As coronavirus infections and hospitalizations continue to climb in Colorado, directors of county public health agencies and other medical leaders have begun urgently calling on Gov. Jared Polis to issue a statewide mask mandate.
Last week, the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials sent a letter to Polis asking for a new order requiring masks be worn in indoor public spaces.
“The current surge of cases in Colorado is threatening the capacity of our health care system, which puts every Coloradan who may experience a health emergency or have routine health care needs at risk and can only be alleviated through statewide action,” the association, which represents county public health directors, wrote in the letter.
The Metro Denver Partnership for Health, which represents every public health department in the Denver metro area except for Douglas County’s, sent a letter to Polis on Friday calling for a statewide mask mandate. The partnership also called for Polis to require proof-of-vaccination at places like bars, restaurants and gyms.
The Colorado Medical Society, which represents doctors in the state, has signed on to a call for a mask mandate, as have a number of specialty medical associations such as the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
San Juan Basin Public Health, which covers La Plata and Archuleta counties in the state’s southwest corner, issued its own call for a statewide mask mandate last week.
“Unfortunately, the high transmission and high hospitalization rate that Colorado is experiencing right now really lends itself to an immediate, proven precaution to lower rates as quickly as we can,” Liane Jollon, the agency’s executive director, said in an interview.
Colorado currently has the seventh-highest coronavirus infection rate and the eighth-highest hospitalization rate in the country, according to The New York Times’ COVID tracker. About 1,500 people are hospitalized in the state with COVID-19, and hospitals are running at about 95% full.
The vocal efforts to get Polis to take aggressive action contrast with the more muted attempts earlier in the current surge and highlight the calamity that many state health leaders believe Colorado is heading toward. Rising infections and hospitalizations picked up speed in the state at the start of November, making it unclear when the current wave might peak.
“If we’re trying to get them to do one thing, it would be to get vaccinated.”
Polis has previously rebuffed calls for a new statewide mask order.
Instead, he has said the state will work to create an additional 500 hospital beds to handle the surge of patients and will also expand availability of monoclonal antibody treatments, which can reduce the risk of hospitalization if given early enough in an infection. He has also declared Colorado to be a place of high risk for exposure to the coronavirus, opening up eligibility for booster shots to all adults.
On Sunday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a new order requiring attendees of large events in the Denver metro area to be vaccinated.
But, because more than 80% of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Colorado are unvaccinated, Polis has said it would be unfair to force those who are vaccinated to mask up again to protect the unvaccinated.
On Friday, Polis played down the possibility of a mask order, saying it would, at best, delay further infections of unvaccinated Coloradans. He said the solution is getting more people vaccinated.
“There’s no question on an individual level a mask can delay when you get COVID,” Polis said. “It’s not going to prevent you from getting COVID, and, when you get COVID, if you’re unvaccinated, it’s going to be just as bad.”
Polis also questioned the impact a mask order would have, pointing to New Mexico, which has a mask order in place and currently has the second-highest infection rate in the country, higher than Colorado’s.
“It’s a little harder to figure out what a mask order does in different areas and what impact that might have,” he said. “One hypothesis is that those who are unvaccinated are the least likely to follow a mask order. And obviously, if we’re trying to get them to do one thing, it would be to get vaccinated.”
Why officials say local mask orders aren’t enough
But, to those health leaders requesting a mask order, Polis’ comments miss the point. Delaying when an unvaccinated person gets COVID could spare hospitals across the state from being overwhelmed at any one time, they say. And, though requiring masks may be annoying to people who are vaccinated, it is more fair than having to delay medical care for them if they show up to a hospital that is too full to treat them.
Local public health officials say they appreciate the state’s efforts to expand booster eligibility and access to monoclonal antibodies. But they said a mask mandate could act quickly to blunt the rise in COVID-19 cases, part of what they call a “layered” approach of short-term and long-term strategies.
“The new requirements announced this weekend are an important step, and we appreciate this initial regional approach, but they are not enough,” Camille Rodriguez, the executive director of Boulder County Public Health, said in a statement. “The current pressure on our hospitals — which is likely to increase as the flu season begins to accelerate — requires stronger statewide leadership and action.”
Boulder is one of a handful of counties across the state with its own mask mandate in place. Polis has said a decision on masking can and should be made by local authorities.
But Jollon, the head of San Juan Basin Public Health, said a statewide mask order would do more. First, she said, it would send a clear message to Coloradans that the situation is dire — a term Polis himself has used to describe the risk to hospitals.
She also said statewide action is needed because of how the state is managing hospital capacity.
Hospitals are currently operating under Tier 3 of the state’s transfer protocol. At that stage — the highest level — patients can be transferred anywhere in the state in order to free up hospital beds where they are needed most and to use available beds wherever they might be. Because of that, even if a county issues a local mask order and reduces its local COVID case rate, its hospitals still might fill to capacity with patients being transferred in from other parts of the state.
“A patchwork of local orders does not necessarily relieve the pressure on any one community hospital system,” she said.
Jollon said she understands the reluctance to issue another mask order. The pandemic has dragged on for nearly two years now. For health care workers and public health leaders, it is beyond exhausting to have another surge in infections that is again threatening the state’s hospital capacity.
But, she said, requiring people to wear masks again is a necessary burden.
“A mask order right now is a small sacrifice after 20, 21 months of being in this pandemic together,” she said. “We’re not asking for it to be a permanent part of precautions. We’re just recognizing that while case rates are so high, we really need layered precautions.”