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El Paso commissioners updated on coronavirus; masks, social distancing encouraged

COLORADO SPRINGS—Acting Deputy Medical Director for the El Paso County Public Health Department (EPCHD) and county Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly gave county commissioners an impassioned two-hour update on the status of COVID-19 in El Paso County Tuesday.

Kelly is concerned about recent increases in infections in the county that are threatening the variances issued by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE).

“Where we get the problem is the number of people you’re testing. The higher proportion of them that are testing positive indicates that there’s more virus in the community, which is why it’s sort of the great equalizer of the metrics,” said Kelly. “Since late June we have seen steady increases in the percentage of cases that are positive. That we’re doing 5% is kind of a globally-accepted number for ideal.”

“There are places in Arizona [where] 25% of their cases are positive, so certainly [they] have problems, so we’re using a very low threshold as a check engine light.”

According to EPCHD statistics as of Friday, there are 36 identified cases, 2 persons hospitalized and one death. The overall positivity rate since March 1 is 0.06 (6%).

While stating explicitly that he was not calling for a mandatory mask order, Kelly is adamant that everyone has to do much more by way of preventing spread of the virus if the county is to maintain its variances from CDPHE health orders.

“We know it works against the virus, so we know exactly what kind of weapons we have left,” Kelly told Complete Colorado in an interview Thursday. “The goal is obviously to optimize all of those. The big one, the most powerful one,  and the one that we’ve seen the most success with is lock-down. But nobody wants to use that right now, not me, not anybody, because there’s too much negative consequence. So we’ve got to look at the other things that we have at our at our disposal and make sure we’re doing all of those.”

“The social distance thing obviously is the big one, and we can do that in some cases,” Kelly continued. “But for society to function, for kids to go back to school, for businesses to work, for the shop, you’re not always going to be able to do that. So what else are we going to do?”

Wear masks, says Kelly.

“That allows us to reenter society, allows us to go into situations where we can’t always socially distance,” Kelly said. “You wear the mask, the other person wears the mask, and the data is very clear there’s no doubt at this point that we can get significant benefits from mask use.”

In a Facebook post Thursday, El Paso County Commissioner Holly Williams wrote, “I do believe that we need to do everything possible to keep our businesses open and to get our children back in school.  I think Dr. Kelly made some strong arguments towards wearing masks in our El Paso County presentation yesterday.  I will not mandate masks, but do encourage you to watch the presentation and make your own decisions as to what is best.”

BOCC Chairman Mark Waller said, “I would also like to ask our community to do what they can to help us prevent the spread of the virus. Social distancing is critically important. For me it’s still a voluntary approach.”

Waller expressed some skepticism about the way in which the numbers are calculated and asked for clarification.

“It is not the numerator, the number of tests positive,” said Waller. “It’s how the denominator is calculated to get to that 5%. I think there’s a lot of potential for bias and variability in that that doesn’t give you statistical answers.”

But Governor Polis stole the show on the entire mask/no mask debate Thursday afternoon.

After saying earlier as part of his “Safer at Home” agenda he would devolve regulatory authority to local health officials, Polis issued a statewide order taking effect Friday morning that everyone over 10, with certain exceptions, “wear a face covering over their nose and mouth when entering or moving within any public indoor spaces.”

That order from the Governor doesn’t sit well with everyone.

State Representative Patrick Neville, R-Littleton, wrote in Facebook and Twitter posts shortly after the order was announced, “Polis is on a power trip and IMO his mask mandate is a clear violation of our civil liberties. I’ve retained counsel with the intent to sue. Stay tuned…”

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said in a Facebook post that his department will not “take actions that further erode the public trust in us,” and will not “be expending the resources of the Sheriff’s Office on issuing citations to individuals not wearing masks.”

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