Don’t Throw Away Your Mask Yet: New CDC Recommendation Won’t Immediately Impact Colorado

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Keystone Resort has opened for the winter, with face mask and keep social distancing rules in place during the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.

Editor's Note: On Friday, May 14, Gov. Polis followed the CDC's guidelines and effectively ended the statewide mask mandate for people who are fully vaccinated. Here's the latest information on that. Our original story continues below.

Colorado health officials reacted cautiously to new federal guidance on mask wearing, making no immediate declarations about how, or if, it will change anything in the current state order still requiring masks in some indoor settings.

But it may not be long before changes come to Colorado.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that anyone who is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should feel comfortable to remove their mask in all settings, indoors or outside.

And while a maskless President Joe Biden cheered the new guidance, he also took no immediate action to change any of the federal mask mandates on planes and other regulated forms of transportation or in federal buildings.

The same was true in Colorado, where a state executive order allows masks to be removed indoors when 80 percent or more of the people inside are vaccinated, but still requires them in schools, childcare facilities and some other public areas.

That current order is set to expire in early June, but a change could come sooner in response to the CDC's latest advice.

In an email to CPR News, Shelby Wieman, a spokeswoman for Polis, said the state would update its mask order "to follow CDC guidance shortly.”

The new CDC guidance was not even mentioned in a presentation by officials from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and only acknowledged in response to reporter questions.

State Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eric France said he and Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s epidemiologist, had expected the CDC action, but have not yet had a chance to review it or make any possible recommendations for changes to Gov. Jared Polis’s executive order still requiring masks in some indoor settings.

“Every Coloradan should assess their level of comfort with the risk of being exposed,” France said. “I’m certain when we have a chance to review this, we’ll look at how it impacts our Colorado mask recommendations.”

France though said it would likely just be a matter of days before health officials had reviewed the CDC guidance and made recommendations to Polis. The governor has been anxious to return the state's economy to normal and the CDC has now given him an opening based in science.

The new CDC guidance's potential effect

The change in CDC guidance is a big step toward putting the nation on a path to a place where COVID-19 becomes a binary choice for most - you will either get vaccinated, or you will catch the disease. That could put some people who are immunocompromised and feel they should not get the vaccine or others who have concerns about vaccines in a difficult position.

It also could mean that, with no secure proof that an individual has been vaccinated, and little or no enforcement throughout the pandemic, many public facilities will treat mask wearing with the honor system. Anyone who has not been vaccinated but worries about COVID-19 and chooses to wear a mask will have to either avoid public events, be exceptionally cautious or hope that others who have not been vaccinated won’t cheat at concerts, sports events or other public gatherings and workplaces.

It will also serve to encourage more people to get vaccinated so they can resume their pre-pandemic lives, and Biden said as much in a press briefing of his own Thursday.

“The safest thing for the country is for everyone to get vaccinated,” Biden said.

How COVID is trending in Colorado

Many counties across the state, including Jeffco on Thursday, have announced they are soon moving to what is called “Level Clear” on the state’s former COVID-19 dial. At that level, there are no capacity restrictions in offices, bars, restaurants or other gathering places, though the statewide mask order remains in effect.

That’s happening even as Colorado’s case numbers remain elevated compared to neighboring states and more than 600 people remain hospitalized with COVID-19.

But in the last two weeks, case rates have finally started to fall and in the last two days hospitalizations have also started to slowly come down. France said he was becoming increasingly confident in seeing the virus largely suppressed over the summer, and he was focusing his planning now on a possible fall resurgence.

“I’m hopeful with the numbers coming down that any risks of going to the next level down (on the dial) will be small,” France said.

Herlihy added that she believed Colorado still has a “decent shot” of getting 70 percent of residents vaccinated, which could provide herd immunity from the virus that causes COVID-19. That would be helpful, but given that Colorado is not an island, would not guarantee the illness would not resurface later in the year.

Herlihy also offered perhaps the rosiest pandemic update since the crisis began more than a year ago. She said Colorado is now seeing a clear decline in cases and rates are going down across age groups. She said though hospitalizations are still high, they are also showing signs of decline.

The good news comes against the backdrop of steadily growing vaccination numbers, with Colorado now crossing over the five million doses administered threshold.