With just four days to go until the first day of school across Jeffco, JCPH Executive Director Dawn Comstock said there was one word that described her feelings about local kids returning to the …
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With just four days to go until the first day of school across Jeffco, JCPH Executive Director Dawn Comstock said there was one word that described her feelings about local kids returning to the classroom: apprehensive.
“That’s how I’m feeling given where we are with the resurgence of COVID due to the Delta variant and the fact that all of those school children less than 12 years of age cannot yet be protected through vaccination,” she said.
After a multi-month decrease that brought the county’s rate of new COVID-19 cases to their lowest point since the start of the pandemic, Comstock said those rates have been steadily rising since July 4. They increased nearly five-fold between July 8 and Aug. 8.
Comstock said data analysis completed by JCPH has “made clear that individuals who are still unvaccinated are driving the pandemic in Jeffco.” In June, when countywide COVID rates were comparatively low, the incidence rate for fully vaccinated was 15.1 per 100,000. For those who were not vaccinated, it was 355.1 per 100,000.
As of Aug. 9, 75.1% of Jeffco residents who are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine had received at least one dose of one.
Comstock notes that the last time Jefferson County was seeing incidence rates above 200 per 100,000, there were a variety of restrictions in place on everything from indoor gatherings and dining to bars. However, nearly all of those restrictions have since been lifted.
“Those unvaccinated individuals are not only threatening the health of everyone else, they are truly threatening our economic recovery and the ability of our school children to return to in-person learning,” she said. “We have to get people vaccinated.”
Schools a concern
As Jeffco students return to school, they will find that some of the COVID-19 requirements they came to know last school year have changed or gone away entirely.
For example, masks are now only required for students ages 3-11 (the age group that cannot yet get vaccinated) while the definition of an outbreak from two or more cases to five or more, which Comstock said will diminish the number of kids in schools who are having to quarantine as a result of classroom outbreaks.
Comstock has said JCPH will continue to enforce quarantines in response to classroom exposures as it has since the start of the pandemic. She said the decision to continue to enforce existing quarantine requirements was because “there is nothing special about exposure in a school versus any other setting” where JCPH would enforce quarantine requirements, which she said it does for a variety of highly-infectious diseases and not just COVID-19.
When a Jeffco resident tests positive for COVID-19 in Jeffco, the law requires that those results must be reported to both JCPH and the state by the lab that conducts the test. JCPH staff then follow up with the person who has tested positive to inform them that they need to isolate and interview them about close contacts they may have had who also need to quarantine.
However, Comstock said that will now follow CDPHE guidance that someone now be considered a “close contact” within the school setting if they were within three feet of an infectious individual for a total of at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. The previous standard was six feet.
Comstock said she has also informed JCPS that this quarantine rule will not apply to students who are vaccinated or unvaccinated students who were wearing a mask at the time of their close contact.
Those changes were implemented because of JCPH’s belief in the effectiveness of masks and vaccinations, she said, before pointing to a recent report produced by Colorado Children’s Hospital based on studies conducted by several agencies that schools that implement universal masking policies experience disease transmission rates of 1-4% while those without mask policies saw rates of 11-27%.
“Those parents that are fighting against masks in school, they may not recognize it but they are endangering our ability to keep those kids in school,” she said. “Because if they are unmasked and they are a close contact we have to quarantine them.”
Unlike last year, quarantine decisions will not be made by individual schools but rather by JCPH, which will notify families and schools of quarantine requirements.
Comstock said JCPH was also gearing back up to resume efforts to bring mobile vaccine clinics to schools using three mobile units that can go up to two schools a day. As of Aug. 13, about 58% of Jeffco residents ages 12-18 were vaccinated, a number which leaves schools vulnerable.
“We’re working with as many of our school partners as possible to make sure it happens for the kids 12 and up now and then that we are also ready to make it happen for the under-12 age group when they are approved to be vaccinated,” she said.
A new focus on employer mandates
As concerns about Delta’s spread have increased throughout the nation, governments and private employers have announced new mandates for their employees for their employees to get vaccinated and/or wear masks at work.
But while both the Federal government, the state of Colorado and the city of Denver are among them, Jeffco so far isn’t.
On Aug. 11, Jefferson County Public Affairs Director Julie Story confirmed to Colorado Community Media that the county does not have any current mask or vaccine requirements for its employees, and is not tracking which employees have and have not been vaccinated.
However, Story also pointed to a statement issued by Jefferson County Public Health on July 27 stating that it is now the county’s recommendation that all residents, regardless of vaccination status, resume wearing masks in indoor spaces.
“That’s been the latest messaging that we have put out to our employees as well,” said Story.
The city of Lakewood, which has the most city employees of any Jeffco municipality, is taking the same approach, city spokeswoman Stacie Oulton said.
“We are following and will continue to follow the guidance of Jefferson County Public Health,” she said in an email to Colorado Community Media. “Given that, we have told employees and visitors that they are strongly encouraged to wear masks indoors regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.”
Other employers, however, are taking more forceful steps. On Aug. 12, SCL Health announced that all of its associates and physicians will be required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1. However, Centura Health, which owns St. Anthony’s Hospital, is not taking that approach a spokesman said.
“Centura is not mandating the vaccine for our caregivers at this point,” said Centura Communications Field Advisor Kevin Massey. “About 80 percent of our 21,000 caregivers have been vaccinated, and we are hopeful that the number will continue to rise.”
Lockheed Martin, Jeffco’s largest employer with around 7,000 employees in the county according to the Jefferson County Economic Council, has said that as of June 1 unvaccinated employees must continue to adhere to masking and social distancing protocols while fully vaccinated employees are exempt from them.
When asked about the possibility of a need for mask or vaccine mandates for Jeffco employees, Comstock said that the spread of the Delta variant means it is no longer enough to “appeal to people’s better angels” and that more must be done to get ahead of the current spike in cases before catastrophe strikes.
“If that means that we have to encourage businesses to encourage vaccination for their employees then we will but I think there is an easier approach,” she said.
“What we absolutely should demand as a society now is anyone who has made a decision not to be vaccinated needs to prove that they are not putting other people at risk...,” she said. “So I would love to see businesses in Jefferson County require their fellow employees prove they are not a risk to their fellow team members or the public by either getting vaccinated or getting tested weekly and showing the proof of that negative test.”
In Comstock’s mind, such an approach would preserve individual choice while greatly decreasing the ability of the virus to spread in workplaces.
“If you really don’t want to get vaccinated, I disagree with you but I’ll respect your opinion only if you prove to me that you are not putting other people at risk,” she said.
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