michigan Association of Local Public Health have both called on the MDHHS to enact a statewide school mask mandate to protect children and “reduce chaos” around children. local health orders.

Emily Mellits, a parent in Macomb County and a member of the alliance, said counties have a moral obligation to adopt crazy masks when COVID-19 is on the rise and healthcare workers are overwhelmed with patients.

“Lives are literally at stake,” Mellits said. “Schools without a mask requirement are among the main drivers of new COVID-19 cases in the state. “

Mellits referred to the threats and harassment health workers have endured throughout the pandemic, saying she feared “science-denying” individuals putting up roadblocks to protect children attending school. in person.

Related: ‘I need help’: Kent County’s top health official tells commissioners after threats and road rage in COVID-19 response

Some health departments, such as in Kalamazoo or Washtenaw counties, cite the Michigan Health Code in their decisions to keep orders for school masks in place.

The Michigan Public Health Code authorizes local health departments to issue prescriptions in response to outbreaks.

As of October 1, 222 districts representing 748,181 students had implemented a mask policy. 59.72% of students in traditional public schools are protected by a mask policy, according to state data.

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