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'We're running out of options': El Paso County health officials urge mask wearing as COVID-19 cases increase

Posted at 7:17 AM, Jul 14, 2020

COLORADO SPRINGS — El Paso County Public health officials provided an update Tuesday on COVID-19 cases and trends, wrapping up a presentation by urging residents to practice preventative measures and especially wear masks.

El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said the department anticipated a rise in cases as more of the county opened up, but there are concerns with the rate at which the virus is spreading now. Deputy Medical Director Dr. Leon Kelly said Tuesday's discussion is vastly different than previous conversations where discussions of reopening took place.

Kelly said early on, the county underestimated the virus back in March and that masks were not recommended because of this. He said the biggest driver of spread are asymptomatic people and that plans are adjusted as officials learn more about the virus.

A breakdown of mask research presented by Kelly shows masks reduce the spread of the virus and helps increase protection. This explanation comes after Colorado Springs City Council postponed conversations of a mask ordinance, saying more information was needed about the state of COVID-19 from county health officials.

Kelly said "we're running out of options" and that mask wearing, washing your hands and practice social distancing is what can help turn current trends around.

"We need to step it up and we need people to practice the prevention measures for us to maneuver through this pandemic," Wheelan said.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis did not rule out a statewide mask mandate in a news conference Thursday but made clear in his plainest terms yet how he feels about Coloradans and visitors to the state wearing them: “Wear a damn mask!”

On Sunday, he also posted a status on Facebook reiterating the importance of wearing a mask:

Kelly went through other states' actions reacting to increases in COVID-19 cases, such as California, New Mexico, and Florida. Many of the closures, Kelly pointed out, are businesses El Paso County has fought to reopen through variance requests.

"There's nothing special about El Paso County or Colorado that's going to prevent us from going to that same place," he said.

The current 14-day incidence in El Paso County is roughly 103 per 100,000 or 735 new cases in two weeks, according to El Paso County Health. Younger populations, between ages 20 and 29, are seeing an increase in virus cases, but Kelly said a major part that this rise is happening is because they are working in service-industry jobs and that it is up to others to be responsible as well.

Over time, since late June, the county has seen a steady increase in the positivity rate of the virus. Kelly said the county is seeking to stay at or below a 5% positivity rate, but over the last month the county is at a 7% rate.

"These are the things that are in danger if we don't turn things around," Kelly said on the four variances approved for the county. Other things at risk in the county if trends continue are hospital capacity, testing and tracing, in-person learning/school and virus control.

The county health department submitted a mitigation plan to the Colorado Department of Public Health that details steps for the next two weeks the county will take to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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