Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2022 at 2:20 PM

WASHINGTON – U.S. life expectancy fell by an “unprecedented and shocking” 1.8 years between 2019 and 2020, a dramatic drop that experts say can only partly be blamed on the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The drop, from a life expectancy of 78.8 years to 77 years, could also have come from existing issues with obesity, opioids and suicide, officials say. It was the largest single-year drop since 1943, according to a December report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is no question that … at least for the last four years, opioids, obesity, and then getting hit with COVID has really just resulted in more people dying much sooner than they should have,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

For Arizona, 2020 life expectancy numbers are not expected to be available until later this year. But life expectancy in the state had been declining for several years, falling from 79.6 years in 2014 to match the national rate of 78.8 years in 2019, the latest year for which CDC numbers are available.

But 2020 also saw a huge spike in the overall death toll in Arizona, when the number of deaths jumped 25% from 60,161 in 2019 to 75,700 deaths in 2020, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Deaths rose again to 80,733 in 2021. While annual deaths in Arizona have been rising since 2009, the average annual increase had always been fewer than 1,500 deaths.

Swapna Reddy, a clinical associate professor at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, called the fall in life expectancy “an unprecedented and shocking … world event” that is “bigger than anyone would have predicted.”

“We have not seen a dip like this since literally a world war … I think it really starts putting into perspective the effect of COVID-19 on our population,” she said.

Reddy said that while much of the drop in 2020 was caused by the virus, “staggering” prepandemic increases in suicide, heart disease and diabetes also impacted life expectancy.

Benjamin said the country had been “on a pretty good pathway” toward longer lifespans as a result of changes such as a reduction in unhealthy habits like smoking. Then COVID-19 hit.

Benjamin said a drop in life expectancy of the size seen between 2019 and 2020 could take “10 years or more” to recover from.

“It’s a big deal. And you don’t get that back right away,” he said. “You know, you can’t do a lot of magical things and all of a sudden, the next year you gain those two years back in life expectancy.”

And the full extent of the pandemic’s effects on conditions like cancer has not been seen yet, according to Allan Williams, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. He said fewer people were able to visit a physician for regular screenings in 2020, which delayed them from receiving life-saving treatments.

“If you don’t get your mammogram … it’s not going to be an immediate death,” Williams said. “It just means that by the time they do find it (breast cancer) … you’re at a more advanced stage, and so death is going to occur sooner.”

Reddy noted this same risk of putting off preventive and curative measures, adding that fewer children received scheduled vaccines during the height of the pandemic.

“What’s going to be the result of all of that, when we kind of come through the COVID fog?” Reddy said. “I think, unfortunately, the answer is not great.”

This article was originally published through Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS, which is produced by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2022 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge Republicans Want to Bar the State from Making COVID-19 Vaccines a Requirement for School

A Republican bill that would bar the state from making the COVID-19 vaccine a requirement for school enrollment passed out of committee Tuesday.

“Some may ask, why is this necessary now? It’s not being mandated,” Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, said of her bill, House Bill 2086. “I want to make sure it stays that way.”
The bill would add “an immunization for COVID-19 or any variant of COVID-19” to the list of vaccines that cannot be required for school attendance.

Currently, Arizona law prohibits schools from requiring students to be immunized against HPV.

Last year, the legislature passed legislation that banned mask and vaccine mandates by schools, but the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the provisions that were unconstitutionally put into the state budget.

Osborne, who said she is not an “anti-vaxxer,” said that she decided to bring the bill because she had heard stories on the radio about young athletes being forced to get the vaccine in order to play in high school sports.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2022 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge Mayoral Power To Shut Down Businesses in Emergencies Limited by New Legislation
Free image via Pixabay

Mayors would no longer be able to order businesses to close during a state of emergency under a GOP-backed proposal fueled by anger stemming from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Arizona cities ordered many businesses to temporarily close.

It’s the latest attempt to reduce the use of emergency powers, following the advancement last week of a bill that would curtail the governor’s emergency powers.

House Bill 2107 would eliminate the ability of mayors to shut down businesses during declarations of emergency. The law currently allows mayors to shut down businesses, order curfews, close county offices and restrict access to public spaces if they consider it necessary to preserve public safety.

In March 2020, the mayors of Phoenix and Tucson used those powers to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by closing bars and setting a curfew for restaurant dining rooms.

In a House Military Affairs and Public Safety meeting Monday afternoon, Lake Havasu City Republican Rep. Leo Biasiucci said the power was being applied unevenly and to detrimental effect.

“When the pandemic was in play, small businesses were told they couldn’t be kept open, but Walmart and Home Depot were,” he said.

Oro Valley Republican Rep. Mark Finchem called mayors who closed businesses “petty tyrants” and said it was hypocritical to be worried about superspreader events when large retailers where lots of people could congregate were kept open.

More expansive square footage likely made it easier to social distance – which the CDC and the Arizona Department of Health Services still recommend as a strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Biasiucci said customers should be allowed to choose which businesses to visit and how to protect themselves. Ultimately, he said, businesses should decide when to close their doors, not local governments.

But leaving it solely up to businesses whether to stay open during an emergency could be dangerous, Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, said. Businesses might not deem a wildfire across the highway as an imminent danger and remain open, he said, and local rescue services may be forced to expend resources to save them.

But Republicans on the committee dismissed this concern by pointing out that the mayor’s ability to declare evacuations — which would remain in law — solves that conflict.

Roxanna Pitones, a lobbyist for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said that limiting mayoral power would remove critical safeguards.

“These decisions are not made lightly, but are taken with public safety in mind,” she said.

Finchem responded that fires, floods and sinkholes are immediate emergencies, but the pandemic — which he referred to simply as the need to wear a mask and stay at home — is not. If it was, he argued, every business would still be shut down.

“There’s a difference between a real emergency and one under the guise of a ‘pandemic,’” he retorted, forming physical quotation marks with his hands.

To date, more than 26,000 Arizonans have died from COVID-19 and caseloads and hospitalizations have been at all-time highs in January.

Republican Rep. Teresa Martinez said that the indefinite nature of the pandemic is what is most harmful to businesses when they’re ordered to cease operations.

“With a fire, you can see a start date — when the fire starts — and an end date,” she said.

For Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez, D-Phoenix, the bill is undermining voter voices.

“Mayors were elected by communities to make decisions and provide guidance,” he said.

The bill passed along party lines, with Republicans supporting it; the next step is for consideration by the full House of Representatives.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Posted By on Tue, Feb 1, 2022 at 2:00 PM

Pima County Schools Strained by lack of COVID-19 Testing as FEMA Sites Open
(Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)
A worker at the Pima Community College West Campus COVID-19 testing site in Tucson verifies a patient’s information before a self-swab test Jan. 24, 2022.

TUCSON – Two COVID-19 testing sites funded by Federal Emergency Management Agency opened last week to mitigate the shortage of rapid testing in Pima County, a problem that’s especially acute for businesses and public schools.

The two sites, at Pima Community College West Campus and at Kino Event Center in Tucson, are drive-thru PCR testing sites that can conduct and process up to 2,000 free-of-charge self-swab tests a day for appointments or walk-ups. Results usually are available within 48 hours.

“(FEMA) wants to place testing in places where they could remove barriers to access,” Pima County Community Services spokesperson Anthony Gimino said. “They were here in the spring doing vaccinations for two months, and it was a great success.”

The West Campus site will offer tests until Feb. 12, and the Kino site will “remain open a couple of months,” Gimino said in an email.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported that as of Monday, there have been more than 1.8 million COVID-19 cases in Arizona, with 26,205 deaths. Pima County has reported 228,223 cases and 3,410 deaths, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

Dr. Francisco García, chief medical officer of Pima County Health and Community Services, said the county has hit what he calls a “high-water mark” in terms of the number of positive cases but has not reached the high mark for hospitalizations or ICU cases.

“We are intermittently at points where we have very low (test) supply to share,” García said at a news conference Thursday. “But that’s also part of the reason why it made sense to expand our testing capacity within the county … that we’re paying for ourselves directly.”

Friday, January 28, 2022

Posted By on Fri, Jan 28, 2022 at 11:16 AM

click to enlarge Arizona Businesses with Vaccine Mandates Would Face $500K Lawsuits under GOP Proposal
Travis Robertson, Cronkite News

Arizonan businesses would be on the hook for half a million dollars in damages if they refuse a religious exemption from an employee who later experiences significant injury as a result of getting vaccinated under a proposal advancing in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Employers who both deny a religious exemption and require a vaccination for continued employment would open themselves up to lawsuits from employees who report adverse effects. If employees sue, they stand to gain a minimum of $500,000 — more if the court finds the damages and costs of the lawsuit are higher. By contrast, the average worker’s compensation settlement is around $20,000

House Bill 2043, introduced by Prescott Republican Rep. Quang Nguyen, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning. From there, it’ll move to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

Donny Rodenkirk, from Nguyen’s district, told the committee that his wife’s employer denied her religious exemption request, which forced her to take a vaccine that he claimed negatively impacted her health, resulting in the sudden onset of seizures. 

Nguyen’s bill does not indicate who decides whether the reported injury was the result of vaccination or how that determination is made. No medical diagnosis is required to sue an employer. 

Tom Savage, a lobbyist for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, noted that the bill isn’t clear about what constitutes a “significant injury” related to a vaccination, which could lead to costly litigation because it’s left open to interpretation. Deciding which injuries are caused by the vaccine is also muddy, given injuries could arise from a host of unrelated factors. 

“We believe this bill could subject taxpayers to pay for unsubstantiated injury claims,” he said.

Serious adverse effects from the vaccine are incredibly rare. One case study of a man with sudden onset non-motor seizures after being vaccinated was unable to link the two, and posited instead that the condition may have been caused by genetic factors and might be entirely unrelated to the vaccine. An investigation of more than 19,500 recently vaccinated adults found the incidence of very serious adverse effects to be extremely low. Allergic reactions occurred in just 0.3% of participants after the first dose. 

In spite of scarce evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine causes adverse effects, skepticism about its safety persists. A Census Bureau survey found that vaccine hesitancy in Arizona was around 11.1% in October of last year. In a state of more than 7 million, that’s a little over 800,000 Arizonans who have reservations about the vaccine. Among this subgroup, 58.8% didn’t trust the vaccines themselves and 50.2% cited mistrust of the government.  

Mike Huckins, the chief lobbyist for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said approving the bill would have consequences for local businesses. 

“Employees already have a remedy through the worker’s compensation fund,” he said. 

HB2043 allows for damages awarded in addition to any worker’s compensation the employee may pursue — it doesn’t rule out access to it. The $500,000 in damages would be a sizable financial burden for most businesses, Huckins said. The potential harm makes no distinction between a business of two people and a business of 5,000. 

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, responded by asking if it was moral to hold someone’s job “hostage” until they were vaccinated against their will. Huckins said he recognized there were very personal beliefs at stake, but his organization is defending employer’s rights. Employees’ religious beliefs are already protected under state law, he noted.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Posted By on Wed, Jan 26, 2022 at 10:53 AM

click to enlarge The Daily Agenda: Those Who Can't Teach
Copyright: andreypopov
Good substitute teachers are hard to find.

Banning books is cool again ... Everyone wants to be a fake elector ... And because of term limits, nobody remembers the law of unintended consequences.

In Arizona’s latest attempt to find any adult bodies to put in front of classrooms of 30-plus screaming children, the State Board of Education this week rolled back regulations on substitute teachers.

The new rules allow emergency subs (humans holding a GED or higher) to teach for two years and remove the ban on districts essentially using certified subs as permanent teachers. 

School administrators pleaded for the stopgap solutions to pandemic strains, noting schools are still seeing massive COVID-related teacher absences and increasing full-on classroom vacancies as teachers catch the quitting bug

Dysart Unified Superintendent Quinn Kellis, for example, told the board that his district had 200 teacher vacancies and 60 substitutes on Monday. (For all you kids with math teachers out sick right now, that’s 140 vacant classrooms in one district.)

“We have vacancies just on an interim basis, but also we have many who are just leaving their jobs for the rest of the year. And it’s not that they wouldn't have continued under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances,” Kellis said.

But after a decade of weakening regulations on who is fit to lead a classroom, a few more tweaks to substitute teacher rules clearly isn’t going to solve Arizona’s teacher shortage crisis. 

Monday, January 24, 2022

Posted By on Mon, Jan 24, 2022 at 1:59 PM

click to enlarge The Daily Agenda: Don't Sue Us, We'll Sue You First
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Ducey v. Biden feels like a Senate run precursor ... Voting rights groups ditch Townsend's committee ... And Sinema hopes this keeps the McCain comparisons coming.

Gov. Doug Ducey shot back at the U.S. Department of Treasury with a preemptive-strike lawsuit after the feds again threatened to claw back federal anti-COVID-19 funds that Ducey has been holding over schools as a way to fight mask mandates and COVID-related closures. 

Ducey has drawn the ire of the Treasury for several programs he has created with federal American Rescue Plan Act money: one offering money to schools that don’t implement mask mandates, another offering money to parents who want to take their kids out of schools with mask mandates and a third (which the feds have not yet challenged) paying parents to move their kids from schools that close because of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

The Treasury has repeatedly warned that the first two programs aren’t what the anti-COVID funding is for, and they’ve threatened to take the money back if Ducey doesn’t stop spending it like that. More significantly, the department has threatened to withhold the next round of ARPA cash from Arizona, totaling more than $2 billion, if Ducey doesn’t change or eliminate the program. 

In the lawsuit, Ducey and his lawyers argue that the Treasury Department’s new rules on acceptable uses of the funds usurp the more lax restrictions Congress laid out in the spending package. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Posted By on Thu, Jan 20, 2022 at 9:18 AM

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva Has COVID Again
Congressman Raul Grijalva: "I urge Arizonans to get their vaccinations, booster shots and wear N95 masks or equivalent."
Congressman Raul Grijalva announced this morning that he has tested positive for COVID.

“On Wednesday, I tested positive for COVID-19," Grijalva said in a statement. "I am vaccinated, boosted, experiencing mild symptoms and remain in good spirits."

Grijalva said he and his staff would test and quarantine under CDC recommendations and notify close contacts.

It's Grijalva's second bout with the illness after testing positive last summer.

"I urge Arizonans to get their vaccinations, booster shots and wear N95 masks or equivalent. We all have a role to play to protect our loved ones from COVID-19 and the risk of hospitalization, especially while Arizona is experiencing this surge.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Posted By on Wed, Jan 19, 2022 at 12:22 PM

click to enlarge Pima Supes Vote To Expand COVID Testing
Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin/U.S. Air National Guard

The Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a plan to increase COVID testing availability during their meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The Board unanimously voted to increase PCR testing in Pima County with an additional 1,000 tests per day through Paradigm Laboratories.

“I am concerned with our PCR testing site at the airport,” Supervisor Sharon Bronson said. “We are seeing that we’ve got some issues at TAA (Tucson Airport Authority) with staff coming down with COVID and we’ve got people in line who have COVID. So I would think as part of the implementation of the new testing we need to find other sites than the airport.”

Cases continue to rise in Pima County due to the Omicron variant. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,136 new cases in Pima County on Jan. 11. This is the highest number of cases reported in one day since the pandemic began.

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said she had noticed that testing appointments through the county website were being scheduled two days out. She raised concerns this would make it more difficult for children to get back into school under the new test-to-stay policy.

Bronson added that constituents reported testing sites had a two-hour waiting period, even with appointments.

Low testing availability has also impacted the local healthcare system.

“People, because they can't find a testing site, are going to ERs to ask to get COVID tested and that is incredibly disruptive for the healthcare system,” Supervisor Matt Heinz said.

The additional PCR tests will be offered at the Kino Event Center across the street from the Abrams Public Heath Building, where the county had set up a testing site in 2020. That site later transitioned to a vaccination center.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 19, 2022 at 9:59 AM

Inconvenient rules can be changed ... We speculate that the speculation will continue ... And that mean ol' Howie is asking questions again.

After a choppy opening week and the long weekend, the Arizona Legislature got into full swing yesterday, and already COVID-19 is a problem. 

As committees cranked through bills (including a contentious first vote on once again banning Critical Race Theory in schools), leadership had to sub out lawmakers to fill the committees, at least in part because of the virus. It’s going to be a long year of musical chairs as House and Senate leadership attempt to keep committees full, despite the raging pandemic.

Republicans need every single lawmaker present to pass legislation on party lines in either chamber, but as the Republic’s Mary Jo Pitzl notes, if lawmakers want to do their jobs and vote on bills, they’ll have to come into the building.

That wasn’t the case last year, and the new rule provides no meaningful advantage to lawmakers or the public — it is, like many decisions at the capitol, pure politics. (FWIW, it was also pure politics when the Democrats initially opposed remote voting on a limited basis at the onset of the pandemic so Republicans could muster the votes necessary to pass a budget.)