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, according to data presented Thursday by the state’s top epidemiologist.
Additionally, state health officials said, data shows that cases among school-age children are significantly higher in Colorado counties that have lower vaccination rates.
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 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data.
“There is a clear impact that masks are having on transmission,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, during a virtual news conference.
Colorado has declined to institute an across-the-board mask mandate in schools, but Herlihy on Thursday reiterated that state officials are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and recommend schools — regardless of their transmission or vaccination rates — require masks in classrooms.
Last year, students older than 10 were required to wear masks at school statewide.
At least 78% of Colorado students, from preschool through 12th grade, are required by their school district to wear a mask, Chalkbeat reported earlier this month, including most students in 25 of the state’s 30 largest districts.
A host of metro-area school districts or entire counties — including Denver, Jefferson, Boulder, Broomfield, Cherry Creek, Douglas, Westminster and Littleton — require masks in classrooms for teachers and students, but many of the state’s more rural areas have declined to follow suit.
Cases among school kids — some of whom are eligible to get the vaccine — are also higher in counties that have lower vaccination rates, such as Weld and El Paso counties, state data shows.
Denver and Boulder counties, which have much higher vaccination rates, have infection rates in children at nearly one-third the levels of the higher-transmission counties.
Children and teens accounted for about a quarter of all new COVID-19 cases in Colorado in the second week of September, but very few kids have become seriously ill from the virus. There were just 12 people under the age of 18 hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state as of Wednesday.
Overall, the state has seen a downward trend in COVID-19 cases over the past couple days, Herlihy said, but “it’s difficult to know if we’ll continue to see a decrease or if we’ll increase as we move into the fall.”
Around 80% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Colorado are among the unvaccinated, state data shows, with hospitalizations still hovering near peak levels of the pandemic’s first wave in the spring of 2020.
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander.
As of Thursday, 974 people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 were hospitalized across Colorado, according to state data. That number is less than half of the peak of 1,995 over the winter, and is down from the recent peak of 1,021 on Sept. 14.
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