DENVER – Is it time for you to start wearing a mask again in indoor settings following the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
That mostly depends on where you live. And, unfortunately for Coloradans, that guidance covers a a big part of the state, according to the CDC.
In a reversal from guidance issued a little more than two months ago, the federal agency announced Tuesday it was now recommending that fully vaccinated people continue wearing masks in indoor settings in parts of the country where there is “substantial” or “high” transmission of the virus.
The CDC defines “substantial transmission” as 50 or more infections of the novel coronavirus per 100,000 people, which for Colorado not only means Mesa County and other parts of the Western Slope, but also includes some mountain communities and the Denver metro area as well.
The data from the CDC shows 54 out of Colorado’s 64 counties fall within levels of substantial or high transmission, which translates to 84.38% of the state. That’s about in line with the rest of the country, where 85.12% of all U.S. counties show a substantial or high degree of transmission, according to the CDC.
The areas shaded in orange represent substantial transmission while those in red represent high transmission of the virus in the map below. Please note: The map below does not automatically update with new data from the CDC. To view the latest levels of transmission, click here.
As you can see from the map, areas in substantial risk now include all of the Denver metro area, except for Gilpin County, and all of the Western Slope as well as parts of southern Colorado are now labeled as high risk for transmission. Transmission of the virus improves slightly on the Eastern Plains and southeastern Colorado, where a few counties have moderate and low risk of transmission.
The latest announcement from the CDC is not a mandate, and indoor mask requirements are left to the discretion of local public health agencies. So far, no Colorado public health officials have said masks are required in indoor settings and are instead urging the public to get vaccinated.
Here’s what Denver officials and Gov. Jared Polis have said about the latest CDC guidance
While the city of Denver has 58.3 cases per 100,000 people as of July 26, a spokesperson for the city’s department of health and environment told our partners at The Denver Post Tuesday there is no plan to require masks in Denver for the moment.
"Given the recommendation is for high transmission areas, I do not believe anything would change today — given Denver's numbers are still good," a spokesperson for Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement.
On Monday, Hancock told Denver7 his hope was that Denver wouldn't have to go back to old restrictions but added he couldn't completely rule it out.
"We leave everything on the table. The reality is we have to keep our toolbox flush with options to protect the people and that’s what we did last year and that’s what we’ll have to do going forward," Hancock said.
When asked three times on what he thought of the new CDC guidelines and the potential for a mask mandate Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis deflected questions, and instead urged people to get vaccinated.
“Just remember, the mask is not as effective as the vaccine. The vaccine is widely available and is 95% effective," Polis said.
Later in the day, a spokesperson for the governor sent out short statement, reiterating what Polis told Denver7 earlier.
“We are reviewing this new guidance from the CDC. Vaccination is the best protection against COVID-19. Colorado has made the vaccine readily available, and it is free. We encourage all eligible Coloradans to get vaccinated without delay.”
Health experts from the World Health Organization, however, said in late June that vaccination alone wasn’t enough to combat the spread of the delta variant and that other safety measures needed to remain in place to prevent cases from surging and the virus from further mutating, potentially in a way that could evade vaccine protection.
“People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves,” said WHO assistant director-general Dr. Mariangela Simao during a news briefing from Geneva on June 25. “Vaccine alone won’t stop community transmission. People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces, hand hygiene ... the physical distance, avoid crowding. This still continues to be extremely important, even if you’re vaccinated when you have a community transmission ongoing.”
What about schools? Will they require kids to be wearing masks when classes resume?
The CDC also recommended that everyone in K-12 schools wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. That includes students, staff, and visitors.
"Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during Tuesday’s announcement.
Denver7 reached out to several school districts around the metro area, but only two responded to our requests for comment Tuesday.
"We are continuing to work with our health partners to determine what safety protocols will be needed for the 2021-22 school year,” said Will Jones, spokesman for Denver Public Schools. “While we anticipate a return to more normal operations, it is possible that some requirements (such as the use of masks) will continue at the start of the school year.”
Alex Marrero, who recently became the superintendent for DPS, told Denver7 on Monday he expects to decide what the rules will be for wearing masks in about a week.
School officials with Jeffco Public Schools told Denver7 Tuesday they were still “digesting” what the latest guidance from the CDC means “along with everyone else.”
“We were anticipating that the situation was going to be evolving and have been in dialog with Jeffco Public Health, as well as other metro districts, our employee associations, and community,” said Jeffco Public Schools chief communications officer Tammy H. Schiff. “We anticipate making our decisions and informing our community by the end of week. We will be watching the press conference for more information to consider in the mix.”
Why the change in guidance?
The latest guidance from the CDC is in response to new data that shows the highly transmissible delta variant is able to rapidly spread not only among the unvaccinated, but among fully vaccinated people who can spread the virus to others if they become infected with the mutation, something which the WHO warned about more than two weeks ago.
Walensky said during Tuesday’s news conference that recent studies showed vaccinated people who became infected with the more virulent variant showed “indistinguishable” amounts of viral loads from those found in the noses and throats of unvaccinated people.
The data comes from over 100 samples from several states and one other country, according to the Associated Press. Walensky said the study was “concerning enough that we feel like we have to act.”
While vaccines remain highly effective at preventing severe illness and death, a recent study from Israel’s Health Ministry found that efficacy from the Pfizer vaccine in preventing transmission of the delta variant dropped to 39% but still had a 91% efficacy in preventing serious illness.
Data on the efficacy of the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccine isn’t widely available since they weren’t used in countries that were hard hit by the delta variant earlier than the U.S.
On Wednesday, Pfizer announced that a third dose of its COVID-19 vaccine can “strongly” boost protection against the delta variant in a copy of its second-quarter results, but the information cited in the quarterly results has not yet been peer-reviewed or published.
Pfizer says federal regulators would determine whether a booster shot is needed and which populations they would be recommending the third dose to.
As of Wednesday, 71.63% of adults in Colorado have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 69.43% of Coloradans ages 12-15 have received a first dose, and 66.08% of all adults in Colorado are fully vaccinated, per the latest numbers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.