County’s COVID numbers drop to Code Green, but health department doesn’t give green light to remove masks

photo by: Sylas May

In recent days, Douglas County has crossed a COVID threshold that at one point would have led to celebration: We’re in Code Green, the lowest COVID risk tier established by county health leaders.

But don’t celebrate quite yet, and certainly not without a mask.

While the Code Green designation is a sign that COVID cases have fallen to recent lows, the local health department is backtracking from its previous statements that once the community reached Code Green it would be safe for vaccinated individuals to stop wearing masks in public.

“Because of how things have developed over the last few months, we’re not recommending people change their behavior,” Daniel B. Smith, a spokesman for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said Tuesday. “We are recommending people stay the course right now.”

That’s different from what county health leaders promoted in early August when they unveiled the new color-coding system. At that time, the health department said it wanted to create a system to give members of the public guidance in making decisions about what was safe to do based upon how active the virus is in the community.

The health department’s website still lists the three-tiered color-coded system — green, yellow and red — along with a set of recommendations under each tier. The green tier highlights that the vaccinated could feel comfortable going maskless in public, attending larger gatherings and enjoying indoor dining at restaurants, among other recommendations.

In reality, though, the department is not yet comfortable making all of those recommendations. Smith said the Delta variant has become more prevalent in Douglas County since health leaders created the color-coded system in early August.

“The fact that we are in the green at this moment is definitely something to feel good about, but the color-coding system was created pretty early on and lacks some context,” Smith said.

What it had, though, was some specificity. The color-coded system created thresholds in two key categories: the 14-day rolling average of new cases, and the total number of active cases in the county. When the 14-day rolling average dipped below 25 cases and the total number of active cases went below 500, the county moved from the yellow tier — where masking for everybody is recommended — to the green tier.

Douglas County went below both of those thresholds — barely — last week. As of Monday’s update, the 14-day average of new cases was 23.57, and the number of active cases stood at 490.

If those numbers aren’t low enough to get the health department comfortable with changing its mask guidance, what numbers would be? Smith did not provide any specific new goals, such as a rolling average of 20 or an active case count of 400, for example.

Instead, Smith pointed to some broader developments the health department is keeping an eye on. Those include how many people are getting their Pfizer booster shots, the development of booster shots for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and the expected approval of a vaccine for children 12 and under.

Plus, he noted the county is close to reaching a 70% vaccination rate among those residents who are eligible. He said the county could reach that number in the next couple of weeks, and that would be a significant milestone.

But he stopped short of saying any of those developments would lead to a change in mask guidance. When asked whether the department believed it was important to be able to say that mask wearing will come to an end at some point, he said that can be a tough calculation to make.

“It is a tricky thing to say in certain situations,” Smith said, giving examples such as public transit or long airplane flights where mask wearing may be advisable for the long term.

In addition, he said there is another factor local health officials may take into consideration: the spread of the flu. If flu transmission is particularly widespread this season, that could lend credence to the idea of mask wearing becoming a more normal part of society, he said.

At the moment, the health department’s three-tiered color-coding system doesn’t directly impact mask mandates in the county. The county does not have a general mask mandate, although several large entities — KU, city and county government and school districts — have implemented their own mask mandates. The county does have a mandate for children 2 to 12 years old in certain situations. Businesses also have used the color-coded system to guide them in determining mask policies for their establishments.

For the time being, the change to Code Green is a reason to feel good about the progress being made, if not a reason to change practices.

“More than anything, this is a sign that our community is doing pretty well,” Smith said. “The Delta bump is trending down pretty noticeably.”

Here’s a look at some of the latest numbers:

• At 23.57, the 14-day moving average of new cases is down significantly from a recent peak of about 42 in late August and early September.

• The number of active cases in the county on Monday, 490, was down significantly from mid-September when more than 800 cases were active.

• As of Monday, there were six people hospitalized at LMH Health with COVID-19. Since June 15, there have been 155 hospitalizations with COVID at LMH. About 73% have been patients who were unvaccinated.

• There have been 102 deaths related to COVID in the county since the pandemic began. The latest added to the total was on Monday when a woman in the 45-54 age range was identified as a COVID fatality.

• The new numbers, though, do show that spikes in cases are still possible. On Monday, there were 50 new cases reported, more than double the 14-day moving average.


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