During a May 14 news conference, Gov. Jared Polis announced a relaxing of the statewide mask order, which after that point required masks unless people could prove they are vaccinated in settings such as prisons and jails, health care facilities, and schools.
The governor's mask executive order expired June 1, according to the governor's office, but its requirements generally lived on through an updated statewide public health order.
Colorado later released another updated public health order that removed state mask requirements for schools and repealed the mandate for school protocols regarding outbreaks and other instances of COVID-19 cases.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released new K-12 school COVID-19 guidelines on July 20, but the new guidance “does not constitute statewide requirements,” a state news release said.
Instead, the guidance outlines “best practices” for local governments and school districts.
The local health agency serving Adams and Arapahoe counties plans to let the local COVID-19 “dial” system expire in the coming days, signaling that the last set of broad — but dormant — coronavirus requirements in a large part of the Denver metro area will soon end.
The change comes as the new school year unfolds, presenting a new test for the coronavirus pandemic in Colorado: Can much of the metro area tamp down hospitalizations and deaths with no broad state mask mandate, no business restrictions, essentially no state-imposed school COVID-19 restrictions and students back in school full-time this fall?
Statewide, hospitalizations have spiked in the last few weeks, jumping from 266 confirmed COVID-19 patients on July 22 to 501 on Aug. 11. Daily deaths among those with COVID-19 in the past several weeks continued to outpace the recent lows seen in March, at times breaking into double digits.
“We do not intend to extend the dial order,” said a statement from Becky O'Guin, a spokesperson for Tri-County Health Department, the local health agency for Adams and Arapahoe.
“We continue to factor incidence (new-case) rate, hospitalizations and deaths in all our decision-making,” O'Guin's statement added.
Many Coloradans likely didn't know the dial system was still in effect: Because the metro area had been operating in “level clear,” restrictions on businesses had been lifted and wouldn't have returned unless coronavirus trends had hit a certain boiling point.
Originally implemented last Sept. 15, Colorado's color-coded COVID-19 dial was the set of restrictions counties had to follow based on the local spread of the virus. The system affected capacity at restaurants, other businesses, indoor and outdoor events, and other settings.
Although the state's dial system expired in mid-April, local health agencies in the Denver metro area extended the dial system locally as a rise in virus cases and the continued spread of COVID-19 variants kept health officials worried.
Then, as of May 16, several metro counties were operating in what they call “level clear,” generally with no local restrictions.
In Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, for example, level clear was to continue in the past few months unless hospitalizations triggered a “snapback provision,” where restrictions would return if a county exceeded 2 hospital admissions per 100,000 residents, measured a certain way over a 14-day period.
But hospitalizations, at least in Adams and Arapahoe, never reached high enough to bring restrictions back.
Now, Tri-County Health plans to let the local dial system expire in Adams and Arapahoe in the coming days, signaling that at least some other Denver-area counties could drop the dial as well. Boulder and Broomfield counties also entered level clear in May. Along with Jefferson, the counties are all members in the Metro Denver Partnership for Health.
That includes Douglas County by way of Tri-County Health’s membership, although Douglas had opted out of the local dial system.
Jefferson County Public Health announced plans to extend its dial order for one month, spokesperson Ashley Sever said on Aug. 13.
“The county will remain in the observation period for a bit longer,” Sever said, referring to level clear.
Jefferson County Public Health was “closely watching the rapid increase in 14-day hospitalization rate in Jeffco” as the agency considered an extension, Sever said.
Denver said in mid-May through a spokesperson that it was “planning to meet level clear standards,” and the city issued a public health order that took effect May 16.
“Denver is lifting capacity limits and distancing requirements in nearly all settings,” the city said in a May 14 news release.
Denver did use the “level clear” tag at one point, but it later stopped using the dial terminology. The city’s latest public health order, dated Aug. 2, doesn’t mention capacity restrictions.
The Boulder and Broomfield public health departments hadn’t yet responded for comment as of Aug. 12 about whether they plan to let the dial expire in their counties.
In late July, the Colorado public-health department released new K-12 school guidelines that left the choice of whether to require masks up to school districts — and across the metro area, school mask rules now vary widely. Some districts didn't mandate masks, and others are requiring them for vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike.
Asked whether a lack of masks in full-time in-person classes would lead to greater coronavirus spread in the broader community, Tri-County responded:
“In an environment where people (and) students are unvaccinated, COVID-19 will spread. That is the nature of this virus, and the Delta (variant) makes that even more concerning. We continue to work with our school districts in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties to prioritize in-person learning and institute prevention strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
In March, John Douglas, head of Tri-County Health, said he thinks it's unlikely that a return to full-time in-person schooling would affect virus spread in the surrounding communities, especially because many teachers had been vaccinated.
“There haven't been too many reports where schools drive community transmission — it seems to be virtually the opposite,” Douglas said at the time.
Douglas pointed to a then-recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reiterated that schools have low rates of COVID-19 transmission.
The information “has continued to reinforce that notion” that schools are safe, under the circumstances, if they adhere to safety precautions, Douglas had said.
Among some other steps for limiting COVID-19 spread, the CDC says schools should implement the following strategies:
• Promoting COVID-19 vaccination.
• “Consistent and correct” use of masks.
• Physical distancing among people who are not fully vaccinated.
• Improving ventilation.
But now, many schools across the metro area will see students return with no requirements for masks in school buildings, and it's unclear how much physical distancing will take place with students able to attend class full-time.
Asked whether Tri-County Health is confident that schools have optimal ventilation systems to mitigate COVID spread, the health agency said in its statement: “This is not something we have evaluated with each school or school district and therefore cannot comment on our confidence in ventilation systems.”
The agency emphasized that all students over the age of 2 years are required to wear masks on school buses, in alignment with the CDC's requirement for masks on public transportation.
The Colorado public-health department's new K-12 school COVID-19 guidance “does not constitute statewide requirements,” a state news release said. Instead, the guidance outlines “best practices” for local governments and school districts.
Tri-County Health in late July announced it recommends that “all persons wear masks in school settings regardless of vaccination status and, as long as we have rising rates of community transmission, that everyone including fully vaccinated persons wear a mask in public indoor settings,” according to a news release.
In light of new data on the Delta coronavirus variant, the CDC in late July updated its guidance for fully vaccinated people. The CDC now recommends "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status," according to its website.
The CDC's change in guidance was based on surges in infection due to the Delta variant in many parts of the United States, as well as evolving understanding of vaccinated persons' ability to transmit Delta infection and slowing rates of vaccination, according to the Tri-County news release.
Tri-County Health officials are “seeing promising trends in the 12-and-up vaccination rates in all three counties,” the agency's statement said. As of Aug. 10, 72.9% of the counties' 12-plus population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Among the 12-to-15 age group, specifically, in Adams, 47.8% had initiated or completed the vaccination process, compared with 56.2% in Arapahoe and 55.5% in Douglas, according to Tri-County data. For the 16-to-17 age group, Adams stood at 57.6%, Arapahoe at 66.1% and Douglas at 67.2%.
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