Virus Outbreak Colorado Schools

Dezirae Espinoza wears a face mask while cradling a tube of cleaning wipes as she waits to enter the building for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic at Garden Place Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in north Denver. All students, visitors and staff are required to wear face coverings while in Denver Public Schools regardless of vaccination status with the start of the school year.

Colorado districts that mandated masks as students returned to schools earlier this summer have a lower cases rates those without a mask requirement, according to data shared Thursday by the state health department.

“Rates tend to be higher in school districts where masks are not in place,” state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said Thursday in a COVID-19 briefing for reporters.

According to the data Herlihy presented, the seven-day rate of cases per 100,000 Coloradans aged 5-17 has been steadily climbing since early summer. Rates in districts both with and without a mandate fluctuated through July and August before a clear line of delineation: the first day of school.

Given the expected lag in data collection and reporting time, a graphic displayed by Herlihy uses Aug. 23 to mark that first day. After that date, signified on the graph in yellow, case rates in districts with mask mandates continued climbing but at nowhere near the rate as districts that do not require masks.

COVID case counts in masked districts vs unmasked

“We see those lines diverge and you see that the lower case rates are associated with districts that are requiring masks in schools, again showing a clear impact that masks are having in decreasing transmission in our school settings,” Herlihy said.

The data covers schools that kicked off their school year between Aug. 16-19 and excludes schools that have changed their masking policies since the start of the school year. In all, Herlihy said the data covered around 38% of public school enrollment.

Herlihy also noted that data dovetailed with vaccination rates among 12-17-year-olds, the youngest age group eligible for the vaccine.

For that age group, Herlihy said, case rates “tend to be higher in those counties where the vaccination rate among those vaccine eligible children is lower.” That matches findings she presented at a COVID-19 briefing early this week on the correlation between vaccinations rates and hospitalization rates for the state as a whole.

State COVID-19 Incident Commander Scott Bookman also provided an update on hospitalizations and hospital capacity, though those data points didn’t show a stark difference from the rates presented at a state COVID-19 briefing earlier this week.

“As Dr. Herlihy talked about with that unstable equilibrium where (cases) go up and down a little bit each day, we seem to be at a similar place with our hospitalizations,” Bookman said, noting the state has been floating between 875 to 900 COVID hospitalizations. “It's still incredibly high, equal to where we were during the first wave in the spring of 2020.”

Bookman also urged those who haven’t yet received a COVID-19 vaccine to put it at thee top of their priority list, highlighting data showing 80% of hospitalizations from COVID-19 stem from those who are not vaccinated.

“I want to really just reiterate that our hospitalizations are a pandemic of the unvaccinated at this point,” he said.

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