Health department begins new COVID color code system; it shows we are halfway to point where mask mandate to be considered

photo by: Ashley Golledge

A sign points to LMH Health's new drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination center on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

The color codes are back.

Douglas County’s COVID status is in a code yellow — the second of three levels of severity — according to a new system announced by the local health department on Wednesday.

More importantly to some, the county is about 25 new cases a day from the point where local health leaders would once again start pushing for a communitywide mask mandate. As it stands now, masks are recommended but not required for indoor activities. The new system also recommends outdoor dining over indoor dining while we are in code yellow and suggests gatherings with smaller groups.

“We wanted to get this information out there now to give people a bearing of how we see things right now,” George Diepenbrock, a spokesman with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said.

Where health leaders see things currently is that the number of new cases being added each day is concerning, although the total number of active cases in the community remains in a relatively low tier.

Over the last two weeks, Douglas County has had an average of 26.5 new cases per day, according to updated statistics from the health department. It is that rising level of new cases per day that has Douglas County in a code yellow. Anytime new cases average between 25 and 50 per day over a two-week period, the system calls for the county to be placed in the yellow.

If the daily average gets to 50 or more new cases, the county will move into the red category, at which point “consideration of a community mask mandate” would begin. Getting to that 50 or more threshold is still a bit in the distance, but the trend has not been positive.

“We were down to an average of about one case per day, and now we are back up,” Diepenbrock said.

On a brighter note, though, if the county could start seeing a decline in the number of new cases per day, it fairly quickly could fall into code green, which is the lowest ranking in the system. The community would move to code green if the average number of new cases per day fell below 25 and the total number of active cases in the county were less than 500. The county already is below the 500 threshold in active cases, although it won’t be for long at current rates.

The most recent number provided by the health department showed 487 active cases in the county.

The health department unveiled the new system on Wednesday after going a few months without using a color code system to warn the public of risk levels. As school is getting ready to start again, health department leaders said they wanted a system that the public could easily monitor. However, unlike the previous color code system, this one won’t be used to make recommendations on whether schools should be operating in a hybrid or remote format. Most districts have come up with their own strategies to make those decisions.

General community members, though, perhaps don’t have any such system to help them make decisions about which activities to do and which ones to avoid. Dan Partridge, director of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said he hopes this color code system can fill that role.

“We want to ensure we are giving our community members guidance and tools to decide for themselves what they can do safely as individuals, based on how much of the virus is in the community and how quickly it is spreading,” he said via a press release.

Here’s a look at the three categories and recommendations that go with them. Unless county commissioners approved a new public health order, the suggested restrictions would continue to be recommendations rather than legal mandates.

• Green: The community is in green as long as the 14-day moving average of new cases is less than 25 and the number of active cases is less than 500. When in the green category, the health department says unvaccinated individuals should still wear masks in public places, but vaccinated individuals can go unmasked, attend larger gatherings, participate in team sporting events and partake in indoor dining.

• Yellow: The community is in yellow as long as either the 14-day moving average is between 25 and 50 cases per day or the active case count is between 501 and 1,000 cases. When in the yellow category, the health department says masks should be worn by both vaccinated and unvaccinated people above 2 years of age at indoor public places. It also recommends outdoor dining or socializing in smaller groups. It stresses mask wearing and social distancing in fitness and recreation centers.

• Red: The community is in red as long as either the 14-day moving average of new cases is above 50 or the number of active cases is greater than 1,000. When in the red category, the health department says there should be consideration of a community mask mandate, rather than mere recommendation for masks. It also recommends exercising alone, considering limiting contact at indoor places by using delivery or pickup services, and limiting social gatherings to virtual options.

“We want to be able to give people data to make decisions that can be proactive and preventative, especially at protecting our community’s healthcare capacity and hospital system,” local health officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino said in the press release. “The most important thing anyone can do right now for themselves and our community is to get vaccinated and complete their vaccine series if they have not. The vaccines provide the best protection from serious illness, especially with the Delta variant circulating.”

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