Wind, rain, thunder, lightning and supercell tornados, such as the one that briefly touched down in an empty field near Las Animas around 7 p.m. Tuesday, aren't the only things a-stirring in the lower Arkansas Valley mid-July. Amid reopenings and surges of new COVID-19 cases across the country, more confirmed coronavirus cases have cropped up in Otero County, too.
Crowley / Otero Health Director Rick Ritter said in a news release Wednesday evening that multiple cases have emerged at the Pioneer long term care facility in Rocky Ford.
As of Wednesday, three patients of Pioneer tested positive for COVID-19 and are currently receiving hospital care. Ritter said the source of the infection is not yet clear but an asymptomatic spreader is a possibility.
Despite that total confirmed coronavirus cases in Colorado climbed to 34,663 Tuesday, that the case total in the United States stood at 3,416,428 , or that 135,991 people have died from COVID-19 nationwide as of Wednesday (that's 773 new dead since Tuesday), according to data from the state Department of Public Health and Environment and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some Coloradans are still polarized over the global pandemic and national crisis.
One factor that still catches scrutiny from some is the effectiveness of mask use.
The use of masks has been widely encouraged by federal, state and local health officials, and even mandated in some places, as a way to curb the potential spread of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19. The virus spreads predominantly through respiratory particles exhaled by someone infected with it when they sneeze, cough or talk, according to the disease control centers, which also recommends the use of cloth masks by the general public to reduce the risk of spreading and contracting the disease.
A study cited by the disease control centers found that N95 masks, medical masks and homemade masks made of four-layer kitchen paper and one-layer cloth could block 99.98%, 97.14%, and 95.15% of the novel coronavirus in aerosols.
In the early release abstract of a cloth mask effectiveness study scheduled to be released by the disease control centers in October, it is stated that although cloth masks are not recommended for use by healthcare workers because they are less effective than medical masks, in community settings, cloth masks can be used to prevent community spread of infections, particularly by people who may have the virus but are not showing signs or symptoms of infection, i.e., asymptomatic cases.
The study is titled "Effectiveness of Cloth Masks for Protection Against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2" and is scheduled to release in full October, 2020. One can read more about it at https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/10/20-0948_article.
Countless other studies on other respiratory diseases and the effectiveness of mask use were published before COVID-19 had entered everyone's lives - children are taught to cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough in early grade school - and yet, some people in the Arkansas Valley and across the country refuse to wear a home made mask or respect social distancing guidelines.
Sunday, Gov. Jared Polis called people who refuse to wear masks "selfish bastards" when he wrote on his personal Facebook page, "The emerging scientific data is clear: wearing a mask doesn't only protect others, it also significantly reduces your own risk of getting Coronavirus. So if you're a selfish bastard and wearing a mask to protect others isn't enough of a reason to do so, then maybe protecting yourself is?"
The governor included a link to an article titled "Your Mask Cuts Own Risk by 65 Percent" published by University of California, Davis, that cited a review of 172 observational studies across 16 different countries finding mask usage significantly reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Leadership and staff at Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center have dealt with their own fair share of difficulty regarding mask use. Director of Marketing and Compliance Janice Leija said the hospital has seen individuals cause disruptions and refuse to wear masks on a daily basis. The hospital released a press release July 8 condemning behavior of people looking to make a scene or refusing to comply with required mask use.
"We have been having an issue with people not complying with wearing face masks and I would say this is a daily occurrence," Leija told the newspaper. "I get it, everyone is tired of wearing masks and whatnot, but we need to do everything we are capable of, to protect our staff and patients. Covid is not going anywhere soon, so we must remain diligent."
The press release stated that the hospital is mandated by the state to check the temperatures and require mask use of everyone who enters the facility, and that noncompliance or belligerence — "cursing at staff" was mentioned specifically — would not be tolerated.
Along similar themes, the corporate giant Walmart announced Wednesday that customer mask usage would become mandatory in all stores across the country.
Fowler resident Madeline Horn wrote to the newspaper about a conversation she said she had with local Walmart management earlier in July. Horn said she was told then that due to customer complaints, the supermarket was no longer requiring customers to wear masks.
"People who want to limit exposure need to know since Pueblo Walmarts have much higher compliance and that's an alternative for most people," Horn wrote. "I live in Fowler and won't be back to La Junta Walmart until I'm vaccinated."
An associate at the Walmart in La Junta said the store will implement the new required mask use policy starting Monday.
Regarding local concerns about infrequent mask use and more details about the company-wide mask policy, the associate referred the newspaper to Walmart's media inquiry hotline — an automated voice message there in turn directed the newspaper to an online inquiry form. The newspaper did not hear back in time for publication.
Crowley / Otero Health Director Rick Ritter has emphasized the importance of mask use locally as more businesses reopen and more people return to work. The county successfully applied for and received a variance order in June that allowed it to loosen some restrictions on businesses. Currently the county is exploring a Protect Our Neighbors phase variance that could further loosen some restrictions.
However, Ritter has cautioned that variances can only occur if the COVID-19 case rate remains low and manageable. Otero County and neighboring Crowley and Bent counties have experienced a low rate of cases, with the exception of Crowley County Correctional Facility, where an outbreak occurred that led to a total of 66 inmates testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
As of July 7, Crowley / Otero County Health Departments reported a total of 22 cases with one deceased, and 71 total cases in Crowley County, with one deceased and 66 cases of inmates who tested positive, not counting the three confirmed cases announced Wednesday evening.