COVID Divide in Colorado Widens With New Health Orders

COVID-19 rules in Denver are considerably more restrictive than those in many other parts of the state.
COVID-19 rules in Denver are considerably more restrictive than those in many other parts of the state. 9News via YouTube
Troubling statistics from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regarding COVID-19, including a hospitalization total for August 16 that was the highest since January, have prompted new actions by a number of local agencies, including the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, Jefferson County Public Health and the Tri-County Health Department.

These actions have already created some controversy, and in less urban parts of the state, including counties with woefully low vaccination rates, health officials have not made similar moves. And while Governor Jared Polis put forward a new request to the State Board of Health related to mandatory vaccinations in high-risk settings on August 17, he has not made any indication that he'll expand that request.

The new Denver Department of Public Health and Environment order, which goes into effect today, August 18, requires face coverings in all schools and child-care facilities within city limits for everyone age two and older when indoors. The DDPHE allows exceptions only for "people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or otherwise living with a disability where fully observing facial expressions is essential to communication," as well as "individuals who must temporarily remove a face covering for identification purposes" and "individuals who are actively engaged in a public safety role, such as law enforcement, firefighters or emergency medical personnel." The order has no expiration date and may be amended based on case and vaccination rates in Denver.

"While it’s imperative that all eligible people continue to get vaccinated, masks add another layer of protection for children, especially those too young to be vaccinated,” states Bob McDonald, the department's executive director, in a release about the new order. "Requiring face coverings in schools and child-care facilities will protect against the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant and will help maintain in person learning this school year."

As of August 17, an order from Jefferson Public Health made masks a requirement for everyone at schools and child-care centers age two and above. Here's a summary:
• Masks for all individuals ages 2+ indoors in all schools, childcares and school-based extracurricular activities
• Implement a COVID-19 testing policy by September 7, 2021, requiring all unvaccinated faculty and staff to be tested weekly throughout the school year
• Implement a COVID-19 testing policy by September 7, 2021, requiring all unvaccinated students and adults participating in school-based extracurricular activities to be tested weekly
• Post signage that masks are required at their facilities (signage provided in the Order)
• Enforcement of quarantine for individuals who are unvaccinated and unmasked when exposed to an individual case, and enforcement of quarantine for all unvaccinated individuals — masked and unmasked — who are exposed in outbreaks
• Enforcement of isolation for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19
• Cooperation in case investigations and contact tracing
• Social distancing of at least six feet when masks are removed as permitted in the Order (e.g., When students are eating and drinking at meal times indoors)
Battle lines over these new Jeffco restrictions have already been drawn. A petition calling for a mask mandate has 1,638 signatures as of early August 18, while a rival petition decrying face coverings for kids has been signed by 423 people.

The Tri-County Health Department, which includes Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, took on the masking-in-schools issue on August 17. Its health order, which has a start date of August 23, calls for masking in schools for students age eleven and younger — the theory being that vaccinations are available for those twelve and older. A motion for universal masking in schools was voted down.

Still, commissioners in Douglas County, who revealed months ago that they plan to end their relationship with Tri-County Health over pandemic safety disagreements, have already announced a desire to opt out of the eleven-and-under rule.

On August 17, Polis sent a letter to the State Board of Health encouraging the panel to "engage in expedited rulemaking to require COVID-19 vaccine for all personnel working directly with Colorado's vulnerable populations and settings where Coloradans receive essential medical care."

The governor wrote: "This is a grave situation as we find ourselves staring down the far more contagious Delta variant and knowing that the estimated 30-40 percent of unvaccinated staff provides too many opportunities for this virus to enter into these facilities. I also know that we all share concerns about this workforce. This workforce has been through so much over the last eighteen months. They are tired and burnt out, and we were experiencing high turnover and staff shortages even before the pandemic arrived on our shores. In order to minimize disruption to the workforce you must take a comprehensive approach to this rulemaking to ensure that if one facility has a vaccine requirement the staff does not leave to go to a facility down the road without a vaccine requirement.

"In Colorado," Polis continued, "many major hospitals have already taken this step, including UCHealth, Banner Health, Denver Health, Children’s Hospital Colorado, SCL Health, Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, National Jewish, Boulder Community Hospital and Kaiser Permanente. Several senior living facilities such as Genesis and Vivage have also instituted a vaccine requirement."

Polis has not drawn such a hard line for schools.  At a press conference last week, he said that the state would only bring the hammer down on districts that ignore masking best practices if outbreaks actually cause facilities to shut their doors entirely. And even in that scenario, he said he'd likely let local leaders opt for universal surveillance — testing each child every day before school starts — if a mask mandate is apt to create a not-so-civil war with parents.

Not that Polis is seeking such a confrontation. Early on August 18, he released a letter to school superintendents and charter school leaders pledging state support for in-person learning in the face of a disease that is thus far refusing to go away.

Click to read the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment's August 17 face-covering order, Governor Jared Polis's letter to the State Board of Health, and his letter to school superintendents.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts