Eagle County to lift indoor, high school mask mandate Monday
The mandate will remain in effect through Friday, Jan. 21, for child care centers and schools with preschool to eighth grade students present
Eagle County is making moves to get out of the public health order business — at least for now.
During a meeting Thursday, county commissioners acting as the Board of Health approved public health recommendations to let the current mask mandates expire. The current public health order is set to expire Monday, Jan 17 — and it will for all public indoor spaces, as well as high school students.
However, for child care and school buildings with preschool through eighth grade students, the mandate will remain in effect until the end of day Friday, Jan. 21, for all building students, staff and visitors. At that point, public health will let the mandate officially expire. This mandate has been in affect for pre-k through eighth grade buildings since Aug. 16, 2021.
Public Health will officially make these changes to the current public health order later this week.
“We’ve been talking with our Board of Health about being able to move beyond public health orders and face covering requirements as far back as October. We had conversations again in December, and omicron definitely threw us a curve ball,” said Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director, in a phone interview Thursday.
“At least right now, we continue to see that most indicators with our most recent omicron surge are improving — whether that’s case rates, whether it’s hospitalizations, whether it’s workforce that are coming back in to all of our business sectors,” he added.
By taking a tapered approach in lifting the mandate at schools, Harmon expressed that the hope is it will give schools and families ample time to prepare.
“What we really want to be able to do is ensure that our schools and child care centers have the ability to plan and communicate with parents,” Harmon said. “For families, for parents and teachers, they have a bit more time to plan for vaccinations and boosters. It also gives a little bit more time for the workforce absenteeism that we might be seeing in the education sector to continue to improve.”
In an email Thursday, the school district’s chief communications officer said that the district will follow public health’s updated guidance.
“We will continue to monitor disease spread and implement safety measures as necessary as we did when we returned from our semester break,” Matt Miano wrote. “We also believe that this additional week gives families time to plan.”
Getting out of crisis mode
Following the expiration of these mask mandates, public health still strongly recommends that individuals wear masks in public indoor spaces.
“All things are definitely improving, but I’ll be honest, there’s still a little bit of stress, and our disease rates are still high,” Harmon said. “We want the public to exercise caution, and we still want the public to wear face coverings when they do go into those public indoor settings.”
Harmon added later that just because the county is moving from a requirement to a recommendation, “doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in the effectiveness of masks.”
Even moving forward through the pandemic, public health will recommend the use of masks in public indoor spaces when disease rates are high. This includes supporting businesses that create their own mask policies. For example, Eagle County Government recently instituted a policy that when the case rate rises over 500 cases per 100,000, it will require masks for all employees and visitors.
“We just are moving beyond more for the crisis mode and more into a place of greater stability, and so we felt this was the time to make some of those transitions,” Harmon said.
In moving this direction, Harmon noted that Eagle County is trying to strike a balance between those that want the end of masks and those that feel safer with them.
“We have so many different thoughts and opinions from our community members, and I think with Eagle County government as whole, we are trying our best to find the right balance in meeting all of those competing demands in a way that actually works with the value system of our community,” he said. “We want to do it in a way that actually does bring out community members together versus creating any additional tensions or divisions.”
The end of public health orders, for now
At the Board of Health meeting, the county commissioners expressed some enthusiasm for “getting away from the public mandate business,” as Matt Scherr put it.
However, there is still uncertainty about what the future might hold with COVID-19.
“It’s definitely safe to say we want to move beyond the current public health order,” Harmon said, adding that the mandate was necessary in this case to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and hopefully alleviate the strain on local businesses and resources.
“It’s really important that the community understand, so many of our critical sectors that we rely on to function as a community were being threatened in mid-December, that’s why we implemented that face covering requirement in all of those public indoor settings. And in addition, we were going into the two highest visitor demand weeks, back to back,” he said. “We took those precautions to help mitigate some of the concern and to help be able to manage that emergency situation.”
Moving forward, Harmon said Eagle County Public Health wants to rely on communication, advisories and recommendations, more so than orders.
“It doesn’t mean that we can’t issue a pubic health order, but we definitely want to get to a space where the community has a lot more comfort and stability in terms of how we’re going to respond to either the next wave or the next variant, since this virus is definitely not going away anytime soon,” he said. “But as we move away from an emergency situation, we think it’s important to take that step away from the public health order that was used to help manage through that tougher time.”
In being proactive in the future, immunity will also play a vital role. Currently, 91% of Eagle County’s population has initiated vaccination, Harmon said. This includes 45% of 5 to 11-year-olds, the latest age group to be eligible for vaccination.
While vaccinations are going to be critical in keeping community spread and impacts low, there are additional precaution that can be taken.
“Beyond just the vaccinations, as we do see future waves are coming, we can still rely on a little bit more of that social distancing at times or decreasing the numbers of people that are going to certain gatherings or wearing face coverings when you go into a pubic setting,” Harmon said. “We’re just trying to ensure the community feels pretty confident that there are and will continue to be a number of different precautionary measures that we can take at an individual level or even at a community level. “
Isolation versus quarantine
This also means that things like testing, isolation periods and quarantines will remain essential in limiting the spread of the virus. However, following the CDC’s revised guidance on isolation and quarantine, there has been some community confusion around what this looks like.
“There is a lot of confusion around quarantine and isolation. I’m supportive of the decisions that the CDC has made to shorten isolation and quarantine,” Harmon said. “The revisions to the guidance make sense for our community, a community that has a high vaccination rate.”
That said, the difference between isolation and quarantining is essential to understanding the new guidance.
“Isolation is for someone that has tested positive for COVID-19,” he said. “And quarantine is for someone that has been exposed, is still in an incubation period to develop illness, but has not gotten sick yet. And the whole purpose of quarantine is for those individuals that might develop illness, it’s to reduce the likelihood that they could spread it further to other people since you could actually spread this virus 1-2 days before you develop those symptoms.”
As masks become recommended rather than required in Eagle County, Harmon did also note that “the highest risk exposure is going to be within a household.”
With that being said, it is changing the way it views classroom quarantines to avoid quarantining entire classrooms should one student test positive.
“In the future, without having face coverings being worn as consistently in a classroom, it may create times that there are quarantines, we also have high vaccination rates,” Harmon said. “The reality is if you’re vaccinated, and a classroom exposure occurs, then at this point, you would not be quarantined. But, if you’re in a classroom, you’ve had close contact with somebody that has COVID, you’re not vaccinated, and masks weren’t being worn at all, it is possible you would be quarantined.”
Many public commenters at Thursday’s Board of Health meeting made comments that the lifting of this public health order signified that the end was in sight for the pandemic. However, while Harmon expressed some hope that this was the case, we still have a ways to go.
“I think we’re all hopeful, and there’s absolutely reason to believe that we’re moving toward this virus becoming more endemic,” Harmon said. “But some of the things that we’ll still wait to see is, when we see a temporal pattern that might mirror what we see with influenza, and so you don’t have as many people getting sick, you don’t have as many people needing medical care, or certainly not getting hospitalized, the severity has come down for the majority of the community.”
“Omicron has proven that we haven’t quite reached it, but it may possibly help us get there a little bit faster,” he added.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.