Tri-County Health Department — the local public health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — said it plans not to require masks for unvaccinated individuals in schools.
“We strongly encourage mask-wearing in indoor settings for those not fully vaccinated,” John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health, said on July 23. “However, (we) are not planning to require it at this point.”
Then, in light of new data on the Delta coronavirus variant, the federal Centers for Disease Control in late July updated its guidance for fully vaccinated people. The CDC now recommends "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status," according to its website.
Tri-County Health was closely following the release of the updated CDC guidance and was waiting for subsequent comments from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment before offering any additional guidance for the counties in its jurisdiction, Douglas said.
"We have been working with our school districts to achieve optimal in-person learning and prevent transmission of COVID-19 and will continue to do so to help them understand how best to apply this new guidance," Douglas said.
Schools may return with little to no social distancing or mask requirements in August. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released new P-12 school COVID-19 guidelines on July 20, but the new guidance “does not constitute statewide requirements,” a state news release said. Instead, the guidance outlines “best practices” for local governments and school districts.
That means local health agencies — such as Tri-County — and school districts will likely decide for themselves what precautions to enforce.
Tri-County Health will continue to require quarantining of close contacts — those within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more — for anyone exposed to a person with COVID-19 in a non-classroom setting, Douglas said.
But this year, contact tracing is not required in the classroom setting, in order to prioritize in-person learning, Douglas said. Contact tracing is a term for when public health workers notify people that they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
Any standards that school districts or local health officials implement for quarantines are likely to be looser than they were last school year, based on the new state guidance.
In Tri-County’s jurisdiction, students who are exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom will not be required to quarantine from school except in instances that are high risk: unmasked direct contact in sports, choir or with medically fragile students, Douglas said.
“All students and staff that are exposed should still monitor closely for symptoms and are not permitted to attend school if they develop symptoms. Testing, isolation and symptom-screening are still required before symptomatic staff and students can return back to school,” Douglas said.
Individual cases and potential outbreaks of COVID-19 — and all reportable medical conditions — are still required to be reported to public health officials, Douglas said.
Tri-County Health “will monitor cases and work with schools to implement additional mitigation measures such as masking, social distancing, contact-tracing and quarantine in the setting of an outbreak,” Douglas said. “These recommendations will only be required if the outbreak is high risk (or) severe or the school is not participating in the investigation and mitigation.”
For schools, a confirmed outbreak is defined as five or more cases of COVID-19, of which at least one case has had a positive molecular amplification test or antigen test, among students, teachers or staff from separate households with onset within 14 days in a single classroom or activity or other close contact in the school setting — including transportation to or from school and affiliated events, according to the state’s definition.
See more information on Colorado’s updated definition of COVID-19 outbreaks here on page 6.
Alternatives for indoor activities or school events may be recommended or required depending on the severity of an outbreak, Douglas said.
With the new school year only weeks away, Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties are seeing the signs of an upswing in rates of new COVID-19 cases, according to a news release from Tri-County Health Department.
“Two connected factors are responsible for the increase in new cases: individuals who remain unvaccinated and the highly contagious Delta variant,” the health agency wrote in the news release.
In parallel with trends across the U.S. and Colorado, new cases of COVID-19 have increased in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties in the past month, according to Tri-County, which is the local public health agency for the three counties.
“While the overall rates are much lower than they were in April thanks to those who have been fully vaccinated against the virus, this recent increase in cases is concerning especially with school beginning in the next few weeks,” the agency added.
That means local health agencies, such as Tri-County, and school districts will decide for themselves what precautions to enforce.
Tri-County Health will “strongly encourage” mask-wearing in indoor settings for those not fully vaccinated, but the agency is not planning to require it at this point, said John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health.
Cherry Creek School District planned to announce final plans for any COVID-19 precautions the week of July 26, after Colorado Community Media’s press deadline.
Regardless of the new state guidance, state law gives local and state public health officials the authority to implement isolation and quarantines to slow or stop the spread of disease, according to the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the state public-health department.
“Public health officials will work with schools to ensure that these measures are used as needed to protect the health of the employees and students in these settings, which also provides broader protection to the community at large,” the center said in a statement.
But any standards that school districts or local health officials implement for quarantines are likely to be looser than they were last school year, based on the new state guidance.
As of July 22, in Adams County, the seven-day incidence rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people was 69, according to Tri-County’s news release.
That represents an increase of 155% since June 26, according to Tri-County. Arapahoe and Douglas counties have experienced increases of 70% and 65% over the same period, Tri-County said.
The majority of new cases are among individuals who are not fully vaccinated, according to Tri-County. And since March, “95% of individuals hospitalized in our counties had not been fully vaccinated, similar to the pattern being seen across the state and nation,” Tri-County said in the release.
The Delta variant, which is more contagious than the strain circulating last winter and could cause more severe illness according to recent studies, is responsible for approximately 90% of all cases in Colorado, according to Tri-County.
“It is understandable that some people may still have concerns about getting vaccinated after hearing a lot of misinformation on the internet and social media,” Douglas, the health chief, said in the release. “However, the threat from the Delta variant to unvaccinated persons is real, serious and growing, so each day of delay can increase your risk of getting sick from COVID-19. If you’re unsure, talk with your health care provider to help answer questions in the context of your personal health.”
COVID-19 vaccinations are available at many locations nearly every day in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.
Tri-County Health’s COVID-19 vaccines webpage lists clinics by day of the week in a calendar format as well as by location in a map. You can also call Tri-County at 303-220-9200.
Anyone looking for a specific vaccine can sort by type of vaccine here, or text their ZIP code to 438829.
There are also additional opportunities listed on the state’s webpage here.
Individuals can also check with their own doctor, a local clinic, grocery or big-box store, or pharmacy nearby here.
Until a person’s vaccination is complete, Tri-County Health says to wear a mask indoors when around people who are from another household and to stay 6 feet apart from others when out in public, especially indoors.
While more than 70% of adults age 18 and up who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Colorado have been vaccinated, those who have not been vaccinated remain vulnerable to illness, hospitalization and even death, Tri-County noted.
“Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the most effective way to protect yourself against this virus, especially with the more contagious Delta variant circulating,” Douglas said in the release. “Each of the vaccines available are very effective. Everyone 12 and older who can get vaccinated should do so now — for themselves and their families and friends. Vaccinated people also protect those who cannot get vaccinated, such as children under 12 years of age, or those with weaker immune systems for whom vaccine protection may be reduced.”
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