“We will do anything to protect them and keep them safe”

FLINT, Michigan -- Organizers supporting a recent order by Genesee County Medical Health Officer Dr. Pamela Hackert to mandate masks for all K-6 public school students in Genesee County had a simple goal on August 24: provide a safe and civil environment to express support for the health and welfare of Flint and Genesee County residents.

“We just wanted to add another narrative to what is being said about Dr. Hackert and the K-6 mandate,” said Pastor Todd Womack, an organizer of the event. “We created a safe space to share concerns and support for Dr. Hackert before the actual meeting tomorrow (August 25) with the Genesee County Commissioners. We really wanted people here who represented a broad spectrum of community and voices.”

The press conference was in response to a recent protest about the mask mandate by a group of mostly suburban Genesee County residents and organized by the Genesee County Republican Party. The order by the Health Department requires all K-6 students wear masks inside of school buildings until a COVID-19 vaccine is available for that age group and when community transmission of COVID-19 in the county is categorized as “low” or “moderate.” It is currently categorized as “high” according to the CDC, and cases in Genesee County have reportedly jumped 36 percent since last week

Although no formal protest of the mask mandate is planned at the August 25 County Board of Commissioners meeting, opponents have encouraged public commenters to attend and voice their opposition. Several spoke last week at a county Board of Health meeting, with most refusing to wear masks or practice social distancing in the meeting space.

Organizers in support of the mask mandate pointed out several reasons that not mandating masks for that age range is misguided, including the fact that children are increasingly at a greater risk for infection and some children have family members at home with autoimmune diseases who are also at greater risk for infection and complications if they contract COVID-19.

During the initial outbreak of COVID-19 last year, the virus spread quicker than scientists and doctors could effectively keep up with the symptoms, risk factors, and prognosis. Nurses and physicians in hospitals had to manage abnormal lab results that had never been seen before. Critical patients had incredibly high and never before seen levels of clotting factors and were suddenly suffering from strange blood clots that led to strokes, amputations, and death.

The surging Delta variant is still impacting people in different ways and at various levels of severity. The potential lifelong outcomes of acquiring the virus are not fully known. The risk of putting children in harm from a lack of precautions is an inability to critically see how healthcare providers with frontline experience want the safest and most effective evidence-based practices to be put into place to avoid negative outcomes in childrens and adults. 

Dr, Lisa M. Lapeyrhouse, an assistant professor and tenured faculty member in the Public Health & Health Sciences department at the University of Michigan-Flint, was one of the speakers during the press conference.

“I am here to support the Medical Officer, Dr. Pamela Hackert, and the K-6 mandate,” she said. “The role of public health is to promote the conditions that give everyone the same chance of living a healthy life.”

Dr. Lapeyrouse reminded listeners that other health laws have been put into place to enforce seat belts and drinking and driving. Those laws have also been ignored at times or fought against, but they also work -- Lapeyrouse pointed out they’ve contributed to an observable 17 percent decrease in vehicular deaths.

As of July 30, 2021, the number of multi-system inflammatory syndrome MIS-C cases in Michigan was only exceeded by two states, California and Georgia. Dr. Lapeyrhouse finished her statement by mentioning the severity of MIS-C in children and which populations are affected the most. “Overall, 63 percent of children diagnosed with MIS-C were Latinx or African American,” she said.

Other speakers at the press conference were Aurora Sauceda, Dr. Joyce Ellis-McNeal, several ministers, and community members.

“I came today as a community member and represent my community [the Latinx community] that doesn’t usually get a voice in things like this,” Sauceda said. “We’ve seen a lot of benefits of getting the vaccine for our community. I am in full support of the mandate because it is something that will protect our children. Not only will it protect our children but our parents and teachers, anyone in the school. COVID and masks have nothing to do with political parties, this has to do with human beings.”

According to the MI Safe Start Map, the last seven days has shown a rapid increase in positive COVID-19 cases. According to the Genesee County Health Department, 90 percent of the new cases in the county are caused by the Delta variant, which is significantly more contagious than the previous SARS-CoV-2 viruses. 

“Children can't speak up for themselves,” Sauceda said. “So as adults we need to show them that we will do anything to protect them and keep them safe.”

Read more articles by Jenifer Veloso.