In Colorado, mask mandates become recommendations amid optimism that latest COVID surge is subsiding
While masks will no longer be required in many public places, health officials strongly recommend that people continue to wear them to help curb the spread of coronavirus.
The double spike of coronavirus cases that caused several Colorado counties to enact mask orders late last year is finally in retreat. This has led officials to abandon mandates in Denver, Arapahoe, Adams, and Summit counties this week and, by mid-month, Jefferson and Larimer counties will join them.
“I believe it is the right time to end the requirements based on the positive trends we’re seeing with the Omicron variant,” Larimer County Public Health Director Tom Gonzales said in a statement.
The county’s mandate ends Feb. 12.
Yet while masks will no longer be required in many public places, exceptions will remain in place, including for many schools. And many health officials, including Gonzales, are still strongly recommending that people wear masks to help curb the spread of the virus. That’s because hospitalizations and positive tests are very high.
“Lots of disease transmission still occurring in our community, lots of reasons to continue to be cautious, wear masks, get vaccinated, certainly, and take all of the preventive strategies that you've been using throughout the pandemic seriously for the next few weeks,” the state’s top disease-tracking doctor, epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy, told reporters in a COVID-19 update this week.
The state’s percent positivity rate for tests is 16%. That’s approaching half what it was at its height so far during the omicron surge and about as bad as health officials have ever tracked.
“You have to go all the way back to the beginning of the pandemic, when we had much less testing available, to see percent positivity values this high,” Herlihy said.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also high at 1,162, but much lower than peak levels in recent weeks, all part of a stubbornly long trend of hospitalizations that began in August.
“While it is coming down and while percent positivity and case rates are all heading very much in the right direction, I think it is important to acknowledge how hard our health care workers and first responders on the frontline have been working – the stress that they have been under, the impact of these hospitalizations have had on them,” said Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander.
He went on to echo Herlihy’s recommendations that people continue to wear masks, take precautions, like isolating and testing if they have symptoms, and get vaccinated.
Still, both Bookman and Herlihy expressed optimism about what the pandemic will be like in the months to come. Cases are expected to continue to fall in the weeks and months ahead. Projections from the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health anticipate rising immunity to the virus, SARS-CoV-2. The report, issued about a week ago, adds that approximately 80% of Coloradans will be immune to the omicron variant by mid-February, with a likely lull in cases that could reach into the summer months.
The report does not predict an end to the pandemic. It states that the expected decline in cases in spring and summer “presents a window of opportunity to increase access to testing and KN95 or N95 masks, and to enhance vaccination uptake to prepare for the next surge.”
Officials were asked if the pandemic, which hit hard in early 2020, is becoming endemic — in other words, predictable, even seasonal, like the flu. That’s a possibility, Bookman said.
“It has obviously been an incredibly difficult two years and we all want to move on with our lives,” he said. “So we are looking at short-term and longer-term scenarios and starting to do some planning around how do you live with this virus in more of an endemic environment and endemic just means that it's with us.”
He added that COVID-19 has wild cards, variants that are hard to predict.
“What we do know is that we're going to have to take an assessment of things here and really look at how we've provided services to this pandemic,” Bookman said. “How do we start moving some of this work into the more traditional environments of the health care system while continually being prepared to ramp up and respond to variants of concern that may come up.”