The last thing the public should be thinking is that the coronavirus pandemic is done, said Dr. John Douglas, the head of Tri-County Health Department, noting that more variants of the virus are likely to rear their heads in the future.
Nonetheless, the Tri-County board of health, under Douglas’ recommendation, voted to let the mask mandates for schools and public indoor places in Adams and Arapahoe counties expire Feb. 5.
Douglas made the recommendation “with the idea that while we badly do not want to go back” to public health orders, the decision would not preclude Tri-County Health from issuing public health orders in the future if needed, he said.
“A fairly dramatic drop has occurred in cases,” said Douglas, also citing that the high rate of omicron infections has led to rising levels of natural immunity. The more-contagious nature of omicron fueled sky-high rates of new cases while at the same time causing less-severe illness than the earlier delta variant.
Against that backdrop, Tri-County’s board of health voted to end the mask mandates at a Jan. 31 meeting. The decision comes on the heels of Denver’s move to allow its mask mandate for most indoor public spaces to expire on Feb. 3.
Even as Colorado continues to see promising news about a decline in its COVID-19 surge, Douglas called attention to the rise of a variant related to omicron in Denmark, known as BA.2.
“BA.2 has come into Denmark and caused a fairly big change,” Douglas said, noting that the variant is probably affected by vaccines.
Danish health officials estimate that BA.2 may be 1.5 times more transmissible than the original omicron variant, based on preliminary data, though it likely does not cause more severe disease, the Reuters news agency reported.
And if omicron immunity protects against BA.2 — which is not yet clear — the Tri-County area would be unlikely to experience a BA.2 surge, Douglas said.
“In the future, we may be dealing with something that’s even more deadly than delta,” board of health member Thomas Fawell said during the meeting.
The most recent data-modeling report from the Colorado School of Public Health estimates that 42% of all Coloradans have already been infected with omicron and that 78% of residents have omicron-specific immunity due to either infection or vaccination, according to a Tri-County Health news release.
While “natural immunity may not last as long as that from vaccines, it will likely last at least three months, providing a bridge to the warmer months of the year when COVID-19 transmission is less of a risk,” Tri-County wrote in the release.
Douglas told Colorado Community Media that it’s unclear whether prior COVID infection will guarantee immunity to future variants.
“We can’t be certain that prior infection with any particular variant will protect against future ones, which is why we think that up-to-date vaccination — which is more likely to have broader protection — is so important,” Douglas said.
Not abandoning masks
Tri-County’s reason for moving to end its mask mandates was not because masks aren’t working, Douglas emphasized.
“We’re going to continue to recommend mask use per CDC and CDPHE guidance during times of high transmission,” Douglas said. Mask use may still be needed for people who are particularly vulnerable to illness from COVID, Douglas’ presentation added.
“I think it made sense for public health departments to do the admittedly unpopular things that we’ve done,” said Douglas, adding that he feels the pandemic is getting close enough to the point when it’s safe to drop the mandates.
Tri-County Health in November issued its most recent indoor mask mandate. The public health order was to 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 10% ICU capacity mark was to be considered at a regional level because “no county is an island in terms of its hospitals,” Douglas said in November.
Tri-County was watching data in the North Central Region that covers Adams and Arapahoe counties, according to a news release. The North Central Region is one of 10 emergency preparedness regions in Colorado, Douglas said during the Jan. 31 meeting.
“We have not yet hit the greater than 10% capacity for 14 straight days yet, but we have since Jan. 16 begun to see the greatest sustained increase in hospital capacity since we began using this metric just before Thanksgiving,” Douglas said.
When Tri-County set up that metric, the region was in the middle of the delta wave of COVID, when hospitalization data was more significant. The relationship between ICU capacity and what’s happening with COVID in communities is now less tight because omicron typically causes less-severe illness, Douglas said.
“More and more, the ICU capacity is being filled up by folks with non-COVID illness,” Douglas said.
Concerns about vulnerable students
Tri-County has worked closely with school districts to ensure they have capacity to implement a range of prevention measures to accommodate students who are at higher risk of illness from COVID and to minimize disruptions to in-person learning, Douglas said in the Jan. 31 news release.
Chris Gdowski, superintendent of Adams 12 Five Star Schools, noted that public schools typically serve students who have significant health impairments, so his school district has experience working with families of students who have health needs.
For example, the school district often makes seating adjustments when students have a peanut allergy, Gdowski said during Tri-County’s meeting, and the district may take similar steps for people who are at high COVID risk.
He pointed to the district’s supply of KN95 masks as another tool that could protect those students.
“We have lots of portable air filtration systems that we can either sit the student close to or move them close to,” Gdowski added.
Even amid Tri-County’s ending of mask requirements, schools are still subject to a federal order for students to wear masks on buses, Gdowski noted.
Tri-County’s most recent school mask mandate, an order requiring masks for all people age 2 and older in schools and child-care settings in Adams and Arapahoe, took effect on Sept. 1.
Tri-County's broader mask mandate applied in public indoor places, such as event spaces and businesses. The mask mandate applied to all people age 2 and older in all public indoor spaces in Adams and Arapahoe. It took effect in late November.