Pikes Peak area school districts are moving ahead with plans to open their schools in a few weeks, but with an eye on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance on masks and state reaction to it.
Less than three weeks ago, CDC officials relaxed their COVID-19 guidelines, saying vaccinated teachers and students did not need to wear masks in school buildings. But the federal health agency reversed itself Tuesday, calling for a return to indoor masking by even vaccinated Americans in areas that have seen a recent increase in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
State and county health officials have recommended that school districts utilize mitigation measures such as masking and distancing, but state officials have not responded to the federal agency's recommendations. El Paso County will not enact a local mask mandate, county health department spokeswoman Michelle Hewitt said Wednesday.
“While we do not intend to issue any local mask mandates at this time, we strongly encourage our community to take prevention actions and stay informed,” Hewitt said, adding the department will continue monitoring COVID-19 data and support business, education and other sectors in implementing prevention measures.
“Our focus has been educating and informing our community," she said. "Part of this includes education on the risks associated with COVID-19. Individuals are encouraged to look at their own personal risk factors and make the decisions they feel most beneficial to their situation.”
Representatives from several districts on Wednesday said they do not plan to delay school openings unless ordered to do so by either the state or county health departments. District 20 is waiting for finalized guidance from the health department before releasing its “Return to School” plan, spokeswoman Allison Cortez said.
Masks will be recommended, but not required, for unvaccinated students in most districts. In accordance with federal law, masks will be required on school buses.
The CDC recommends a number of protective measures in areas with “high” levels of community transmission, including offering screening testing at least once per week for unvaccinated students and staff, and cancelling high-contact sports and extracurricular activities or holding them virtually, unless all participants are fully vaccinated.
Last July, El Paso County Health officials recommended schools delay their first day of classes until at least Aug. 17 because of the increase in new COVID-19 cases. At the time, the rate of positive tests and the seven-day incidence rates were comparable to current numbers in the county.
El Paso County Public Health data early Wednesday afternoon showed the county has recorded 759 new coronavirus cases in the past seven days, pushing the rate up to 105.1 cases per 100,000, a level not seen since early June. The percentage of positive tests is at 6.25%, with 5% being the CDC’s recommended ceiling for communities wishing to resume normal activities. The county’s transmission rate is considered “high” by CDC standards.
“Whenever there is a community spread that ranks as either ‘high’ or ‘substantial’ transmission, everyone should be wearing a mask indoors unless they have a medical reason to not wear one,” Colorado College microbiology professor Phoebe Lostroh said.
The delta variant, which constitutes about 90% of new cases in Colorado, spreads more quickly than the original SARS CoV-2 strain and infected individuals tend to experience symptoms sooner, Lostroh said. Additionally, the CDC reported about 10% of all COVID-19 survivors become “long-haulers” — a term used to describe people who experience lingering health problems after recovering from the acute phase of the illness.
After some initial movement toward a normalcy, people are likely to be resistant to a return to indoor masking. But other states are struggling with high transmission rates and overflowing hospitals, and if Coloradans aren’t careful, they could find themselves in a similar situation, Lostroh said.
“I think leadership, at the state or county level, should require indoor masking — in all public buildings, not just schools — when community transmission is high or substantial,” she said. “I think that’s a good recommendation from the CDC, and we should follow it.”
County and city officials encourage unvaccinated residents to get the inoculated, Hewitt and Colorado Springs spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said, calling it the No. 1 prevention tactic to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Throughout the pandemic, health leaders have said 70% or more of a community population needs to be vaccinated against the disease to achieve herd immunity.
“We applaud the efforts of our community in promoting vaccinations, though we acknowledge we still have work to do,” Hewitt said.
County data, including federal numbers such as vaccines administered at military installations, shows 61.8% of residents 12 and older have had at least one dose and 55.9% have been fully vaccinated.
The pace of vaccination in El Paso County has fallen in recent months, plateauing at 6,000 doses each week over the past three weeks. At the peak of the rush to get vaccinated, more than 38,000 residents were inoculated during one week in April, according to county data.
In addition to getting vaccinated, residents should take a “layered approach” to prevention, such as continuing to wear masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing and remaining at home when ill, Hewitt said.
“It is the combination of all these prevention measures, when practiced together, that provide the highest level of protection,” she said.