Watching hospital capacity, Routt County commissioners reject indoor mask mandate

Routt County commissioners unanimously rejected a proposed mask mandate Tuesday, Jan. 4, going against public health officials’ recommendation as local COVID-19 cases reach unprecedented levels.

Acting as the Routt County Board of Health, commissioners said they do not discount the severity of virus or case data from the Routt County Public Health Department, but they felt the high transmission rate and case counts alone were not enough to warrant reinstating masking requirements.

“This decision is about the gravity of issuing a public health order and this significant responsibility that we have as elected officials to utilize that tool only when we believe that it is absolutely necessary,” said Commissioner Beth Melton.

Each commissioner pointed to local hospital capacity as the metric that should govern whether to mandate masks. While the omicron variant is fueling record cases — 410 in the past seven days — that has not impacted UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center enough, in their view, to put a new public health order in place.

Without a motion to consider the proposed order, there was no vote, but each commissioner said they did not support it.

The move diverges from the path Eagle, Summit and Pitkin counties have taken in bringing back mask requirements as omicron surges in those ski resort communities. Each of those counties has a higher incidence rate than Routt County does, despite their mandates.

“Our North Star was the capacity of our health care system, not case counts,” said Commissioner Tim Corrigan. “While I acknowledge that system is being stressed, I have not heard compelling information that it is overwhelmed.”

Hospital capacity

While there have been 577 new cases of COVID-19 in Routt County in the past two weeks — 250 more than the previous two-week high from last January — just one person has been admitted to the hospital locally because of the virus during that span, according to public health.

Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County’s chief medical officer, said the hospital has not seen a surge in admissions for COVID-19 but also noted that hospitalizations are a metric that generally follows cases by a few weeks. Currently, 13 of 69 intensive care beds in Northwest Colorado, about 19%, are available, according to state data.

Still, he said this could be the beginning of another significant challenge for Colorado’s hospital capacity, as some health care systems are starting to see an increase in patients.

“While our local hospital capacity may be adequate, hospitals across the state are full,” said Dr. Laura Sehnert, chief medical officer and emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “While we may have beds locally, if your loved one needs advanced care, there may or may not be a bed to send them to for a higher level of care.”

Sehnert said because it is a small hospital, beds can quickly fill up, but she is hopeful that will not be the case.

Harrington said state modeling suggests the wave of cases from omicron will be relatively brief, likely peaking before the end of January. The severity of the new variant appears to be less than other variants, as well, especially for those who are vaccinated and boosted.

“Vaccines are one of the reasons we can go through a wave like we’re going through right now and not be overwhelmed,” Harrington said.

Divided community

Commissioner Tim Redmond said some constituents have emailed him begging for a mask mandate in the past week. Corrigan said he has gotten so many emails both in support and against that he couldn’t respond to them all.

Public comment lasted nearly 40 minutes during the online meeting with a relatively even mix of people in support and against the mandate, some of them speaking from quarantine after testing positive for the virus.

Alex Kaulbach, director hospitality at Snow Bowl Steamboat, said they canceled a New Year’s Eve party because he feared they wouldn’t be able to host people safely.

“The majority of my staff is currently quarantining despite all the measures we took,” Kaulbach said. “This will help us to maintain our business and keep our business open.”

But Seann Conway, who also works in the local restaurant scene, said he didn’t believe that requiring masks would make a difference.

“I just don’t know what this is going to do,” Conway said. “And then on top of it, the pushback that you get from obviously being a transient tourist town.”

Personal responsibility

Routt County last had a mask mandate in May, and commissioners have consistently resisted reinstating such requirements.

There has been a similar tone from the state level with Gov. Jared Polis saying requirements like masking should be left to local communities.

“We’re in a situation where we have to take personal responsibility,” Redmond said, echoing the sentiment of his fellow commissioners. “I believe that we are capable and need to be personally responsible and take care of ourselves and our fellow man.”

Commissioners said this would not close the book on a mask mandate, though they did not outline a specific plan to revisit the order.

After it was clear the mandate would not be approved, Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said her department was happy to be a resource for the community about current recommendations, and she would keep commissioners updated.

Smith said public health has worked to increase testing locally, especially as rapid tests have disappeared from store shelves.

“I do want to stress to our community that we are not done with this,” Smith said. “Things are changing, and things change rapidly, and we don’t know what next week might bring.”

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