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Northern Michigan health departments can’t keep up with COVID-19 spread in schools

Stephanie Chenard bid her 3rd grader, Desmond, goodbye for the day, as he headed into his classroom last week. Screens can't replace the value of in-person interaction for schoolkids says UCSF psychotherapist Saun-Toy Trotter. "One element of their well-being, she says, is being with peers — learning, stretching, struggling, growing and connecting."
Beth LaBerge
The latest data from the state health department show that COVID-19 is spreading fastest in Michigan’s youngest age group: people under 10 years old.

COVID-19 cases are spreading in Northern Michigan schools faster than public health workers can respond, according to officials at several local health departments.

Although the overall spread of COVID-19 is slowing in much of the country, the latest data from Michigan’s state health department show that COVID-19 is spreading fastest in the state’s youngest age groups.

Only people 12 years and older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. That leaves much of the school-age population unvaccinated, at a time when other mitigation measures like masking and distancing are less common than last year, and there’s a particularly dangerous coronavirus variant circulating.

Scott Izzo, the community health director and epidemiologist for District Health Department No. 2 in northeast Michigan, said cases have been increasing in schools for the last month.

“Last week was really rough for us here. We’re not able to get to all of the cases,” Izzo said.

His department, which covers four largely rural counties, can’t make phone calls fast enough, said Izzo.

Normally, public health workers try to get in touch with everyone who was in close contact with a person who tested positive, but they don’t have enough time to figure out who was exposed and tell them how to quarantine before the next cases come in, he said.

Izzo said his health department is concentrating on cases in two age groups: the youngest residents, because that’s where cases are spreading fastest, and the oldest residents, because they’re most likely to get seriously ill.

Other health departments in the state said they are in the same position, forced to decide who gets the call, and who doesn’t.

Dr. Jennifer Morse is the medical director for three health departments covering 19 counties in Mid- and Northern Michigan. She said higher vaccination rates would slow the spread of the virus -- Michigan ranks 27th in the country by the percentage of fully vaccinated people -- but there are other ways to address the surge.

Unfortunately, Morse said, those methods, like universal masking rules in schools, and quarantine requirements for people exposed to a person who tests positive for the virus, have been pushed off-limits by vitriolic protests in other parts of the state.

“I want to keep our staff safe,” said Morse. “We’ve seen other health officers get threatened.”

Genesee County health officials received death threats, and Kent County’s health officer said he was almost run off the road after imposing mask mandates in their respective jurisdictions earlier this year. A speaker suggested putting health officials in a gas chamber at a board of health meeting in southern Michigan last month.

“We never want to say we’re not doing the right thing because we’re scared, but ... we have to live in these communities,” said Morse. “You can’t help but take that into some consideration.”

Brett has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and before Michigan Radio, he was an intern at WNYC and with Ian Urbina of the New York Times and worked at WXXI and WCMU. He also produced freelance reporting work focused on health and science in New York City. Brett grew up in Bremerton, Washington, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.