Colorado stays course as mask policies get revisited over delta variant
As the delta variant spreads rapidly across the globe, the World Health Organization and a handful of other public health agencies have begun encouraging fully vaccinated people to once again wear masks indoors to protect against COVID-19.
But public health officials at the federal and state levels have not revised their guidance that Coloradans immunized against the coronavirus do not need to wear face coverings in most situations.
Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday that local governments should be the ones making decisions about any changes to mask policies.
“Those masking policies are really intended to protect the unvaccinated,” she said during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “The vaccinated, we believe, still are safe.”
The different views on face coverings, which remain controversial a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, come as the more contagious — and potentially more severe — delta variant of the coronavirus is spreading more widely. The strain makes up at least three-quarters of new COVID-19 cases in Colorado and is spreading so widely in Mesa County that local hospitals have come close to running out of beds in recent weeks.
The state Department of Public Health and Environment did not directly answer The Denver Post’s questions about whether it recommends fully vaccinated Coloradans start wearing masks indoors again.
Instead, a spokeswoman for the agency — who reiterated that it is working with the CDC to monitor transmission of the delta variant in the state — noted that the current statewide mask mandate only requires face coverings in certain settings such as schools and nursing homes for people 12 and older who are unvaccinated.
“Some Coloradans may choose to be more cautious,” Jessica Bralish, spokeswoman for the health department, said in a statement. “Every Coloradan should feel comfortable making the right choices for themselves and weigh their own comfort and risk.”
Colorado lifted its statewide mask mandate in mid-May, with Gov. Jared Polis saying people no longer were required to wear face coverings in most public settings after a similar advisory from the CDC for vaccinated people.
While the guidance for face coverings has not officially changed in Colorado, other governments in the U.S. and across the world are revisiting the topic now that the delta variant is gaining traction.
The Israeli government is requiring masks indoors after data showed that half of the adults infected in an outbreak of the delta variant were fully immunized, The Wall Street Journal reported.
And earlier this week, public health officials in Los Angeles County said they “strongly recommend” residents wear masks in indoor public spaces — even if they are fully vaccinated against the virus.
The delta variant, which was first discovered in India, is more contagious and appears to cause more severe disease and hospitalizations than previous strains.
Measures that can prevent disease spread, such as masks and physical distancing, are needed in communities where there is widespread transmission of the coronavirus and a test positivity rate above the recommended 5% threshold, said Dr. May Chu, professor of clinical epidemiology for the Colorado School of Public Health.
“Even if you are vaccinated, you should (wear masks, physically distance and wash hands) because you still could be infected,” said Chu, who serves on the WHO’s advisory board for infection control. “When in doubt, put it on.”
The COVID-19 vaccines available are still very protective against the coronavirus, including the variants circulating in the community. They also reduce the likelihood a person infected with the virus will have severe illness and need to be hospitalized, according to public health experts.
But data from the United Kingdom shows that the Pfizer shot is slightly less effective against the delta variant compared to previous strains, especially if a person has only received one dose.
In Mesa County, it appears that cases among fully vaccinated people — which are called breakthrough infections — are occurring mostly among older residents, although officials are still collecting demographic data to understand what is happening, said Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health.
Still, breakthrough cases make up only a small portion of cases in the county; most infections and hospitalizations are occurring among people who are unvaccinated or have only received one shot. State public health officials also previously said that it’s expected that there will be more breakthrough infections as more people become inoculated against the virus.
Mesa County also has a low COVID-19 vaccination rate, with only 41% of residents fully inoculated against the virus.
Only 264 of the 7,891 cases of COVID-19 recorded in Mesa County since Jan. 1 were among fully vaccinated residents. And of the 447 hospitalizations, only 24 people were immunized. A majority of the cases — 7,328 — and hospitalizations — 399 — were among unvaccinated residents, according to data from the local health department.
Colorado has not released statewide COVID-19 data that breaks down cases or hospitalizations among vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Outbreaks in Mesa County nursing homes have grown in recent weeks. All residents, workers and visitors have to wear masks in nursing homes regardless of vaccination status, although residents don’t have to wear them when in their rooms.
Mesa County Public Health issued an advisory several weeks ago recommending unvaccinated residents wear masks indoors, avoid crowds, wash their hands, and stay home and get tested if they have symptoms of COVID-19, Kuhr said.
There has been no discussion about advising fully vaccinated residents to wear masks indoors again, Kuhr said, noting that he is inoculated and still wears a mask.
“Being protected is important,” he said. “Once the vaccine was available to everyone, it really is up to each individual to protect themselves the way they see fit.”
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