Dr. Howard Markel
Dr. Howard Markel. Courtesy of the University of Michigan.

Medical researchers tell the JN why they continue to urge statewide mask mandates in spite of the state Supreme Court ruling.

A coalition of 15 of Michigan’s top health experts wrote and signed off on an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press on Tuesday, urging the state of Michigan to continue mask mandates and follow science in spite of the Michigan Supreme Court ruling this past week.

The split decision ruling last Friday said that the 1945 law dealing with state emergencies that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to issue executive orders addressing COVID-19 was unconstitutional. On Thursday, the FBI revealed that Gov. Whitmer had been the target of an attempted kidnapping plot by a right-wing militia motivated largely by her pandemic mandates.

“Collectively, we have over 300 years of experience in research and service in the public interest, including service in both Republican and Democratic administrations,” the op-ed said. “Although we come from different disciplines and backgrounds, we are unified in our scientific understanding of what policies must be in place to minimize both the health and economic carnage from the pandemic.”

For months now, the 15 medical experts helped craft a series of legal friend of the court briefs on the COVID-19 pandemic, first sending them to lower level appeals courts and most recently to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The briefs to the Michigan Supreme Court contains much of the same information the op-ed does, stressing that Gov. Whitmer’s orders were science-based and how serious the pandemic is and how there won’t be control of the virus without proper interventions. The briefs have been submitted in a number of court cases that Gov. Whitmer has been facing in regards to the emergency orders.

The brief also cited disease modeling revealing that approximately 28,000 more COVID-19 cases across the state would likely have occurred before June 1 if the Governor’s emergency measures had not been implemented and that the measures resulted in approximately 3,500 lives saved.

The op-ed and briefs both state that the Court abruptly invalidating all of the Governor’s emergency measures, including those focused on social distancing and the safety of hospital and medical care facilities, could result in a resurgence of COVID-19, with peak disease rates potentially exceeding those experienced in the current outbreak.

Dr. Howard Markel, the George E. Wantz, M.D. Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine and Director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, was one of the 15 experts contributing to the op-ed. Markel coined the term “flatten the curve”, which has become a popular phrase since the beginning of the pandemic.

Markel created the term while he was conducting research on the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, which he did following the SARS pandemic in 2004.

Markel is very disappointed not only in how the judicial decision goes against science, but also in how partisan and ideological the pandemic has become.

“The problem with this pandemic from the state of Michigan and beyond, throughout this country, is how absolutely politicized it has gotten,” Markel said.

“In the olden days, they used to say ‘the politics end at the shoreline in times of war’, meaning you stopped sniping and playing gotcha Democrat and gotcha Republican, and you fought a war,” Markel said. “What people like me argue is that in times of a pandemic, which is a different kind of a war, a different type of a crisis, politics have to end with the microbe, and sadly that’s not been the case.”

Markel hopes that if cases and deaths start rising again, the attorney general and governor can petition the court to reconsider the ruling.

Dr. Paula Lantz, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Professor of Public Policy and James B. Hudak Professor of Health Policy at the University of Michigan, contributed to the op-ed as well.

“Masks aren’t perfect, they’re not. But we know that at a population level, if everyone is wearing a mask, we can prevent the transmission of the virus to a certain degree and we can keep those transmission rates low enough that we can have some semblance of almost normal life,” Lantz says.

“The only way we’re going to get through this, before there’s a vaccine, is if we all play our part to keep the transmission rates down,” Lantz reiterated. “We’re going to most easily do that through masks, limiting gathering sizes, physical distancing and density controls, and having some painful but important regulations for gyms, salons, businesses and offices.”

Gov. Whitmer, along with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, filed a motion on Monday asking the court for clarity about when the court’s order goes into place.

The motion specifically asks the Supreme Court for 28 days until the order officially goes into place, which would be October 30, retroactive to the order date on October 2.

Regardless of the Supreme Court ruling, local and state departments with independent enforcement authority can still enforce COVID-19 guidelines.

Oakland County’s Health Officer Leigh-Ann Stafford, for example, ordered that the county’s residents must wear masks or facial coverings when they leave their homes. The order includes any indoor public space, and outdoors when unable to maintain at least six feet of distance from members of one’s household.

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