Covid Update: Linda Vail Lauds Local Schools and MSU Amid Rising Hospitalizations

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Linda Vail praised MSU and ELPS for the steps they are taking to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 as the school year begins.

In her latest meeting with the media, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail on Tuesday lauded local school districts — including East Lansing — for requiring masks indoors, discussed the particular facets and challenges posed by the return of Michigan State University students to on-campus life, and provided some general updates about the Covid-19 situation in Ingham County. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 970 active cases of Covid-19 in Ingham County, according to Vail.

Currently, 54 people are hospitalized with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases, and of those seven have been admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and five are on ventilators, according to Vail. (A slideshow of all the data presented is available here.)

This increase in hospitalizations didn’t necessarily surprise Vail, as the percent positivity, which Vail said she would hope hovers around 3%, has risen above 5% in Ingham County. An uptick in hospitalizations was likely following that increase in cases. 

Ingham County Health Department

Percent positivity and cases in Ingham County

Vail also broke out some of the data presented on Tuesday, showing it as cumulative since the beginning of the pandemic and since January 1, 2021. The 48823 ZIP code, which encompasses East Lansing, has had the most cases since the beginning of the pandemic (cumulative) and in 2021, but 48911 in Lansing has surpassed 48823 in cases per person and in deaths. 

The main age groups to be affected in Ingham County since the onset of the pandemic have been people from age 10-39, accounting for 59% of Covid cases in Ingham County. But, Vail noted that in the recent months, there’s been an uptick in cases among the 0-9 age range. 

Ingham County Health Department

Cases by age

“We’ve seen considerably more cases in younger age groups in say, the last 30 days and the 30 days before that, even,” Vail said, “as we’ve seen this Delta variant come around and we’ve seen most of our older population get vaccinated. So we are seeing this shift to a younger population of people with Covid cases.”  

Vail also noted that Ingham is closing in on the preliminary goal of vaccinating 70% of residents age 16 and older 

In Ingham, 149,662 people have gotten at least one dose, Vail said. That’s about 62% of Ingham County residents age 16 and older, or 65.7% when correcting for MSU’s itinerant student population, according to Vail. And for people aged 65 and older in Ingham County, 97% have been vaccinated against Covid-19. 

To reach herd immunity, though, Vail said a much higher percentage of Ingham County residents will need to be vaccinated. 

“We do need to start looking at what’s realistic for where we should be aiming with the percent of people vaccinated — 70% is great, without a doubt. But we really are going to continue to work, and we should be looking at a bar that is higher than that,” Vail said.

Vail was also asked about booster shots and explained that while the general population will most like have to wait eight months for a booster, the immunocompromised are eligible for a third Covid shot — an immunity “booster” — 28 days after their second dose because the desired immune system response created by the vaccine is less likely to “stick” in immunocompromised individuals. 

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Birendra Khatiwada receives the first of two doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at Sparrow Laboratories Drive-Thru Services (Formerly Sears Auto Center) on March 24, 2021.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, Sparrow hospital announced that it would begin offering a third dose of the Covid vaccine (both Pfizer and Moderna; it is recommended to stick with the same manufacturer for the booster as your original two doses). 

You can get your free booster shot (or a first or second dose) at Sparrow’s vaccination clinic: 3131 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing at the old Sears building. You can find out more about the clinic’s hours here.

With rising cases among kids and in-person K-12 instruction beginning this week locally, Vail praised the school districts that have chosen to put mask mandates in place. 

When asked about the resignation of a Mason School Board member following a vote to require masks in Mason schools this year, Vail opted not to speak to the specific situation in Mason, but she did take a moment to note that requiring masks in schools is “the right thing” to do, especially when children 12 and under can’t be vaccinated yet.

“That was a very good and very correct decision that follows every bit of guidance by the CDC, by the state, by this health department, by the American Medical Association (AMA), and by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP),” said Vail. “So it is absolutely what they’ve been being urged to do and they have absolutely done the right thing by stepping up and doing so. And I could not be more proud of school districts in Ingham County who one, by one, by one have done just that.”

Vail praised Lansing, East Lansing, Holt, Haslett, Okemos, Mason, and Waverly for requiring masking among all students and teachers and Williamston for elementary school students and teachers.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

ELPS students attending in-person will be required to wear masks and follow other safety protocols.

“And that is laudable and we should be really thanking those school districts for stepping up,” said Vail.

While East Lansing is requiring masks inside for all students and faculty this year, some parents have expressed concern at recent school board meetings about the stringency of the protocols and stated their desire for more communication about testing and other policies. 

Amy Ralston and Michael Halbisen penned an open letter to Superintendent Dori Leyko in mid-August, asking that the district improve safety protocols, explain how safety protocols are assessed, and offer online learning for elementary school students who are ineligible for a vaccine and higher risk families. Signatories also asked that the district mandate Covid and flu vaccines for eligible age groups.

Since then, the district has clarified some of its protocols and put new ones in place, such as permitting outdoor lunch, but at the Aug. 23 School Board meeting, two parents spoke at public comment about concerns they felt had still gone unaddressed. The district has not mandated vaccines for teachers or students but has partnered with the Lansing School District to offer online opportunities.

Vail and her team will also be monitoring East Lansing and campus closely as students return this fall. 

Those in charge in East Lansing are expecting what Mayor Jessy Gregg diplomatically called “high spirits” from MSU students returning to on-campus life. As Vail noted Tuesday, when students moved in last fall (September 2020), the number of Covid-19 cases in Ingham County roughly doubled. 

When it became clear last fall that MSU students were playing a large role in the spread of Covid locally, Vail and her team set out a series of public health orders limiting the number of people at indoor and outdoor gatherings in areas around campus. The City of East Lansing subsequently passed an ordinance to enforce those health orders, namely via a $500 fine.

Quarantine notices were placed on several student houses in East Lansing during the fall of 2020.

Vail said the same will be the case this fall.

“Well, we issued those gathering mandates last year when we saw problems start. We didn’t issue it to say ‘Oh this might happen.’ We watched problems start. We watched cases double in this county in the month of September when students returned,” said Vail. “We watched the affiliation of those cases and a very significant percentage of them were affiliated with MSU. So it was absolutely the right thing to do, and we will absolutely be tracking that information again.”

Two things are working in favor of Vail and the ICHD, she said: that MSU is requiring people to wear masks indoors on campus and more importantly, that they’ve put in place a vaccine mandate for staff and students. Students, faculty, and staff must either submit proof of vaccination or a request for a medical or religious exemption.

She did say students not wearing masks beyond campus will likely be a problem. 

Vail also encouraged MSU to create a public dashboard showing their student-reported vaccination rate, like the University of Michigan has.

“Time will tell,” Vail said, “but we are prepared to step in, assist, and have conversations about actions that might be taken either at the level of the City, the University, or the County, as those become apparent or necessary.”

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