Tri-County Health Department is based in Greenwood Village.

This story first appeared in a Colorado Community Media newspaper. Support CCM’s neighborhood news.

Facing the possibility that the current COVID-19 surge could breach Colorado’s hospital capacity, the public health agency for Adams and Arapahoe counties Monday issued a new indoor mask mandate through at least the end of the year.

Also Monday, Jefferson County Public Health’s board voted 4-1 to pass a new ordinance to require people ages 3 and older to wear masks in public indoor spaces. 

With rates of new coronavirus cases reaching levels not seen since last December — and daily deaths among those with COVID-19 recently hitting numbers higher than they did during the first wave in spring 2020 — coronavirus hospitalizations in Colorado may soon overtake last December’s peak. That mark was 1,847 confirmed COVID patients on Dec. 1, 2020.

The Colorado School of Public Health estimates there’s a 48% chance that hospital demand exceeds 2,000 beds in the next several weeks if coronavirus trends remain on their current trajectory, John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health Department, cited during Monday’s meeting.

Hospital bed capacity in Colorado is now at an “all-time low” compared to other times during the pandemic, Douglas’ presentation said. That’s partly due to patients hospitalized for conditions other than COVID-19, although COVID-specific hospitalizations themselves have been on the rise for months.

Hospital demand was the driving force behind the action by the board of Tri-County Health — which serves Adams and Arapahoe counties and provides certain services in Douglas County — to approve the new mask mandate on Monday.

It applies to all people 2 and older in all public indoor spaces in Adams and Arapahoe with certain exceptions. It will take effect Wednesday.

The decision came on the same day that the Jeffco Public Health board approved a mask mandate.

Denver is also considering implementing a mask mandate, according to Douglas.

Broomfield had discussed it in recent days but had not decided yet, Douglas said.

Boulder and Larimer counties already issued indoor mask mandates in recent months amid rising COVID cases and hospitalizations.

Tri-County’s order will not apply in Douglas County, where the county’s new health department — created amid county leaders’ unhappiness over Tri-County Health’s COVID-safety rules — has authority over countywide public health orders.

During the public comment portion of the Tri-County Health board’s meeting Monday, Gregg McGough, of Arapahoe County, said Tri-County’s actions had been ineffective at controlling the virus.

“Your efforts have sacrificed the economy (and) destroyed education,” said McGough, one of roughly a dozen who spoke against the mandate at the meeting. He added: “Let us get back to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Douglas touched on the question of why Colorado saw such high COVID surges last year despite the state’s now-defunct mask mandate being in effect at the time.

“The answer is masks are not perfect,” Douglas said, calling masks one part of a larger set of strategies to fight the virus. “Frankly, things (in terms of virus spread) didn’t completely shut down when we locked down last spring.”

He noted the “counterfactual,” or what would have happened if Coloradans didn’t have a mandate.

Evidence “suggests that in at least a short period of time, … masking does appear not to be perfect but to help make a difference,” Douglas said.

Melissa Rawsky, of Adams County, said during the public comment period: “I have no question in my mind that if we didn’t have a mask mandate last year, the cases (in the holiday season) would have been much worse.”

Board of health members Julie Mullica, Rosanna Reyes, Julie Schilz, Jan Brainard and Kaia Gallagher voted “yes” in favor of Tri-County issuing the mask mandate, and Thomas Fawell, an Arapahoe County representative, voted “no.”

The public health order will remain in effect through Jan. 2 — and further after that until staffed intensive-care unit bed capacity reaches 10% or greater for 14 consecutive days.

The order is expected to allow owners, operators or managers of public indoor spaces who have implemented vaccination requirements for all individuals entering their space — such as employees, visitors and customers — to request an exception to mask wearing requirements for people in their indoor spaces.

Businesses can choose, but are not required, to implement a vaccine requirement.

Such a policy must require proof of vaccination and result in 95% or more of people in the space being vaccinated, according to the Monday meeting presentation.

Eligible spaces would include one-time events such as weddings or trade shows, a gym or other class held at a certain time of day, a single building or a single organization operating across multiple buildings, or a bar, restaurant or office.

On Nov. 14, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered that anyone who attends certain public, indoor events with 500 or more people in Arapahoe, Adams, Denver and three other metro-Denver counties be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Updated Nov. 23, 2021, at 1:35 p.m.: The initial date given for the peak was incorrect. It has been updated.