Douglas County’s new health department, less than a month old, is expected to issue its first public health order Friday — to allow parents to exempt their children from the school district’s controversial mask mandate.
The order, which also raises the threshold for what would trigger a quarantine in the classroom, is the culmination of weeks of recriminations between county leaders and public health and school officials over COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools, a fight that last month led Douglas County to end a 55-year partnership with the Tri-County Health Department.
The directive, which was still being drafted Thursday night, will be discussed at the second meeting of the Douglas County board of health, which is scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday. Douglas County Commissioner George Teal confirmed for The Denver Post the substance of the health order even though the details were not available.
The new agency, which was formed just two weeks after Tri-County handed down a Sept. 1 mask order for all students 2 and older, hasn’t even had time to choose an executive director or launch any programs.
But mask mandates for students — those 17 and younger in Douglas County have seen only one death from COVID-19 since the pandemic started 19 months ago — was too much for many parents in this conservative county south of Denver. Teegan Braun, a mother of four from Castle Rock, pulled her children out of the Douglas County School District last year over the mask requirement.
“What we’re asking for is choice — and choice alone,” she said. “We have one (pediatric) death over the course of the entire pandemic, and the case numbers don’t support what’s happening. Our parental authority is not being respected.”
Douglas County this week had nearly 180 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population over a seven-day cumulative period, a rate that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes as high community spread and that triggers its masking guidance. It was outpacing Arapahoe and Adams counties, the other two members of Tri-County, in COVID-19 incidence rate.
J.B. Poplawski, a father of two who lives in Parker, said Douglas County is “following politics” in breaking away from the Tri-County Health Department and overriding the mask order. With the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment all recommending universal indoor masking for teachers, staff members, students and visitors to K-12 schools, the science is clear, he said.
“It’s not ideal when your local health department, which has zero experience, goes against the CDC, the AAP and CDPHE,” Poplawski said. “Not masking increases the likelihood that our kids are going to get sent home to do remote learning.”
In a letter the Douglas County School District sent to parents Oct. 1, it said that even though the county is no longer under Tri-County’s masking order, the district will continue to “require the wearing of facial coverings inside all school buildings.”
“Our focus continues to be on keeping our students and staff in the classroom while navigating the complexities of COVID,” the letter read. “This includes minimizing quarantines and working to avoid school closures and/or transitions to remote learning.”
The state’s top epidemiologist last month said that students in Colorado school districts that declined to institute mask mandates are infected with COVID-19 at higher rates than in districts that have face-covering requirements.
Coronavirus cases among school-aged children between 6 and 17 hover around 300 cases per 100,000 people in school districts that do not require masks, while that number is closer to 250 per 100,000 in districts that require masks, according to state health data.
But Teal, one of two county commissioners serving on the new board of health, said raw COVID-19 case numbers shouldn’t be the trigger for masking an age group that is largely spared the ravages of the respiratory disease.
“We’ve always insisted that severity should be the metric for public health action,” Teal said.
National and state data clearly show COVID-19 is a disease that overwhelmingly targets the old and the sick. COVID-19 deaths among those 18 and younger in the United States — 587 as of Wednesday — are a tiny fraction of the more than 700,000 Americans who have perished from the disease since early 2020, according to the CDC.
Closer to home, CDPHE has tallied 16 COVID-19 deaths among those 17 and younger in Colorado for the entire pandemic — that’s out of nearly 8,000 total COVID-19 deaths in the state. And of the more than 900 people who were hospitalized for COVID-19 during the week of Sept. 19 in Colorado, the most recent week for which data is available, just 24 were children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a recent online update, stated that “it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children.”
“This recognizes the realities of the continuation of the COVID health crisis as possibly being endemic with a severity level that is being mitigated by widespread vaccination of all eligible age groups,” Teal said. “And the data we’ve seen in 19 months show low severity impacts in Douglas County.”
Currently 78% of eligible Douglas County residents have received at least one vaccine dose, with that proportion leaping to 98.7% for the particularly susceptible 65-and-older cohort. An additional 38,000 people in the county have been infected, giving them natural immunity to the virus.
Braun, the Castle Rock mother, said that with all of that data indicating low risk of illness and death for schoolchildren from COVID-19, the benefits of masks as a mitigation tool must be balanced with the impact face coverings have on kids’ mental health and ability to learn properly.
“Your learning cues, your social-emotional cues, your developmental milestones that the kids are missing when half their face is covered,” she said. “When we’re making decisions about masking students and quarantining, who is being hospitalized and who is dying? Are kids getting sick? Absolutely. Are they recovering? Absolutely.”
In guidance the World Health Organization released last year regarding kids and masks, the agency concluded that children 5 and younger “should not wear masks for source control.” For those ages 6 to 11, the WHO said mask use should be tempered by a number of factors, including the “potential impact of mask wearing on learning and psychosocial development.”
Those guidelines were issued before the delta variant, which is a far more contagious version of the virus, began to race across the globe.
Kevin DiPasquale, president of the Douglas County Federation, said his teacher’s union supports full masking in school. Children under age 12 have not been approved for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Schools are recommended to require masks to keep the schools open uninterrupted,” he said. “We support masks for all students to stay in school full time, especially as there is not a vaccine available for all ages.”