With the arrival of the new COVID variant Omicron in Pima County, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to enact a new mandate requiring people to mask up while indoors.
Supervisor Matt Heinz said he was urging his colleagues to pass a new mask mandate because local hospitals are near capacity and the new Omicron variant is highly transmissible.
But Supervisor Rex Scott, who voted against the mandate, said that while he wished more people would wear masks, he feared a new mask mandate would be unenforceable because the burden would fall on ordinary workers at shops across the county.
Scott said that if the Board could pass a mandate that would result in universal mask wearing in public places, “I would vote for it in an instant. Unfortunately, ever since the pandemic began, there has been an ugly bevy of falsehoods, fears, and resentments about masks fed to our citizens by some in leadership positions who should be forever ashamed of their ignorance and selfishness. As a result, although I firmly believed each of us should be wearing masks when we are in group settings, I’m certain that a sizable number of Pima County residents will defy or ignore any mandate we may enact today.”
Whether the mask mandate will have much effect remains to be seen, as a new state law passed last year allows business owners to ignore any mask mandate passed by local authorities.
Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher conceded that the county has little ability to require residents to wear masks.
“While admittedly there is no practical enforcement option, it has been shown in this community and elsewhere in the country that the mere existence of a mask mandate increases the likelihood of mask use by the public,” Lesher wrote in a memo to the board. “A county-imposed mask mandate would be a call-to-arms for everyone in the county to step up and do their part to help prevent the spread of a deadly virus, especially during the holidays.”
The county’s first case of Omicron was detected last week, according to Pima County health officials, who announced on Thursday, Dec. 16, that genetic sequencing detected Omicron in a random test sample from early December. On Tuesday, University of Arizona officials announced that the first case of Omicron had been detected on campus.
“We knew it was a matter of when, and not if, Omicron would be in Pima County,” said Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen in a press release.
There is speculation the Omicron variant causes less severe symptoms than the original virus and the Delta variant, but more research is needed to accurately determine the variant’s severity. Thus far, it is clear Omicron is more transmissible than the original virus.
The high transmissibility of Omicron will most likely lead to more infections and break out infections in vaccinated people. COVID vaccines with an additional booster shot should effectively protect people from severe illness and death caused by Omicron, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Pfizer-BioNTech released preliminary results from a non-peer-reviewed study showing the Pfizer COVID-19 two-dose vaccination series will somewhat neutralize the Omicron variant, but three doses are most effective.
“Getting the vaccine is highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, including against the variants,” Cullen said. “If you have been vaccinated, get boosted to stay protected. And follow the other layered mitigation strategies—wear a mask in public indoor spaces, wash your hands frequently and physically distance.”
The high transmissibility of the Omicron variant threatens to further overwhelm Arizona healthcare systems.
Banner Health, Arizona’s largest healthcare system, reported hospital inpatient numbers are at the highest level since the start of the pandemic during a Dec. 14 press conference.
Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said some Banner hospitals are operating above 100% capacity.
Although COVID patients aren’t the only people filling hospital beds, unvaccinated people are more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people. The Arizona Department of Health Services recently released a report showing unvaccinated Arizonans were 3.9 times more likely to test positive for COVID and were 15.2 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated Arizonans.
“My top ask of the community at this time is for all who are eligible to get vaccinated and receive your boosters if you have not yet done so,” Bessel said. “This is the best way to prevent serious COVID illness that requires hospital-level care.”
Bessel said Banner is at a contingency level of care but could transition to crisis standards of care if hospitalizations continue to rise.
“If our continued forecast holds true, we will be in a position where we will be unable to meet the care needs of all of Arizonans,” Bessel said.
Contingency level of care means that hospitals are not operating normally. Bessel said Banner staffers have been doing less documentation and certain patients may experience prolonged wait times for non-essential healthcare visits. Healthcare staff is also being moved to different units they don’t normally work in to support the lack of health care workers. The national labor shortage hit the healthcare workforce hard this last year.
Banner Health has hired 2,600 travel workers to support on-site staffing. Gov. Doug Ducey set aside $35 million to assist Arizona hospitals in staffing and state health officials filed for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 133 hospital staff to support seven rural Arizona hospitals.
Crisis standards of care are determined by the State of Arizona and AZDHS has a procedural plan to provide healthcare institutions with guidance. According to AZDHS, crisis standards of care will only occur during the most extreme disasters that directly impact the healthcare system.
AZDHS guidelines say crisis standards of care will apply when most of the community’s infrastructure is in bad shape; local officials can’t perform their roles to assist the community; community functions are irregular, and there’s a major strain on regional resources.
Banner Health estimates that peak hospitalizations will occur in mid-January. Unsurprisingly, the surge estimates coincide with holiday celebrations. Public health officials have been reluctant to tell people to avoid family gatherings during the holiday season, but they recommend wearing a mask indoors if family members are not vaccinated and getting vaccinated before congregating with family members.
Vaccines and booster shots are widely available for free in Pima County. Local pharmacies, primary care physicians, and Pima County Health Department locations offer vaccines and booster shots. Pima County began offering Pfizer booster shots for 16- to 17-year-olds who received their two-shot vaccination series at least 6 months prior. This came one day after the federal government approved the Pfizer booster shot for 16- to 17-year-olds on Dec. 9. Parental guidance is required for this age group to receive the booster shot. ■