For most K-12 students in Washtenaw County, school begins on Monday, August 30th. Meantime, the Centers for Disease Control data tracker has moved the country from substantial tranmission risk to high transmission risk. Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss the current state of the public health crisis and what the near future may bring.
David Fair: [00:00:00] This is 89 one WEMU. And I'm David Fair. Most K through 12 schools are to begin next week and the start of classes comes while the Delta variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus is hitting rather hard. Politics continue to play a role in how health, and safety precautions are approached throughout the pandemic. We've endeavored to focus on the science of it all and provide ever-evolving guidelines and recommendations from that perspective. And for that, we've relied on Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department, as we do again today. Thank you for the time.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:00:32] Good morning, David. Thank you for having us.
David Fair: [00:00:34] Does it seem to you as though the last pandemic-plagued school year just ended, or does it feel a million miles away?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:00:42] You know, honestly, I have trouble keeping anything in a time frame anymore.
David Fair: [00:00:46] It just runs together, doesn't it?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:00:48] Then, yes. It's a long almost two years now.
David Fair: [00:00:52] Well, the Centers for Disease Control data tracker has upgraded the status of Washtenaw County, right? We've gone from substantial risk of transmission to high risk for transmission, correct?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:01:06] Yes, that just happened yesterday. So, not surprisingly, our neighboring counties, most, I think, all of them had already moved to high transmission. And that happened locally for us yesterday. Now, one thing to be aware of with that, it's obviously not good news, but we can see from the trend that our activity keeps trending upward. You know, it's not necessarily going straight up. We sort of slowed a little bit this week, but still generally trending up. And the other thing to know about that high timeframe is that it is a substantial framework. In other words, we're likely to be in this high for a while, and that could be because cases keep going up. But even if they start to trend down, we'll still be in that high frame. So, it is important to kind of look at what's happening with the trends.
David Fair: [00:02:04] And it's not reason for panic. It's just letting you know that there is a problem, and it's spreading. We have to be aware of how best to protect ourselves.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:02:12] Absolutely. And it's really time to, you know, as we've been saying, if you're eligible for vaccination, and you haven't been vaccinated, certainly do that. And it's also been time to use other mitigation and prevention strategies. So, those masks and indoor spaces, distance being extra cautious if you have unvaccinated loved ones or folks that are more vulnerable.
David Fair: [00:02:39] Well, let's go down that vaccination path for a moment. On Monday morning, school busses, building hallways, and classrooms will be packed with students and staff at K through 12 schools and many of the colleges and universities. Has there been positive movement locally in getting the 12 plus crowd fully vaccinated?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:02:56] You know, we're doing quite well with vaccination. Our numbers have been steady. And, of course, they've also picked up these last couple of weeks. For that measurement that we've been using for our 70 percent goal that 16 and over, we are at over 70 percent. So, 71 percent. And we've been doing quite well in our 12 to 15 as well. In fact, our 12 to 15 numbers are higher than our next stage up—our, like, teens and young adults.
David Fair: [00:03:30] In the short time there is left before school starts on Monday, will the health department be making a big push to get those numbers even a little higher?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:03:38] Well, I would say we've continued to push, you know, we are making--working to make--that vaccination as easy and as accessible as possible. So, we continue to have community pop-ups at least several times a week in different locations. We also have walk-in vaccination at the health department Tuesday through Friday. And, another important point, you know, vaccination availability is very different now than it was early on. So pharmacies, doctors offices, many, many places have it available. So, it shouldn't be an issue of not having it easy or nearby. You just taking that next step. If you're someone that's been waiting and watching either for that full approval or to feel secure, that it's been used safely in very, very large numbers, or now that we have, you know, high transmission is another reason to make sure you're protecting yourself and others as well as you can.
David Fair: [00:04:38] We're talking with Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Governor Whitmer, in recognizing the political obstacles and legal actions that often ensue, has firmly stated there will be no mask mandate issued by the state, and local school districts should adopt their own. Staying away from the politics of that, as a health department, would it be the preference to have uniform mask and vaccine standards when it comes to safety protocols moving into the fall?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:05:05] You know, really the ideal is that, you know, we, as the local health authority, as the health department, can provide the information based on what we're seeing and the trends, make those recommendations and have them followed, right? That's really how the system should work. We shouldn't have to issue mandates. And, fortunately, things are looking fairly good in Washtenaw County, and many of our school districts have been still working on those decisions. As we know, there's some contention with them. But, right now, we have nine of our 10 public school districts that are requiring masks and continuing to work with them and to provide guidance about how we can have that in-person classroom experience as safely as possible. Now, of course, there are some definite unknowns at this point, like the impact of this Delta variant. So, what we know and learned from last year's experience, you know, may not be exactly the same. So, we are going to be watching that very carefully and making sure that our guidance fits with the actual experience that we see as schools open.
David Fair: [00:06:23] Oakland County has issued an emergency order requiring masks in all daycares and all schools, regardless of vaccination status, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Oakland County Health Division said its orders aligns with the recent guidance from the Michigan chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to ensure that children's teachers and staff can all begin the school year safely. I sense from your last answer that this is a direction Washtenaw County is not yet considering.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:06:50] We're not quite there yet, you know, and, again, moving into this high transmission is new as of yesterday. So, you know, we and our health officer have said, once we move into high, it could be something that we consider. But, the other part of that is, of course, what are our schools already planning and doing. So, as I said, most of our students are currently covered by mask requirements, which is a good thing. That said, we're definitely concerned about the ones that haven't. So, we'll be talking about that some more and looking at it carefully, because, certainly, our first choice is that everybody use that additional protection. So, I can't say for sure that we won't do it at this point. You know, our preference is that the recommendations be followed, and we'll continue to talk to our schools and see where we're at as classrooms open.
David Fair: [00:07:42] Once again, this is WEMU. And our conversation continues with Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, and you touched on it. Last academic year, the outcomes were very good for the children that were in in-person classes. Very low rates of infection and illness in area districts will once again be diligent in trying to keep everyone safe. But, it is going to be different with the Delta variant and others that are coming behind it. It spreads more easily, and it is impacting more children. So you said you'll be watching closely. What specifically will you be looking for in the first month or two of school?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:08:19] Well, one of the big things that we'll be looking at, you know, it's, and to your point, last year we saw, and again, there was universal masking in place for students. But we did not see a lot of spread happening in that classroom setting. So, where there were masks used, where there was distance used, the bus in the classroom primarily were pretty controlled and safe environments. Now, did we see a lot of spread in social events, athletics, other types of settings where they weren't as restricted in terms of the prevention strategies? Yes. So, one of the things as schools opened and as that happens is to really look at those settings. So, it's not that there won't be potential exposures, right? We might see those exposures, but do we see additional spread happening? That's really what we'll be looking at closely. And I think what we all know, at this point, is that things are looking very, very different in other parts of the country and other areas where classes have started. And that's, of course, a big concern. And we want to make sure we're monitoring that closely and providing the best recommendation.
David Fair: [00:09:33] Michigan Stadium is soon going to be filled with 100,000 plus. There will be masking requirements in some parts of the stadium, but not where the multitudes sit. It is outdoors. But if you've ever been, you know how close everyone is to one another. Are these games going to be potential super spreader events?
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:09:50] Gosh, you know, that is a good question. We have been asked that a number of times. You know, do we recommend that people go? And, you know, it's tricky. We will be meeting with some of the university officials next week to talk more about their plans, but it is an outdoor setting. But, as you said, that I have been there, and it is can be very close quarters for sitting next to someone. So, certainly it is a potential for spread. And I would certainly be wary if I was more vulnerable or had unvaccinated folks at home. I'd certainly wear a mask. We can't really advise that something's safe or not safe in terms of a particular activity. We can assure that, but we can certainly say, you know, these are the conditions. We do have high transmission levels happening locally. And you are potentially in a situation where you're in close quarters with many, many other people. So, there is some risk there. And we will certainly also be watching that closely with our partners at the university.
David Fair: [00:11:06] I bet you will. I bet you will. Well, I will look forward to our next conversation and maybe we'll have more on what the university is planning as we move forward. Thank you so much for the time today, Susan.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia: [00:11:13] Absolutely. Thank you.
David Fair: [00:11:15] That is Susan Ringler-Cerniglia from the Washtenaw County Health Department. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine, one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.
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