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Local health department calls for statewide mask mandate

State order would carry more weight than regional orders, health director says
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, called on the state of Colorado to issue a statewide mask order amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

San Juan Basin Public Health on Friday called on Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to issue a statewide mask order amid a surge in COVID-19 cases that has resulted in transmission and hospitalization rates comparable to the worst peak of the pandemic.

“This statewide COVID-19 surge is extremely serious and is being driven by the highly transmissible delta variant and hospitalizations among the unvaccinated,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH, in a news release Friday.

She urged residents of Archuleta and La Plata counties to mask up and get the vaccine or a booster dose.

All of Colorado has been declared a high-risk, high-transmission area, she said. “Therefore SJBPH calls on the state of Colorado to enact a statewide mask order to help flatten the curve and save lives,” she said.

Local health departments and governments have the ability to issue their own mask orders – as has Larimer, Boulder, Pitkin and San Miguel counties – but Jollon said a statewide order carries more weight and acknowledges the entire state is experiencing high-risk transmission and shares hospital resources.

Polis has said a statewide mask mandate is unlikely, saying other states such as New Mexico have mask orders but continue to suffer high transmission rates, according to Colorado Public Radio. But Colorado’s COVID-19 case rate is 30% higher than New Mexico, CPR noted.

Jollon said COVID-19 patients can be transferred to any region in the state where there are available hospital beds. As of earlier this week, 1,492 people were hospitalized because of COVID-19, and only 623 hospital beds remained unoccupied across the state. Ninety-five percent of Colorado’s intensive care beds were occupied and 94% of medical and surgical beds were occupied.

“Really, doing this as a state helps all of us ensure we will have the hospital care we need should we get sick or get injured,” Jollon said.

The surge is not limited to Colorado, but is being experienced across the Four Corners, she said.

“We are also seeing this with our neighbors to the south who have provided a lot of information about how high their case rate is and lack of availability of hospital beds,” Jollon said. “With our regional connectivity, this is further reason for our community to take this very seriously.”

As of Monday, only 4% of ICU beds were available in Southwest Colorado, with 24 of 25 beds in use, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Jollon said the surge is likely a seasonal phenomenon. States in the southeastern U.S. had a significant delta wave during the warmer months when people spent more time indoors with air conditioning. Similarly, as temperatures cool in the Rocky Mountain states, people are spending more time indoors where it is warm.

“It appears to be related to people congregating inside due to weather changes and having fewer precautions utilized when we are together inside,” Jollon said.

Colorado experienced a similar wave last year almost to the date, she said.

Masks are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and mask orders are most effective when issued and enforced at a statewide level, Jollon said.

“Statewide public health orders provide consistency and limit confusion among the public,” according to the release issued Friday.

The health department said the statewide mask order should be temporary, and once Colorado makes progress toward flattening the curve and eases pressure on the health care system, the order should allow county or regional jurisdictions to customize and loosen precautions.

Also on Friday, SJBPH reminded residents that children ages 5 to 11 are eligible to receive the vaccine, and booster shot eligibility has been expanded statewide. The health department also commended the state for working to increase monoclonal antibody treatment access, which can reduce hospitalizations.


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