Why the Last Colorado Place You'd Expect to Order a COVID Mask Mandate Just Did

Outside UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, one of Larimer County's largest medical facilities.
Outside UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, one of Larimer County's largest medical facilities. Google Maps
Larimer County is among the most conservative places in Colorado, and the antipathy with which a significant portion of the populace rebelled against COVID-19 mask mandates has seemingly grown over time. Yet even as public-health officials in GOP-friendly Douglas County are loosening face-covering rules as part of a blatantly political process, their Larimer County peers have announced that new masking requirements will go into effect on Wednesday, October 20.

County residents shouldn't feel blindsided by this decision. On October 9, the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment issued an alert headlined "Larimer County Health Officials Concerned About High Levels of COVID-19 Hospitalizations and the Risk of Additional RSV and Influenza Hospitalizations." The notice pointed out that department personnel were bracing for a COVID-19 surge in conjunction with an anticipated rise in cases of influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV. Meanwhile, medical facilities were already at or near their capacity because of COVID cases. On July 14, ten people were hospitalized in Larimer County with the disease; on October 9, that number had grown to 86. Moreover, 26 Larimer County residents died of COVID between September 1 and October 9.

A quote from Larimer County Public Health Director Tom Gonzales underscored the increasing desperation of the situation. "Once again, I am pleading with our residents to take the situation with our hospital capacity seriously," he said. "Our heroic health-care providers have not had any relief from the pandemic for many weeks now. We are facing the potential for hospitals to become even more overwhelmed during the fall and winter. Now is the time to get your preventative shots to help minimize the impacts of these viruses."

Apparently, not enough people took this advice, because on Friday, October 15, the LCDHE announced that as of midnight leading into October 20, a public-health order would be imposed calling for "mask-wearing in all public indoor spaces for all individuals three years and older regardless of vaccination status." The mandate for business, schools and more will remain in place until the county is at a "medium" risk score on the Larimer County COVID-19 dashboard for 21 consecutive days in four categories: fewer than 65 COVID patients in Larimer County hospitals; intensive-care unit utilization below 90 percent of "usual and customary levels"; a seven-day case rate of lower than 300 per 100,000 people; and a seven-day positivity rate of below 10 percent.

As of today, October 18, this standard is holding in two of these categories: The seven-day case rate per 100,000 is at 232, and the seven-day test-positive percentage is at 8.4 percent. But right now, 91 COVID patients are hospitalized, and ICU utilization is at 105 percent.

Weekly hospital and ICU admissions tracked on the dashboard show how the problem has been building. For the week starting Monday, September 27, the most recent for which statistics are available, Larimer County hospital admissions for COVID included five for patients between 18 and 39, 8 for those between 40 and 49, 12 for those between 50 and 59, 10 for those between 60 and 69, and a stunning 23 for individuals 70 and older. Weekly ICU admissions for that week, meanwhile, included one patient between 18 and 29, three between 40 and 49, two between 50 and 59, four between 60 and 69, and two for those 70 and older.

Adding to the concern is Larimer County's mediocre vaccination rate. As of October 18, 64.9 percent of eligible residents have received their first dose and 61.4 percent are deemed fully protected. The statewide averages on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's COVID-19 vaccination data dashboard currently stand at 77.82 percent for the first dose and 71.57 percent for full protection.

The ICU situation for Colorado as a whole isn't quite as dire, but close. The CDPHE's COVID data dashboard shows that 1,508 of the state's 1,647 intensive-care unit beds were occupied on October 13, the most recent date for which data is available. That means availability of just 139 ICU beds for the entire state, or 8 percent of capacity.

Governor Jared Polis is addressing this situation in an indirect way at 12:30 p.m. today, when he is scheduled to emphasize the importance of Coloradans signing up for flu shots by getting jabbed on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol alongside Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera and assorted members of the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, Larimer County businesses are prepping for a return to masking in the last place many residents expected to see such regulations again.
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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