State mask mandates are NOT coming, so counties are on their own to decide

Governor Polis
Posted at 8:49 AM, Nov 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-24 10:49:57-05

DENVER — With hospitalizations on the rise in Colorado, some local jurisdictions are taking different approaches to try to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Some counties around the Denver metropolitan area are reinstating mask mandates, as Gov. Jared Polis stands firm on his position of not returning to a statewide order, citing vaccine, booster and testing availability as well as the increase in use of monoclonal antibody treatments.

Larimer County had already moved back to an indoor mask mandate several weeks ago as its hospital numbers climbed.

“Primarily, it was about our hospital situation. Since the end of August, our hospital numbers kept increasing,” said Kori Wilford, the spokesperson for Larimer County’s health department.

The latest mask order went into effect on Oct. 20. Currently, the area hospitals are still at 111% of their usual capacity with more than 108 COVID-19 patients being treated. At their peak, the county has 122 patients at one time, a record it has hit twice since the pandemic began.

Since reinstituting its mask mandate, Wilford says the county’s numbers have started to come down, something she attributes to a combination of masks, the availability of vaccines and boosters for more people and monoclonal antibodies.

She’s happy other counties have decided to make the move back to masks.

“Up and down the Front Range, people don’t just stay in one county, so we really appreciate that neighboring counties have put the order in place. Many is better than just one,” Wilford said.

They will be waiting on their seven-day case rate, percent positivity rate, number of COVID-19 patients and ICU utilizations to decline before lifting the order again.

RELATED: Denver metro counties considering implementing indoor mask mandates this week

Meanwhile, Custer County in southern Colorado also saw a serious increase in recent weeks.

Dr. Clifford Brown, the director of the county’s public health department, says the positivity rates have been higher than the area has seen throughout the pandemic.

“It’s very significant for us to get the numbers down and get people paying attention and doing what they need to do, and, hopefully, we can make it through this Thanksgiving without that kind of deficit spending so to speak,” Brown said.

As of Monday, the two-week positivity rate in the county was above 18%. However, in a county of only 5,000, it takes only several dozen cases to bring the number that high.

The county also has a low vaccination status overall with only 56% of people vaccinated. Brown says that number is significantly higher, though, for the county’s 65 and older population.

Despite the higher COVID-19 numbers, the county is not considering mask orders.

“There is no plan whatsoever for any masking mandates,” Brown said.

Instead, the county is working on reaching out to people, educating them about the latest COVID-19 rates and asking them to be responsible.

Custer County is also getting help from the state in the form of two vans: one for testing and one for vaccines. The testing van comes every Friday to offer people in the area more access. The vaccine bus has given residents more than 500 booster shots already and has given the area access to the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines.

“We’ve never before had access to Pfizer because we didn’t have the money to buy a -80 degree freezer unit, and we have not had J&J because we were too small,” Brown said. “The buses are really what is saving us.”

Despite an unwillingness to return to mask orders, Custer County says its numbers are going down.

As counties come up with their own solutions, Dr. Jonathan Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, says health professionals are still unsure why Colorado’s numbers are climbing.

Samet says the number of unvaccinated Coloradans is certainly sustaining the pandemic, but he has noticed the variations between different regions of the state.

“Looking at the hot spot maps, they tend to be in our more rural areas kind of ringing around the state,” Samet said.

One trend he has noticed among the different counties, though, is that for the most part the infection rate decreases with the proportion of the population that is vaccinated.

He understands the governor’s hesitation to reissue statewide orders because of how different each county is in its COVID-19 rates, and he supports the counties that have returned to their own local mandates.

“To me, that’s a sensible thing to do, that protects people wearing the masks and protects others which is a really important function of masks,” he said.

However, Samet says there are some things that should be statewide or a one-size-fits-all approach, like vaccines. He also insists that the care of ill patients and hospital capacities must be maintained.

“I think we shouldn’t think of Colorado as having an epidemic or pandemic but a whole series of them,” he said.

He worries that people have so much pandemic fatigue that they are planning to go back to celebrating the holidays as usual without taking precautions, which could cause thee positivity rate in the state to increase. He will be keeping a close eye on the numbers in coming weeks to see if that’s the case.

In the meantime, the governor is encouraging people who celebrate Thanksgiving together to get tested, get vaccinated, get their booster and stay home if they are sick.