Board of Health to reconsider indoor masks next week after parent uprising
A recent public pressure campaign on local elected officials questioning the fairness of forcing young children to wear masks in school while adults have to follow more lenient rules appears to have worked.
Pitkin County officials this week called a special meeting of the Board of Health for Feb. 10 specifically to discuss the four-month-old mandatory indoor mask policy — which includes the schools — and to take public comment about it, according to Pitkin County commissioners and Public Health Director Jordana Sabella.
“They have been listening to the public and know this is an issue where the public would like to be heard,” Pitkin County Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said Tuesday during the board’s regular weekly work session. “This is a special meeting of the Board of Health to address this issue is my understanding.”
Parents of young children who live in or go to school in Pitkin County have spoken out recently during public comment periods at Aspen City Council, Pitkin County commissioner and Aspen School District Board meetings about the unfairness of having kids wear masks continually for hours in school when adults are often not required to do the same during other activities, like drinking at bars.
Commissioner Francie Jacober said Tuesday she sympathized with school district officials, under tremendous pressure in a “lose-lose situation,” but felt particularly bad for schoolchildren.
“It’s really sad to think that everybody can go to these Super Bowl events but these kids 2 to 11 have to wear masks all the time,” Jacober said. “It’s heartbreaking to me.”
Sabella said she and her staff will inform health board members of the current COVID-19 situation in the county, but also talk about “the impact face mask-wearing might have on individuals in a school setting.” Revising the metrics that trigger the indoor mask mandate also will be on the table during the Feb. 10 meeting, she said.
“We’ve been watching the omicron wave very carefully,” Sabella said Tuesday. “We’ve had comments in favor of continuing the mask mandate as long as the necessity is there as well as comments to end it now. Our number one goal is to keep kids in school.”
Public comment will be taken at the virtual Board of Health meeting Feb. 10, though comments can also be submitted in writing prior to the meeting at PitkinCounty.com/bohpubliccomment.
The Board of Health voted to require face masks in all Pitkin County schools and child care facilities for those over the age of 2 on Aug. 12 during the delta COVID-19 wave. About a month later — on Sept. 16 — the board required face masks for everyone ages 2 and older in all indoor settings regardless of vaccination status, and it’s been that way for the past four months.
In September, board members gasped at the county’s incidence rate, which was 298 per 100,000 people and included 61 new cases of COVID-19 among residents in a recent seven-day period.
Omicron has since blown away those numbers.
Pitkin County’s weekly incidence rate this winter was measured in the thousands, while the weekly case counts ticked into the hundreds. Just two weeks ago, on Jan. 18, the incidence rate per 100,000 people in Pitkin County was 1,375, and 239 county residents tested positive for COVID-19 in the preceding seven-day period, according to Pitkin County’s online COVID-19 dashboard.
The county’s COVID-19 situation has begun to calm, though the numbers are just beginning to resemble the conditions under which the Board of Health based its September indoor mask mandate. As of Saturday, the county’s incidence rate was down to 373 per 100,000 and the local resident case count for the week prior was 65.
The Board of Health in September said indoor masking must remain in place in the county while the community COVID-19 transmission rate remains within the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of “high” or “substantial.” A high rate of transmission equals an incidence rate of 100 per 100,000 or above, while substantial is a rate of between 50 and 99 per 100,000, according to the CDC.
According to the current public health order, the mask mandate can be eliminated only when the incidence rate drops to “moderate” transmission — an incidence rate between 10 and 49 — or “low,” meaning 10 or fewer per 100,000, for 21 consecutive days. But if the rate rises to the substantial or high rate again for five consecutive days, the indoor mask mandate would go back into effect.
Schools must remain under an indoor mask mandate until the incidence rate drops below 50, and 70% of those in the school building are vaccinated, according to the public health order.
“We’re really trying to come up with metrics about when we can release the mask mandate and lean on other protective strategies we have in the schools,” Sabella said. “The metrics are up for reconsideration.”
Pitkin County Deputy Manager Phyllis Mattice cited state public health officials’ recent prediction that 80% of the population will be immune to omicron by mid-February, as well as Summit County’s recent elimination of its indoor mask mandate as other reasons to reconsider the mask mandate.
“It’s time to talk about it and not wait another month,” Mattice said Tuesday.
The Board of Health previously wasn’t scheduled to meet again until March.
Commissioner Steve Child, who quoted a letter from an Aspen School District counselor requesting reconsideration of mandatory masks in schools, supported the decision to talk about eliminating masks in schools.
“We’ve been getting a lot of letters about that,” he said.
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said she wanted to see health board members outline a road map back to normality to provide community members with something they “can look forward to.”
Commissioner Greg Poschman, also the health board chairman, urged patience all around.
“We know people don’t like masks and don’t want to do this anymore,” he said. “But we’re here to support the data. I think we’re going to (lift the mask mandate) when it’s the right time.”
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