Pitkin County board votes to end mask mandate starting Feb. 22

Board of Health rules to drop indoor-mask requirements for business, schools after Presidents Day Weekend

Local Tina Babic puts on her mask under her ski helmet in the Silver Queen Gondola plaza in downtown Aspen on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. The Pitkin County Board of Health voted to drop the indoor mask mandates in businesses and schools starting on Feb. 22. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate for both children in schools and adults will end the day after Presidents Day Weekend.

Members of the county’s Board of Health voted unanimously Thursday to drop all local public health orders at 12 a.m. Feb. 22, including the indoor mask mandate.

Based on conversations with school staff, Pitkin County Public Health staff initially recommended that children in schools keep their masks on until March 3. But that idea was shot down Thursday after pleas from parents and the Aspen School District superintendent to treat children like adults and simultaneously drop the mandate for both.

“We need to celebrate as a county and I’m hoping we can all remove our masks at the same time,” said Dr. Christa Gieszl, vice-chair of the Board of Health and also a member of the Aspen Board of Education. “This is cause for celebration.”

Board of Health Chairman Greg Poschman, also a county commissioner, later echoed that sentiment, though he tempered it with hard-won knowledge gained during two years of pandemic ups and downs.

“We should breathe a breath of fresh air,” he said. “But keep that mask handy, … because we can’t predict what’s next.”

Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Madsen, also a health board member, supported ending the indoor mask mandate immediately, and asked why that couldn’t happen.

Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella said immediate dropping of the mandate would hamper schools because they wouldn’t have guidance as to how to proceed. The lack of guidance also would kick in quarantine rules that largely have been avoided through the use of masks, she said.

The state public health department is scheduled to release new school guidance Friday, which is likely to look like a model Eagle County now uses that emphasizes routine disease control measures used for other infectious diseases and emphasizes outbreak control strategies, Sabella said.

In fact, Eagle County’s ending of its indoor mask mandate in mid-January for adults and children has been helpful for Pitkin County moving forward, Sabella said.

“How they’re managing the same high rate of omicron gives us confidence moving in that direction,” she said.

Regardless of Friday’s guidance, however, students at Aspen School District’s three schools will not be required to wear masks indoors come Feb. 22, just like adults in the county, Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh said after Thursday’s health board meeting.

“We’re still recommending wearing masks,” he said. “But if they don’t want to (on Feb. 22), they don’t have to.”

The district is sending out letters asking that staff reach out to human resources and parents communicate with principals about any special needs regarding the end of the indoor mask mandate, Baugh said.

He urged tolerance for those who choose to continue to wear facemasks.

“If someone is wearing a mask, you don’t know why they’re wearing a mask,” Baugh said. “If someone isn’t wearing a mask, you don’t know why they’re not wearing a mask. Let’s be kind.”

Dr. Kim Levin, Pitkin County chief medical officer and a local emergency room physician, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s critical to respect other people,” she said. “You never know a person’s story.”

Pitkin County’s Board of Health instituted a mandatory facemask rule in August for kids in school. The board extended the mandate to everyone over the age of 2 in indoor public settings a month later, and that’s where the in-county situation has remained since.

Health board members had been meeting every month during the pandemic, though they decided to back off that schedule at their January meeting and not meet again until March. That decision didn’t sit well with many local parents, who watched friends dine out, sip cocktails and socialize while their children — especially young children — suffered with masks for hours on end at school and were denied social interactions with their peers.

After recent pleas to local elected officials during regular weekly meetings, the Board of Health called a special meeting for Thursday to address the mask issue as omicron wanes and surrounding communities ditch mask mandates.

Sabella said she met before Thursday’s meeting with representatives from the school district, and the common consensus was that the school would need more time to implement the expected guidance and go maskless. That was the reason behind advocating the March 3 date, she said.

Public comment submitted before Thursday’s meeting showed a disproportional number of local residents wanted to end the indoor mask mandate for both adults and children. Of the 216 comments, 44% wanted to discontinue the mask requirement for children — compared with 12% who wanted to keep it — and 24% wanted to end the requirement for all, with just 6% urging a continued mask mandate, according to statistics presented at the meeting.

Of the 14 people who commented publicly during Thursday’s meeting, just one advocated keeping masks in schools. The rest, who were all parents, cited declining mental health among their children, the unfairness issue compared to adult rules and opinions and studies disputing the efficacy of masks in controlling transmission of COVID-19.

“Children are tortured wearing masks,” said Anna Mari. “Let the children have their freedom back.”

Jennifer Hall said masks cause children to suffer hypoxia and pass out in school.

“I’m one of those people who do not believe masks are effective,” she said, citing 47 studies that came to that conclusion.

Others said they weren’t against masks, but preferred it to be a question of personal or parental choice.

Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist, told board members the omicron wave here began around Nov. 19, crested Jan. 8, and disproportionately affected children. Pediatric COVID-19 cases remained higher Thursday in Pitkin County than adult cases — with the children’s incidence rate at 738 per 100,000 and the adult incidence rate at 315, he said.

However, local public health officials believe they only caught about half of the local omicron cases. That means the actual incidence rate was 1,741 per 100,000 for children and 845 for adults, Vance said.

Vance and his colleagues believe about 42% of children and 39% of adults in Pitkin County have been infected with the omicron variant.

Sabella said the state public health department has indicated that by the end of February, 65% of the population may be infected with omicron.

Epidemiologically, the current question is whether a genetically different “subvariant” of omicron — known in public health circles as “BA.2” — that is expected to become the predominant strain in the next 2-3 weeks can reinfect previous omicron patients, Vance said. The country of Denmark has seen some reinfection, though he said some current modeling indicates low rates of omicron reinfection, he said.

Finally, public health officials expect that COVID-19 vaccines will be approved for children ages 6 months to 4 years by the end of February, Sabella said.

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