Update: Public Health tells commissioners COVID numbers are not sustainable

Cases are surging in El Paso County, but commissioners say they’ll rely on actions taken by citizens to correct it.

By Pam Zubeck

Editor’s note:
County spokesman Ryan Parsell responded to this daily claiming County Commissioners are empowered to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

In an email, Parsell said:

“In your article you state that ‘commissioners took no action to impose stricter guidelines, such as wearing masks, or scaling back numbers of people allowed to gather in churches, business, and other settings.’ This is flawed and inaccurate for a number of reasons.

“First, the Board has no statutory authority to impose any of the restrictions you listed. That authority is vested in Public Health, state or local, and the Governor. Cities also have the authority to mandate masks. County Commissioners do not.

“Additionally, even if the Board could have taken action, no action items were noticed prior to the meeting, so anything you wanted them to mandate in the meeting would have been illegal….”

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This blog’s headline and first paragraph were changed after the county’s response was added.  

———————ORIGINAL POST 12:11 P.M. TUESDAY, JULY 14, 2020————————

County commissioners decided to encourage people to wear masks to halt the spread of coronavirus, but stopped short of a mandate — and they claim they have no authority to require residents to wear masks. 

Despite the growing spread of the coronavirus here, which jeopardizes the county’s business reopening orders issued by the state, commissioners took no action to impose stricter guidelines, such as wearing masks, or scaling back numbers of people allowed to gather in churches, businesses and other settings.

Dr. Leon Kelly, the county coroner who’s doubled as the deputy Public Health director during the pandemic, presented a raft of data that show the numbers of sick, hospitalized and dying are rising and pleaded for commissioners to do something.

Instead, commissioners said they would rely on citizens to “volunteer” to wear masks, keep a safe distance from others, wash their hands frequently and not engage in risky behavior, such as crowding into indoor parties and other public and private places.

Kelly said Arizona and Texas lie close to Colorado’s borders and it’s likely visitors will bring the virus.

While the number of deaths hasn’t climbed as rapidly as positive cases here, they’re starting to rise, and local hospitals have warned Public Health they’re about two weeks from having to turn away patients or move them to facilities outside the community due to lack of room.

He noted that whereas in earlier months of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, El Paso County is second only to the Denver area for cases per 100,000 people.

The county has seen a total of 3,208 cases as of today, July 14, since the pandemic reached the county in March. But the county has seen 725 new cases in just the last two weeks.

“This is not sustainable in any way, shape or form. We’re well into the downstream consequences of out-of-control spread,” he said.

Various other states have taken steps such as mandating masks in public, reinstating bans on elective surgeries, closing bars, ordering more morgue trailers for the dead and decreasing the size of social gatherings that are allowed.

Pointing to specific data, Kelly said that the age group of 20- to 29-year-olds comprise the largest to see an increase in positive cases, which stand at 7 percent — 2 percentage points higher than El Paso County’s variances from the state to lift lockdowns were based on. That means the state could rescind those orders in any manner of actions, such as closing hair and nail salons, cutting the number of people allowed to be served in restaurants, or decreasing the number of people who can attend church in person.

Older people, the most vulnerable to the disease, he said, “are doing an amazing job. They’re carrying the load here. This is not on them. This is on the other two groups [young and middle-aged people]. They’re going to protests, college parties, hanging out. It’s also the group that  have the service jobs, delivery jobs that put them face-to-face with individuals. They don’t have jobs that allow them to work from home. They’re put into harms’ way all day, every day.”

Kelly also cited numerous studies and research that show masks dramatically reduce transmission. “Everyone in the world has come to the same conclusion,” he said. “Evidence continues to accrue it prevents transmission, protects the wearer.”

Kelly also said the options available to the local community include mandating masks, rolling back the size of groups allowed to convene and closing certain super-spreader businesses. He noted the current crisis point at which El Paso County has arrived comes as schools are being encouraged to open their doors in about a month.

“No country on earth has opened their schools with surging viruses and hospitalizations,” he said. “Nobody has done that. But that’s what we’re about to do. We have got to take care of business in the community first, or ask the schools to do the impossible. We’re running out of options here.”

Nevertheless, commissioners were unmoved, and claimed they lacked the data to make a decision to force compliance with public health orders, roll back how businesses operate or require masks in public places.

Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said businesses should stay open and “ask our community to do what they can to help us prevent the spread of the virus.

“It’s still a voluntary approach to this,” he said, adding that commissioners should ask younger people “to work hard” to not spread the virus.

Kelly noted that about 60 percent of county residents wear masks. To be effective in stemming the virus’ spread, 80 to 90 percent is needed.

“You’ve got people not wearing them. They’re not,” he said. “What are you going to do? You can only ask people so many times. You don’t ask people to wear seatbelts. Collectively, they [masks] help all of us. It feels as if we’re all adrift and science has thrown us a life preserver. Most have them on, but a significant percentage don’t, and they’re saying, “I’m going to drown and take you with me.’

“If you’re going to pretend to be about small business, the economy, getting us out there and moving forward, why would you walk in the door without the one thing that has the most impact on ruining that business?” he said.

Commissioner Chair Mark Waller complained about a lack of information and claimed, “We’re doing our best. There isn’t anybody who wants to see more people dying from COVID, but at the same time we want to measure that against protecting their freedoms and protecting life as we know it in our community. In some circumstances that’s difficult to do. We’re going to continue making the best decisions we can make.”

Colorado Springs City Council planned to take no action at its meeting today, June 14, deferring to county officials. It’s unclear if Council will reexamine the issue later or follow the lead of commissioners.

It’s also unclear how long the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will allow the county’s virus counts, hospitalizations and deaths to climb beyond the levels upon which reopening orders were based before revisiting those variances.

Editor’s note: In order to address claims by the county that the county commissioners meeting was misrepresented by reporter Pam Zubeck, the Business Journal offers the following quotes from Public Health’s Leon Kelly and Commissioner Mark Waller. The full meeting can be viewed here.

Leon Kelly: “Ultimately you’re making the decision for our community.” 

Mark Waller: “It makes it very difficult for local elected leaders to make decisions when we don’t have the information. We still don’t know the threshold for hospitalizations that would trigger taking some kind of action. It makes it impossible for us to make decisions. We gotta have more better information before we’re out directing our law enforcement officials to do what I perceive as an impossibility.”

And also from Waller: “It’s hard to make decisions with less than complete information. We don’t like doing that.”


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