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Metro public health agencies urge Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to issue statewide mask mandate, vaccine passports

The group said in a letter that the measures would address the state’s recent COVID surge


A group of metro public health agencies has urged Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to issue a statewide mask mandate and vaccine passports in indoor settings because of a surge in COVID-19 in the state’s hospitals.

The Metro Denver Partnership for Health sent the letter to Polis and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Ryan on Friday. The group includes Boulder County Public Health, the City and County of Broomfield, Denver Public Health and Environment, the Public Health Institute at Denver Health, Jefferson County Public Health and Tri-County Health Department whose directors signed the letter.

The health officials called for requiring proof of vaccination for patrons and staff in indoor areas considered high-risk such as bars, restaurants, gyms, sporting events and other large-group gatherings, and for requiring face coverings for those ages 2 and up in public indoor settings that don’t require vaccine passports.

“Implementing these mitigation strategies is urgently needed, in conjunction with expansion of access to no-cost monoclonal antibody treatments and other actions that relieve the health system, to protect Colorado’s already-compromised hospital capacity,” the letter stated. “These requirements must be statewide, given the statewide nature of Colorado’s shared hospital ecosystem.”

Polis has resisted issuing another statewide mask mandate (the last one mostly ended in May), and in July, had declared Colorado’s state of pandemic emergency over. But case counts in Colorado have since increased and hospitals have warned the latest COVID surge could require medical care to be rationed, as noted in the letter. Polis has said the entire state is now considered high-risk and he encouraged all adults at least six months out from their completed vaccinations to get booster shots.

In an interview with Face of the Nation on Sunday, Polis answered questions about implementing health restrictions by saying businesses have put in their own measures and that COVID-19 is most dangerous to those who are unvaccinated. Last week, he cited New Mexico’s case counts as similar to those in Colorado, despite its mask order.

In a statement to The Denver Post on Tuesday, governor’s office spokesperson Conor Cahill said the governor believes in the science that proves vaccines are the way to end the pandemic.

“We are laser-like focused on increasing vaccinations, scaling the administration of monoclonal therapies and building more hospital capacity,” Cahill wrote. “The governor is always a willing partner to support local actions tailored to local circumstances such as mask policies and was happy to successfully lead a regional approach to make large indoor settings safer.”

He also pointed to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s order amended earlier this week that requires people to show proof of vaccination at unseated indoor events of 500 or more people in six metro Denver counties, starting Nov. 19.

But public health officials from the Metro Denver Partnership for Health argued in their letter that though they agree vaccines are the best way to get out of the pandemic, more is required, especially with lower numbers of vaccinated Coloradans in some parts of the state.

“Mask mandates have been proven effective. The most recent modeling report from the Colorado School of Public Health identifies ‘immediate increases in transmission control measures such as mask wearing’ as a strategy for reducing future hospital demand,” it states. The letter notes that six states have these statewide orders and all of them aside from New Mexico have case rates that are lower than Colorado’s.

Dr. Bill Burman, executive director of the Public Health Institute at Denver Health and former MDPH co-chair, said on Tuesday that it’s always possible to find an example to make a point someone wants to make, but more broadly, the data is clear that masking reduces transmission. Plus, even in countries with high vaccination rates, they are still struggling with transmission of the Delta variant, so this could serve as another measure of prevention, he said.

The agencies’ directors also asked Polis to require vaccines without allowing for regular testing to replace getting them for several sectors across the state, including staff and volunteers in schools and licensed child care settings as well as shelters and other congregate living facilities;  health care providers who don’t already have mandates; and all state, county, city employees, those serving on boards and commissions and elected councils and contractors.

“In addition to the threats to hospital capacity, the current surge more broadly threatens our schools’ abilities to remain open and in-person, our region’s continued economic recovery, and the health and safety of all Coloradans,”  the letter stated. “We urgently request your leadership in responding to this crisis.”

Burman said he hesitates to use the word “crisis,” but it’s warranted with the COVID situation in Colorado. In addition to a shortage of available hospital beds, medical providers are seeing early cases of influenza and more social gatherings are expected with the upcoming holidays and travel.

He believes if the mask and vaccine orders are implemented, Colorado could see a reduction in case counts within two weeks. There are businesses in Colorado already requiring proof of vaccination at their events and it’s been used as a successful intervention around the country and world, Burman said. This type of measure is a way to work with the business community, rather than shutting businesses down, he added.

“No one thinks these are going to be easy steps to take,” he said. “We certainly don’t. But we think they’re necessary.”