DENVER (CBS4) – The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released a new update to the COVID-19 Dial this week which includes the potential for some counties to get an exemption to the statewide mandate but it still encourages everyone to wear a mask. Experts say not only should people keep wearing masks at this point in the pandemic, they may want to keep them for protection in the fall from other respiratory viruses.

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“We’re hopefully getting to that light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccinations are going incredibly well,” Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director for infection prevention at UCHealth. “We’re not there yet, we need about 75% to 85% herd immunity, we’re not there yet, until we have herd immunity someone’s vulnerable.”

The current executive order by the governor requiring masks expires on April 3, and he can choose to make modifications at that time. Counties at Level Green, which is the lowest level of protection, can ask for an exemption to the mask mandate under COVID Dial 3.0 and the state says it will decide if it can consider the request. Factors that will determine if the exemption can be granted include population size, vaccination rate, the number of outside visitors, overall disease trends, and regional hospitalization rates. Even if CDPHE grants an exemption, it can also rescind it.

“If you were training for something, you don’t start at 26 miles if you were running a marathon, you start at 10 miles and then you ease your way up to that distance,” Barron told CBS4 on Thursday, comparing the response to fighting COVID-19. “We’re easing up, we’re moving towards that but we’re not ready to run 26 miles yet, we still need to focus and train.”

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She points out that rates of infection are down but have also plateaued and are slowly increasing, which could be the sign of another surge in cases. The variants of the virus and other states removing mask mandates are part of the potential for the change in direction in the infection rate.

“I think masks are still our number one protection against getting this disease,” Barron said. “Right now, if you want to make sure you can protect yourself, protect your loved ones, wearing a mask is still one of the safest and smartest things you can be doing.”

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The significance of masks goes along with getting the vaccine, social distancing and regular hand washing. They’re all steps the CDPHE continues to encourage the public to follow during the pandemic. Barron warns that if people move away from these practices too quickly, we could see cases go up again similar to the surge in March 2020. The past year has had many increases and drops and masks could play a factor in the next turn.

“I think you can’t get complacent just because things are looking good right now, if you look across the time frame from last year to now, this is what we did,” she said. “We’re not quite there yet, and if you start dismissing things that we know work, we may end up back where we were.”

It was the dramatic change in cases rising around November of last year that led to more restrictions and closings in the fall. Barron hopes people can think of the response to the coronavirus as a layered approach just like safely driving a car. Airbags, along with wearing your seat belt, and driving the speed limit all help you on the road. While those safety measures cannot prevent you from getting hurt in an accident, together the likelihood you get severely injured goes down. So if a driver would not remove air bags from their car, Barron says people should not take masks away from their COVID response.

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It is an extra layer of protection to add to a vaccine with an effective rate of up to 95%, a way to address the 5% chance you could still contract the virus. Barron also says the data available on the current flu season shows a low number of hospitalizations so far compared to thousands who normally end up in the hospital or die. Masks cannot be proven as the main cause of this drop but a likely contributor along with hand washing and fewer students in school. She hopes masks become more acceptable in the future to help reduce the spread of any disease.

“This may actually make sense, maybe not for everybody, but for people that are high risk certainly it may be the way to go,” she said.

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The CDPHE has also released a draft of modified mask order components — staff will review feedback prior to April 3 in order to include it as part of any update public health orders that come after the mandate expires.