Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) told schools last week that they plan to continue testing students for the coronavirus and will use funds received from the federal government for new “whole-of-child” approaches.
The most recent surge, which began in mid-March, “was led by adolescents, aged 10 to 19-years-old,” Dr. Nathasha Bagdasarian, senior public health physician, said in the video and added they were “precipitated by sports teams and social gatherings around youth athletics.”
MDHHS Local Health COVID-19 Testing Manager Daniella Lepar, who led the “Future of Testing” presentation, said Bagdasarian provides “strategic oversight to our testing work.”
Bagdasarian presented a slide that showed K-12 schools had the most outbreaks — 217 — while other sectors repeatedly targeted by Whitmer’s orders, such as restaurants and churches, were only a fraction of those. According to the MDHHS presentation, there were 26 outbreaks from restaurants and bars, and just four from religious services.
Bagdasarian argued transmission was not occurring in classrooms, but rather “extracurricular activities and social events.”
MDHHS floated the idea of providing “support staff to support the schools,” and those individuals will be “invested in the whole health of children in schools” and provide:
- Childhood immunizations
- Mental health support
- Social services and related resources, which Bagdasarian used “kids have adequate nutrition” as an example
- Connection to support for families
Bagdasarian said the intent would be “a whole health approach, rather than just on testing.”
“The key is getting these health resource advocates into the school who can do both: who can support testing, as well as look at the big picture,” Bagdasarian said.
The doctor boasted that Michigan is “the leader in K-12 testing.”
Bagdasarian said weekly testing is currently “recommended” for unvaccinated students, and it is “required” for unvaccinated student athletes. She indicated that would continue, despite Whitmer lifting the coronavirus emergency order.
“We will be relying less upon orders in the future and more upon public health guidance,” she said in the video.
Lepar told viewers MDHHS plans to “place up to 500 health resource advocates across the state” and emphasized the mission is not just testing for and preventing coronavirus spread, but rather a “whole-of-child approach.”
When it came time to field questions from presentation attendees, one asked if this scheme was “required” or “recommended,” and “how folks can address some challenges they’re going to be seeing due to pushback in their areas based on parent concerns on testing and mask wearing.”
Bagdasarian said the state is going to be “relying on public health guidance and informing people about what best practices are,” and will provide “materials” to school districts about “why testing is important.”
Jason Wilkinson, director of COVID-19 testing collections and coordination, said the program is in Whitmer’s budget and is awaiting approval by the Republican-controlled legislature.
“The intent is to get the funding out as soon as we can,” he said. “We just need it released by the legislature and then we want to get it out to the schools so you all can start hiring.”
The goal is to “have people in place” in July or August, and the program funding is for one year, they said.
Wilkinson said the funding coming from the federal government is “about testing and we’re following the guidelines there and we’ve been innovative in opening this up to health resource advocates and having the whole-of-child approach and that’s been approved by the CDC.”
“They know that is our goal,” which he defined as “testing and life” in “a post-pandemic world.”
Event moderator Hannah Hamilton, identified as the department’s COVID-19 testing vulnerable populations liaison, said the agency’s current rules on testing “will continue throughout the remainder of next year, likely.”
The presentation pegged the cost of the program at $300 million. The video was made public by Jayme McElvaney, leader of Let Them Play Michigan, an advocacy group for parents and student-athletes.