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Eagle County on Friday issued the following press release on mask requirements for the start of the school year next week:
Due to recently acquired data and disease trends, Eagle County Public Health and Environment will issue a Public Health Order requiring masks for students, staff, and visitors while indoors at schools where there are large numbers of youth that are not yet eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 (e.g. k-5, k-8 or k-12). In schools with only youth that are eligible for vaccination (e.g. 9-12 grade), masks will remain recommended given the high rates of vaccination among these age groups.
The order will be relaxed if an entire school reaches an 80% overall vaccination rate or the seven-day incidence rate for Eagle County goes below 50 per 100,000. The order, which only pertains to masks, will be available online and take effect on Monday, Aug.16. Any developments will be communicated in a news release from Eagle County and/or updated on eaglecountycovid.org.
The Delta variant continues to spread locally and across the nation. This week the increased numbers of cases and exposures were significant enough to require masks as a precaution to help keep students in school as start dates approach for many schools next week.
Public Health officials worked closely with leadership from schools throughout Eagle County yesterday evening and throughout Friday, as well as local medical and behavioral health providers to review the recent data and the increasing likelihood that current incidence rates might lead to significant disruptions to students and their education. As a result of those meetings, the group collectively acknowledged that it is necessary to require masks for students and faculty until transmission decreases or a high level of vaccination can be proven at the school level.
“The community goal of keeping our youth in school is still high on our priority list,” said Heath Harmon, Director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment. “With COVID-19 spread as high as it is currently, there will be significant numbers of youth that are testing positive or quarantined as a result of an exposure. If we want to keep our youth in school on a five-day-a-week schedule, masks should be worn while incidence is as high as it is. Reaching a lower incidence or assurance of high vaccination rates at the school level will mean mask usage will become optional.”
Data-driven policy decision
For context, the group of officials and school leaders reviewed the current disease incidence rate compared to this time last year. During the week prior to last year’s school start date, the community incidence rate was 38 cases per 100,000, which is the equivalent of 3 cases being reported each day. With the rise over the past 9 weeks, the current incidence rate is 270 cases per 100,000 or 21 new cases reported each day.
One important difference this year compared to last is the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. Eagle County overall has a high vaccination rate, which also translates into higher rates among the youth that are eligible. Eagle County’s rate for at least one dose for people aged 12 and older is now 85.7%. As of Aug 12, the rates for youth aged 12-15 years is 70.1% and even higher for youth and young adults aged 16-17 (84.4%) and 18-19 (83.7%).
Public Health officials noted that this decision was incredibly difficult given the elevated concerns among community members, both for and against mask requirements. “It has always been our intention to find common ground and consider different perspectives,” said Harmon. “Currently, one of the largest health risks to our youth comes from missing school. We continue to hear from parents and our behavioral health providers that the most important thing we can do is keep youth in schools and ensure they have continued access to extracurricular activities that support their social and emotional needs. This is our common ground and the reason for this action.”
Health and school officials understand that this reversal will cause frustration among some members of the public. They ask that individuals who wish to protest consider the mental health needs of teachers, staff and students to help ensure a smooth opening to the school year. Concerned individuals should consider refraining from protesting at schools and instead do so where these decisions are being made at administrative institutions.