Summit County officials defend mask rule amid changing international opinion on virus spread |

Summit County officials defend mask rule amid changing international opinion on virus spread

On Monday, WHO officials said asymptomatic spreading is 'very rare'

Passengers wearing face masks depart from a Summit Stage bus at the Frisco Transfer Center on May 12. Recent news from the World Health Organization indicates people without symptoms are unlikely to spread the virus, but Summit County officials said the mask rule will remain.
Jason Connolly /

KEYSTONE — If one thing is certain about the novel coronavirus, it’s that health officials don’t know much about it. The details of the virus are so murky, even large agencies like the World Health Organization have gone back and forth on different aspects of it. 

The uncertainty surrounding the virus became apparent Tuesday, when Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, had to clarify her statements on asymptomatic spreading.

At a news conference Monday, Kerkhove said the spread of the disease among people who do not show symptoms of the virus is “very rare.” 

“We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing,” she said at Monday’s news conference. “They are following asymptomatic cases. They’re following contacts, and they’re not finding secondary transmission onward. It is very rare.”

Many people took the news to mean local governments should loosen restrictions in place to slow the spread of the virus. Summit County officials have no plans to change the public health order based on this news, county spokesperson Michael Wurzel said. Instead, the county follows the lead of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“The study ultimately looked at totally asymptomatic people, not people being in very mild conditions that do not know they have COVID or pre-symptomatic people,” he said. “So we think the headline was attention grabbing, but it appears to be pretty limited in its actual scope.”

Kerkhove touched on Wurzel’s point at Monday’s news conference. While spread among people who truly don’t have any symptoms might be rare, many people can appear to be asymptomatic because they had mild symptoms or symptoms not attached to the virus. 

“When we actually go back and say how many of them were truly asymptomatic, we find out that many have really mild disease, very mild disease,” she said. “They’re not COVID symptoms, meaning they may not have developed fever yet, they may not have had a significant cough or they may not have shortness of breath.”

During a live Q&A Tuesday morning, Kerkhove clarified what she meant by her statements Monday and explained that the details of asymptomatic spread are still largely unknown.

“We know that people who are infected with COVID-19, many develop symptoms, but there are some people who do not,” she said. “To truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t have that answer yet.”

Live on COVID-19 transmission with Dr Michael Ryan and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove

Live on COVID-19 transmission with Dr Michael Ryan and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove

Posted by World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday, June 9, 2020

WHO is still working to determine how many people who have the virus don’t show symptoms and how many of those people are able to spread it to others, she said Tuesday. 

While the state health department urges people to wear masks indoors and outside when a 6 foot distance from others isn’t feasible, Summit County has taken that one step further by requiring masks in those scenarios. The news from WHO is not going to change that requirement, Wurzel said. 

“At this time, the science behind mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID is pretty solid,” he said. “Until we have more information that proves otherwise, we’re going to stick to that order.”

Wurzel added that the county will adjust its public health order when it’s appropriate. 

“We don’t make policy based on headlines,” he said. “We make our policy based on the best science available to county officials. That’s why we don’t think we’re being too strict. When the science changes, we’re definitely willing to reassess our stance.”

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