Eagle County public health director explains last-minute mask order
Heath Harmon acknowledges frustration, says data from Wednesday ‘dramatically different’ than data on Thursday
Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s public health director, spoke publicly Tuesday following his last-minute decision Friday to require students to wear masks in school where large populations of students aren’t eligible for vaccines.
Class started Monday for students in the local district, and Harmon began his comments Tuesday by acknowledging the frustration among parents who didn’t appreciate such short notice on the decision, especially given the fact that the decision ran counter to previous messaging from the school board and the district throughout the summer.
“I hear that loud and clear,” Harmon said. “Making a decision like that doesn’t come lightly to any of us, and I understand the impact that that has given the timing, and certainly the communication.”
Harmon said there have been trust concerns as a result of the decision.
“I don’t know that it matters what side of the decision you’re on. Ultimately, making a decision within 48 hours of a board of education decision that was counter, it just creates a lot of confusion,” he said.
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For those reading email on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, the new public health order requiring masks in school was quite literally a last-minute decision as the email from Eagle County informing citizens of the mask order went out at 4:59 p.m. Friday. Parents from Eagle County Schools received an email from the district at 5:24 p.m. on Friday, a fact that was pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Every voice, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with me in this situation, or any or our commissioners in any other situation, I think it’s incredibly important for us as public officials to hear loud and clear what the concerns are and just share some open discourse when we need to, and agree that we need to move on, at times, for the best of the community,“ Harmon said.
Harmon was clear to state that his name is on the bottom of the health order requiring masks in schools, not Eagle County’s local medical practitioners, behavioral health specialists or school officials.
“I just ask that if you are still concerned, that that is more on my shoulders,” Harmon said.
The comment was met with frustration from community members in attendance as no forum was provided for Harmon to respond to their questions. Residents asked for a procedural alteration allowing for Harmon to respond; board chair Matt Scherr said Harmon would stay to hear questions. As the constituent comment period began and questions began coming in, Scherr asked that the community direct questions to the board rather than Harmon.
“If Heath can easily answer (a question), perhaps at the end of this we can,” Scherr said.
It took about an hour to get through the 16 comments the board received, and as the input session ended, Scherr said there was not enough time for Harmon to respond to questions presented. The Eagle County commissioners also had a 12:30 p.m. meeting scheduled with the Vail Town Council.
Many of the questions were rhetorical questions, but some of the more direct questions included: Were the three people who recently died in Eagle County from coronavirus vaccinated? Can kids talk and be close to each other and hug outside with no mask, but inside they have to wear a mask? How close does a child have to be to another child who is infected to trigger a quarantine requirement? Why has the county not given out free passes to the rec center?
Several parents brought up mental health concerns, saying masks on children could be a final tipping point amid an already concerning situation with mental health in the community.
A local mother brought up a pre-cornonavirus incident at an Eagle County public school when a majority of students in her child’s classroom were out with the flu.
“It was like 24, 26 kids in his class, and at one point, 18 were out with the flu,” she said. “We did not mandate shutdown, we did not mandate masks at the time.”
Before receiving the questions from the community, Harmon spent much of his time allotment discussing the reasons for the late-breaking nature of the order. Following his comments, no questions were posed about that issue.
Harmon said in recent days he learned of three instances where youth under the age of 11 or 12 who were infected with the disease and then transmitted the infection back to other household members.
“So as much as we understood the data, and the transmission modality, and what kids involvement was last summer and going through the school year … these are the first three times, relative to this particular variant, that we’ve seen this locally, where a youth has then been able to transmit or share that infection back with someone else,” Harmon said.
On Thursday morning, working with local health practitioners, Eagle County public health realized there were a number of coronavirus cases that were not being reported into the state system.
“Since June 1, 90 cases had not come into the state surveillance system,” he said.
Fifty of those cases occurred between Aug. 1 and 10, Harmon said.
“It created a pretty significant gap for all of us who are looking at that data,” Harmon said. “The data that we had on Wednesday was dramatically different than the data that we had access to on Thursday.”
Harmon said if schools can prevent transmission from coming in, public health officials can reduce the chances of children needing to quarantine as a result of exposure.
“Children that are not masked are going to get exposed in that environment,” he said. “Not that they necessarily had a choice for that exposure, but then they need to be at home, for 7, 10 or 14 days. And those are rules that we don’t get a chance to make up here locally; that’s not an Eagle County public health rule, this is really the rules that are decided by our state health department and through the guidance of our Centers for Disease Control nationally.”
Among Harmon’s statements was a piece of info which was viewed by at least one commissioner as needing some clarification.
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said despite his name appearing on the order, Harmon alone is not responsible for the public health order. McQueeney said the Eagle Board of County Commissioners is also the county’s public health board, and the decision rests with them, as well.
As far as the statements from community members, “I do believe Heath had some very direct questions he can get to,” McQueeney said.