Updated on Aug. 17 at 8:50 a.m.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new recommendation Tuesday that even vaccinated people in counties with high or substantial community transmission of COVID-19 should wear masks while inside public spaces.
The guidance would cover 59 of Colorado’s 64 counties where transmission rates are above 50 new cases per 100,000 residents in a week.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which along with Gov. Jared Polis created a statewide mask mandate last year that led to angry protests and conflicts in some of the same counties that now fall under the CDC recommendation, offered a muted response.
“We are reviewing this new guidance from the CDC,” said a spokeswoman via email. “Vaccination is the best protection against COVID-19. Colorado has made the vaccine readily available, and it is free. We encourage all eligible Coloradans to get vaccinated without delay.”
Gov. Jared Polis has been criticized by some county health officials during the pandemic for being slow to issue or re-issue restrictions when case numbers climb. In a statement late Tuesday, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said the governor's office was reviewing the CDC recommendation, but also reminded counties that they have authority to take action on their own if they consider the rise in transmission a local health emergency.
"Local public health departments are not subsidiaries of CDPHE and each has the ability to enact such measures on its own," Cahill said.
Both populous counties and smaller ones fall under the CDC's new mask recommendation
Based on current transmission rates — which can fluctuate greatly week by week — the CDC recommendation applies to counties as populated as 700,000-person El Paso and as small as Baca, with a population of about 3,500. There are now 59 Colorado counties that meet the criteria the CDC suggests should lead to masks in public indoor spaces even for vaccinated residents.
That wide fluctuation can make Colorado’s map look scarier than it is.
Cheyenne, for example, was in the CDC recommendation because they had two active cases of COVID-19 last week, according to the federal count. That was enough to put the county at 50 per 100,000 residents. Add to that a test positivity rate that rose to 4.35 by the CDC’s count and Cheyenne qualified as a hotspot.
Dr. Kurt Papenfus is an emergency room physician with Keefe Memorial Hospital in Cheyenne Wells, who serves as the Public Health Officer for Cheyenne County.
"We're watching closely for the Delta variant popping up here. Would need that to re-encourage masking indoor with crowds," Papenfus said via text. "Watching Delta working its way west from Missouri along I-70. Otherwise no one wears masks anymore any way … around here we really don't have crowded indoor places."
In El Paso, where just 53.1 percent of eligible residents are vaccinated, according to the state health department, the number of cases uncovered in a week has grown from 59.2 per 100,000 at the end of June to 100.2 per 100,000 residents as of Monday — a substantial change indicating significant community spread among the unvaccinated population.
A spokesperson for El Paso County's health department said they had no plans to institute a mask mandate, but are concerned about rising case rates and hoping more residents will decide to get vaccinated.
"While we do not intend to issue any local mask mandates at this time, we strongly encourage our community to take prevention actions and stay informed," said a statement from Michelle Hewitt of the department. "We want to take this opportunity to remind our community that vaccination is the most powerful tool to protect yourself and your family, increase community-level protection, and end this pandemic."
Just more than five people per day are being admitted to El Paso County hospitals with COVID-19, a number that has remained fairly steady through July.
More than 94 percent of those hospitalized in the state since April 1 had not been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days when they became ill.
Here are the 59 counties in Colorado where the CDC recommends indoor masks for even vaccinated residents, based on their community transmission rate:
- Clear Creek
- El Paso
- Kit Carson
- Las Animas
- La Plata
- Rio Blanco
- Rio Grande
- San Juan
- San Miguel
This list was last updated on Aug. 17 at 8:51 a.m.
The mask recommendation covers all the populous Front Range counties, along with other populous counties like Weld, Pueblo and Mesa.
Dr. John Douglas Jr., executive director of Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, said he thought a mask mandate was unlikely.
"I don't think mandating masking is out of the question," Douglas said. "But honestly, I'd much rather see us use sort of voluntary measures to get vaccination to increase. Because that's the name of the game."
In Mesa County, public information officer Amanda Mayle said in a statement that county also was not considering a mask mandate, but, like El Paso, they hope the CDC recommendation will encourage people to be more cautious.
"We continue to recommend unvaccinated individuals wear a face-covering in public, and with the presence of the Delta variant in our community, continue to urge all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to take precautions in certain settings, specifically indoors or when interacting with groups where vaccination status may be unknown," Mayle said.
Still to be determined is whether grocery stores, malls and individual restaurants or movie theaters might choose to re-introduce mask requirements for patrons.
Unvaccinated people make up the vast majority of Colorado COVID cases
Just more than half of eligible Coloradans have now been fully vaccinated, and unvaccinated residents make up more than 97 percent of the COVID-19 cases Colorado has recorded since Jan. 1.
But that’s of little comfort to parents of children under 12, who are not eligible for vaccines and could be more readily exposed to the virus in counties with high transmission rates.
Summit County, for example, has seen the seven-day average percentage of positive COVID-19 tests there rise during the month of July from under three percent to 10.67, indicating wide community spread of the virus.
Overall, the number of cases reported in Colorado rose by 29 percent from two weeks ago to last week, from 3,243 in the week of July 11 to 4,186 in the week of July 18. That’s far below the 37,408 cases recorded in the worst week of the pandemic in November, but the weekly increase is disconcerting for epidemiologists who emphasize that vaccinations are the way out of the crisis.
Experts say that as long as unvaccinated residents continue to provide hosts for the virus, it has a chance to continue mutating, perhaps one day beyond the reach of current vaccines. That could require a new round of economic disruptions, along with deaths and more hospitalizations while vaccines are reformulated.
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