Eagle County institutes indoor mask mandate to slow spread of COVID-19
Face coverings required for indoor spaces goes into effect
As of noon Wednesday, Eagle County is again under a mask mandate for indoor spaces.
The Eagle County Board of Commissioners, acting as the board of health, issued the mandate in reaction to the omicron variant COVID-19 surge that has hit the community hard during the past week. Eagle County’s incident rate is currently the highest in the state.
On Dec. 20, 185 new cases were reported, and Tuesday added another 111 cases. Those numbers are likely to grow as more test results become available. As of Wednesday morning, the incident rate of COVID-19 in Eagle County is 1,000 per 100,000 of population — the highest it has been since the beginning of the pandemic. In comparison, on Dec. 13, the local incidence rate was 210 per 100,000.
“This is a necessary precaution for our community to slow down ongoing transmission,” said Heath Harmon, director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, during Wednesday’s special meeting.
The news of the new mandate was anticipated. At Tuesday’s Vail Town Council evening meeting, Town Manager Scott Robson said town officials were already preparing for the new public health order.
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Robson said he’d been working with the town’s public information staff on ways to get word out to the public. That information will be posted on outdoor sandwich boards, as well as the town’s electronic message signs.
Robson added that the town is modifying its operating protocols for its roughly 350 employees. Those who can work remotely are encouraged to do so. Those who can’t work remotely, including street maintenance crews, firefighters and police, are being asked to work in small groups to keep any possible infection points as small as possible.
Robson also told council members that Eagle County and state officials have been working to increase the number of vaccination and testing sites around the county.
In Eagle, Vail Health has opened a new testing site at the old Burger King located at the northwest corner of the town’s Interstate 70 Interchange. A bus providing vaccines and boosters is expected to be in Vail as early as Wednesday.
The omicron spike is putting pressure on Vail Health capacity, COVID-19 testing sites and the local work force, Harmon noted. He said the surge began late last week.
In a news release issued Wednesday morning, Eagle County noted “due to the high disease incidence rate, the county’s medical infrastructure is at serious risk of being unable to accommodate individuals seeking medical care, whether due to COVID-19 related illness or other needs requiring hospitalization.” The county release stated that local medical providers report staff shortages, increased hospitalization and a doubling of emergency department visits from this time last year.
“Medical providers have appealed to the state for additional registered nurses, vaccine resources and testing capacity, and those resources are being deployed,” the release states.
During the special board of health meeting, Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health, reported that 22 staff members at the hospital are out with COVID-19. He said the majority of those cases involve members of the hospital’s nursing staff. In response to Vail Health’s request for assistance, 18 nurses are being deployed to the hospital, Lindley said.
Lindley noted the hospital has seen 280 new COVID-19 cases during the past 24 hours — a number that reflects both residents and visitors. That’s another issue fueling the surge, Lindley noted.
“Right now, Vail has close to 100,000 visitors,” Lindley said.
“One of the reasons we wanted to do this (institute a mask mandate) is to meet the needs of the community and the visitors,” said Harmon.
As they discussed instituting the mask mandate — part of a public health order that will run through Jan. 17 — county and public health officials noted it is one tool to combat the latest COVID-19 surge.
“There is not a magic bullet to prevent all possibility of transmission. We are looking at what is most effective,” Harmon said.
Vaccination and booster shots are the most effective tools, he noted. After that, Harmon said, face coverings are the next best option — “what is really key for us is slowing down the spread,” he said.
Harmon added it is still too soon to predict the severity of the latest surge. Typically, hospitalizations are a lagging indicator, but the sheer numbers from the omicron variant are concerning for local health providers.
“Even if omicron is 50% less severe … but if it is twice as as transmittable, at the end of the day it is a wash,” Harmon said.
Harmon said he has received requests from business owners asking for a mandate on face coverings. Many of those requests detailed the struggles businesses are experiencing because of absenteeism. As has been the case since the start of the pandemic, once an individual receives a COVID-19 diagnosis, a 10-day quarantine is recommended.
There was community pushback against a mask mandate at Wednesday’s meeting. The speakers questioned the effectiveness of face coverings in preventing COVID-19 spread.
“What is this really going to do?” asked Grant Smith of Edwards. “This is going to hurt businesses. It’s going to hurt families. It’s going to hurt children.”
“We need to start to focusing on the real things that are affecting our community,” he added, noting that mental health issues, pandemic fatigue and overall wellness are the real concerns, and those issues will not be solved by a mask mandate.
“I think there are business owners who are very opposed to this, and there are business owners that I have talked to in the past few days who are very much in favor of this,” said Chris Romer, executive director of the Vail Valley Partnership.
Romer urged the county to amp up its business communication efforts as it institutes a mask mandate, noting that otherwise, front-line workers end up acting as the mask police.
“It’s very hard to be that,” Romer said.
“I am in support of moving forward with this public health order, not because I think that everyone wearing masks outside of their homes will solve the problem,” offered Commissioner Matt Scherr. “But, this is simply the best we can do with the data we have.”
“We are trying to make decisions based on the data,” Scherr continued. “We are doing this as a community, and we will always have some people who disagree with this approach.”
“There are all types of measures that can be taken, and a mask order is one,” said Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney. “We are trying to find a balance. It is not an easy decision, and I really wish we were in a different place.”
Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry noted that Eagle County hoped to be out of the public health order business by now.
“This is not about power or control. It is not about freedom or religion. It is about finding out what tools are available to keep our community safe,” she said. “I think this tool is something we can do together. We are not fighting each other. We are battling this virus.”
The new public health order and be viewed on the Eagle County website.
Scott Miller contributed reporting from Vail.