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Denver adds indoor mask mandate with hospital system on 'brink of collapse'

Masks or vaccinations will be required in most indoor settings in Denver starting Wednesday and lasting through Jan. 3.

DENVER — Masks will be required in most indoor settings in Denver starting Wednesday, Denver city leaders announced as they work to create policies to bring hospitals back from the "brink of collapse."

"This is not a failure in Denver. It's not a failure of the public health system," said Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) executive Director Bob McDonald. "We are here today because too many people chose not to get vaccinated even though they were eligible."

The requirements are part of a regional approach after new mask mandates were put in the place in other metro area counties earlier this week. Mayor Michael Hancock said Tuesday Denver's policy would be best described as a "mask or vaccine" policy. He said businesses will be required to enforce a vaccine passport policy, where patrons must show proof of vaccination, or require face coverings. It applies to those age 2 and up and goes through Jan. 3. At that time, depending on current conditions it could be extended or allowed to expire.

Read the full order here

Businesses who choose the vaccination passport will have to verify that at least 95% of people within the facility (including employees and customers) are fully vaccinated, according to the order. In most cases, unvaccinated people will not be allowed to wear a mask as a substitute for the vaccine.

DDPHE said verification happens when the owner, operator, or manager of a facility notifies them by emailing covidvaccine@denvergov.org. They should include the contact information of the person at the facility responsible for verifying the vaccination status of people within the facility, and the date the facility began verifying vaccination status. 

More than 80% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated, according to state data.

"Hospitals are filling up by those of you who've chosen not to get vaccinated and to suggest that the vaccines don't work because some were vaccinated are still in the hospital, that's like suggesting seatbelts don't work, because some people who wear seatbelts and got in an accident, still had to go to the hospital," said McDonald.

Enforcement for all of the region-wide mandates will mostly be complaint-based and officials said they're really relying on businesses to step up.

"There are civil penalties for blatant disregard of this," said Dr. John Douglas with Tri-County Health. "That is absolutely not the first push. The first push is educational and then the response will be complaint-based."

He noted that data shows masking increased in both Larimer and Boulder counties after their mandates went into effect and is confident the same will happen in these metro area counties.

Other health leaders suggested that businesses cater to those who are vaccinated and host specific events only for those who are fully vaccinated.

"Make one night a week in your restaurant, a vaccine only restaurant night. I bet you you'll be full that night," said Dr. Dawn Comstock with Jefferson County Public Health.  "It seems silly to pander to a small number of people that don't want to wear masks and turn off a large number of people that have already told you they want to be protected."

State modeling data has shown in recent weeks that hospitalizations could peak at or near capacity which is roughly 2,000 beds. They're being filled with COVID-19 patients, people with other illnesses, and some people who put of needed care during earlier parts of the pandemic.

Dr. Robin Wittenstein, the CEO of Denver Health, said their system is on the "brink of collapse."

"The last thing that I think any of us want to face is making a call to 911 and having to be told that the hospital nearest to you is full and can't take any more patients are going to try to figure out where to send you," said Wittenstein.  "The vaccine passport plus a combination of masking if you're not vaccinated will reduce transmission and that should reduce the number of patients who are hospitalized in or institutions."

Watch Wittenstein's full comments below:

The public health order does not change face-covering requirements in schools and childcare facilities, where masks have been required since August. Proof of vaccination will still be required for unseated, public events of more than 500 people in metro Denver, per the recent order issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

Denver made its announcement a day after three other metro area counties approved indoor mask mandates in an attempt to slow the positivity rate of COVID cases.

The Jefferson County Board of Health passed a public health order Monday evening that requires masks in public indoor spaces for those 3 years old and older.

The Tri-County Health Department (TCHD), which covers Arapahoe and Adams counties, passed a similar measure shortly after the Jefferson County vote. That order applies to people 2 years and older.

TCHD's order does not apply to Douglas County which opted to leave the health department earlier this year and form its own health board.

RELATED: Jeffco, Tri-County Health approve mask mandates for indoor public spaces

RELATED: People have filed 900+ complaints about mask compliance in Larimer County

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