San Miguel County’s indoor mask mandate will remain in place as case numbers and spread of the COVID-19 virus continues to concern public health officials. In Wednesday’s weekly update for the Board of County Commissioners (sitting as the board of health), public health director Grace Franklin presented an array of metrics to support upholding the public health order, which would have expired at midnight today (Thursday).
According to a news release issued by the county, “The requirement will be renewed before expiration tomorrow night, Thursday, September 30 at 11:59 pm MST. The public health order is set to expire on Monday, November 1, at 11:59 pm MST with an option for early termination if metrics improve. The requirement will apply to business employees and members of the public who visit public indoor places and for all individuals 2 years of age and older, regardless of vaccination status.”
Current metrics include hospital capacity — “strained” — sample testing at the Telluride Wastewater Treatment Plant — “higher than last fall” — and the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, particularly among the unvaccinated, among other indicators. And among children under 12, who are yet not eligible for a vaccine, the spread is notable.
“Over this last week, we had 18 county residents test positive, primarily on the east end of the county,” Franklin told commissioners Lance Waring and Hilary Cooper (Kris Holstrom was unable to attend). “But we have been seeing a few cases pop up over in the Egnar region. There's been quite a significant increase in disease in Dolores County, particularly Dove Creek, which borders our town of Egnar, and we've seen some spread in that group.”
Franklin said keeping the indoor mask mandate in place “makes sense.”
There were 23 cases reported for the week of Sept. 16-22.
“We haven't really seen a tremendous improvement since when we first implemented our mask order, but we have seen a slight improvement as a whole,” she said. “Our state is on the right trajectory and we're heading in the right direction. And then the CDC put out an MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) this last week about adolescence and spread of COVID in various school settings and really just demonstrating the benefit of mask use in schools, due to the Delta variant and how it's spreading. I feel like over the next few weeks, it makes sense to maintain the indoor public mask order, and really continue to assess our data as it comes through. If we hit a place where our metrics really do level out in a sustainable way, we can reassess.”
Norwood schools superintendent Todd Bittner made a plea for the commissioners to consider bifurcating the county as it was in 2020, saying that the impacts on his students have been notable.
“Personally, I am outside greeting every student coming in with a mask on every day, as is my principal, and, and I will say that it has been a tremendous amount of work,” Bittner said. “The pain it causes me, K through five, to see the emotional despair it puts on some kids why they can't breathe or stop breathing or just the challenges that they're having with mask sand communication and education has been astronomical. I think it's important for everyone to realize that at no point do I disregard the data pieces. I think that they're valid counts and valid measures. I think it's extremely difficult to determine the impact of masks in such a small rural community.”
Bittner suggested imposing the mask mandate on county districts one and two, while leaving the third district exempt, with strong encouragement to exercise personal responsibility. And he said the impact on his students’ mental health was a concern.
“I can tell you the mental health impact that it’s having on my kids in my school, in the general dynamic within the school, it changed immediately when the mask mandate came in,” he said. “I am doing my best to ensure that our children in the Norwood community are taken care of in the best possible way. The mask mandate isn't helping.”
Franklin was sympathetic but noted that stressors of the pandemic are more related to factors such as job loss or sickness.
“I recognize how difficult this is especially when masks are viewed differently in so many different avenues in our county, state, nation. I agree there's a lot of research that shows children and adolescents are experiencing increased behavioral or emotional concerns during this pandemic,” she said. “But I would say that with that mental health experts, there are large studies showing that this has to do with major changes and events, including trauma from the loss or sickness of family members, financial loss and instability … And so from a public health perspective to recognize that it can be uncomfortable and/or causing anxiety to some people to wear masks, but across the board wearing a mask does provide an important layer of protection to prevent the spread of illness, as well as keeping our kids in school.”
She added that about 40 percent of younger people infected are asymptomatic, making mask use a key component in slowing the spread of the virus among each other and potentially to vulnerable family members.
“It’s a really tough balance here,” Franklin said.
Cooper defended the data in extending the mask mandate for the entire county.
“It's really difficult. I know that the community in Norwood thinks that they're unique, and they are unique in many ways,” Cooper said. “However, the science is science. I hear you that it's difficult and that people don't like it.”
Bittner also expressed concerns for his role in enforcing mask mandates in areas where residents are resistant.
“I'm just letting you know, as a superintendent who has listened to superintendents that have had things thrown through their window, they need security to get out of their buildings while they're trying to do what's in the best interest of their communities,” he said. “These are real, honest-to-God struggles that I deal with on a day-to-day basis, and I just need the board to understand this is a real thing.”
Norwood resident and member of that town’s Chamber of Commerce, Nola Svoboda, asked Franklin how many of last week’s under-18 positive cases were vaccinated, what the vaccination status of the two, current hospitalizations, and also what the “current rate of natural immunity” is in the county.
Of the total 33 positive cases in the month of September, among those under 18 years of age, Franklin said, one was vaccinated and one had been partially vaccinated. And among the regional group the West Central Partnership, which is comprised of San Miguel and several surrounding counties, 49 percent of the population is fully vaccinated with a 50 percent rate of immunity, which includes both vaccinated and infected people. Franklin did not have information on the newest hospitalization but noted that one county resident, who has been in ICU for 20 days, is over 70, unvaccinated and has a host of other health issues.
Cooper reminded yesterday’s meeting attendees that the county’s high metrics had drawn attention from state health officials.
“We're currently under a state watch, because of our numbers and we've been staying in that high range, which is one of the reasons we put the mass mandate in place,” she said. “We are using science and medical information, and data that we have collected from a year and a half of this pandemic now. We put the mask mandate in place to prevent disease, to slow disease transmission but we also put it in place because the state came to us and said, ‘You all need to do something about this and you need to take action to mitigate the response. And here are the actions you can take the mass mandate, being the most effective one.’”
For complete information on vaccination clinics, testing and current metrics, visit sanmiguelcountyco.gov.