It’s time for Gov. Jared Polis to use his emergency powers to issue a statewide mandate that people wear masks into indoor public spaces.
As of Thursday more than 1,000 people were hospitalized in Colorado fighting COVID-19 infections, and hospitals were sounding the alarm bells that they are nearing capacity. Care for those who are critically ill – either from COVID-19 or other medical emergencies – will suffer if the state doesn’t find a way to ease the burden on our doctors, nurses and other hospital staffers.
Polis outlined a plan on Thursday to deal with surging cases, including immediately providing monoclonal antibodies to urgent care facilities and mobile clinics. The antibodies, if taken early in the course of an infection, can reduce the risk of hospitalization and death.
While Polis’ plan is strong, we think it fails to deploy the simplest, lowest-cost tool for slowing the spread of airborne viruses — masks.
Polis said that masks can help change the timing of when a person gets COVID-19, but are not a long-term solution.
“We’re not going to wear masks forever,” Polis said.
He said the real solution to the pandemic is to get people vaccinated, pointing out that very few of those hospitalized are vaccinated.
That is true, however, we are not proposing a permanent indoor mask mandate. We are asking for a temporary order until the strain on our hospitals is eased.
Now is the time to delay COVID-19 infections. Wearing a mask into indoor public spaces is a small sacrifice we can take as a civil society to protect those who need life-saving medical treatment. It is akin to other public health laws: indoor smoking bans, seatbelt and helmet requirements, and, of course, pages and pages of food handling regulations to protect the general public from food-borne illness.
The governor of Kansas issued an executive order in July 2020 mandating masks, however, only 15 counties adopted the mandate, making the state an excellent test case for the efficacy of such orders.
Numerous studies have determined that the mandate was effective. An article published in JAMA tracked case and hospitalization data in those 15 counties with mask mandates compared to the 68 counties with no mask mandates. Before the mask mandate went into effect, the 15 counties actually had 3 times higher cases per 100,000 people than the other counties, but two weeks after those 15 counties had implemented the mandate, the numbers reversed and no mask counties had 2.1 times more cases. Similar results were observed for hospitalizations and deaths following implementation of the mandates in those 15 counties.
We find that compelling. A mask mandate would likely reduce the immediate burden on hospitals and help the state make it through this fourth wave with less strain on our health care system.
According to a study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, weekly hospitalization growth rates in every state across the nation declined by 2.9 percentage points among adults during the first 2 weeks after a statewide mask mandate was implemented during the early phases of the pandemic. After 3 weeks, hospitalization growth rates declined by 5.6 percentage points.
The study concluded: “Mask-wearing is a component of a multipronged strategy to decrease exposure to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and reduce strain on the health care system, with likely direct effects on COVID-19 morbidity and associated mortality.”
The good news is that there are very few if any documented harms from wearing masks in public indoor spaces, so if it turns out these studies are wrong, the state will have risked and/or lost very little.