Germ Lawfare: Arizona legislature bans mask requirements in schools as Pima County hits 70% vax mark

Daily COVID cases in Arizona have remained relatively consistent since March, with a slight uptick in recent days.

On June 30, the Arizona Legislature approved the budget for next fiscal year, which bans public schools throughout the state from requiring masks or COVID-19 testing. This ban comes a few weeks after Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order banning state colleges and universities from doing the same. The ban does not affect private schools, and has already taken effect.

Almost immediately after the budget was approved, some doctors and public health professionals weighed in on the subject, arguing the ban makes "no scientific or public health sense." Shortly after the ban was enacted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines stating that vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks inside the classroom. However, this leaves Arizona's 600,000 students between pre-school and 6th grade who are ineligible for vaccination in a gray area between national guidelines and state legislation.

"As a public health expert, I continue to recommend mask use in schools. Recent research shows COVID spreads less in schools where teachers and staff wear masks... It is no longer a matter of debate: Masks work," said Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona. "When politicians ignore science and evidence, they're only giving COVID-19 time to mutate, regroup, spread and sicken more of our neighbors."

Jacobs spoke during a conference with other public health professionals organized by the Committee to Protect Health Care, a national group of doctors and healthcare professionals. Unsurprisingly, all speakers at the talk spoke against the mask ban.

"The decision to prohibit these schools from requiring masks be worn is quite reckless, dangerous and short-sighted. The decision is also not informed by science or evidence, and politicians are making this decision when Arizona just in the last 14 days saw a 16% jump in COVID-19 cases," said Dr. Cadey Harrel, a family physician in Tucson and the president of Agave Community Health and Wellness. "What politicians have done by banning schools from implementing safety protocols like masks, is put people at risk and stifle local decision making with a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach. This completely strips local municipalities and governing bodies from implementing their own policies that are rooted in actual science."

Harrel argues that because the law does not apply equally to private schools, it unfairly affects lower- and middle-class families who may now see more COVID cases. She says the issue is a "social determinant of health" that will worsen the pandemic's impacts on minority and working-class families who have already been hit hardest by COVID.

"As both a parent and a physician, I'm incredibly concerned about this. The first day this was implemented, I received an email from my child's school, stating there have been a couple confirmed cases in her classroom," Harrel said. "This is not safe, and this is not evidence-based policy. This is putting our children at risk, and for what?"

Vaccinations are currently only available for children 12 and older. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, only 13% of Arizonans under 20 have been vaccinated. A common point of argument is that even if masks were required in schools to protect unvaccinated students, would elementary-aged kids properly and consistently keep their masks on? Harrel argues, for the most part, yes.

"I have a 4-year-old who has been using one for the past year without any issues," Harrel said. "If we teach our children to use masks, they will use masks. Just like we teach our children to be kind to others, use the toilet, or anything else. They will learn to do those things, but we need to lead by example."

Daily COVID cases in Arizona have remained at a relatively consistent low since the beginning of March, averaging around 700 new cases and a dozen deaths per day. Compare this to the peak in January, when the state saw more than 10,000 cases and 150 deaths per day.

"I feel as though we're sliding into a place where we're only thinking about death as an undesirable endpoint of infection, which of course it is, but I do think that if we are seeing 70 or 80% of symptoms that are lasting 60 days and more after infection, then that makes me wonder what is going to happen with kids," Jacobs said. "They've definitely exhibited having a less severe course of disease, there's no question about that, but what we don't know is what the potential long-term, downstream effects are going to be. And that is why I'm a strong advocate of using caution right now."

Pima County hits 70% vaccinated threshold

Pima County reached the

goal of 70% vaccination for adults with at least one dose on Thursday, July 8.

President Joe Biden in June set a national goal of vaccinating at least 70% of all U.S. adults with at least one dose by July 4. Although Pima County fell short by just four days, it is now one of four counties in Arizona that have reached the goal, including Santa Cruz County, which has vaccinated almost 100% of adults with at least one dose.

As of Monday, July 12, the state of Arizona has vaccinated just over half of the total population with at least one dose.

According to data from the CDC, Pima County had fully vaccinated 61.9% of adults ages 18 and older with two shots of the vaccine as of Monday, July 12 (for those vaccines that require two shots). For those 12 and older, 67.8% had received at least one dose and 93% of adults 65 and older has had at least one dose.

"The science has become very clear – being vaccinated protects you from getting COVID," said Pima County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen. "COVID is a serious illness. People can end up with significant disease and even death. For those who are still unvaccinated, I want to reassure them that the vaccines are safe and we encourage them to seek vaccination."

The county has reported 401 breakthrough cases and 16 hospitalizations among the more than 535,000 fully vaccinated people in Pima County, about .07% of those fully vaccinated.

Pima County is continuing its mobile vaccination efforts in order to reach traditionally underserved areas and census tracts with lower vaccination rates. For more information, go to pima.gov/covid19vaccine.

County rescinds COVID-19 emergency resolution

On Tuesday, the Pima county

Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to rescind a resolution that declared a state of emergency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Supervisors Sharon Bronson (D-District 3), Steve Christy (R-District 4) and Rex Scott (D-District 1) voted in favor of lifting the state of emergency, while Supervisors Matt Heinz (D-District 2) and Adelita Grijalva (D-District 5) voted against it.

Since March 19, 2020, the emergency declaration allowed the Board of Supervisors to take immediate and urgent actions that included regulating businesses, limiting gatherings and requiring mask wearing in public as cases began to rise.

Those restrictions had been lifted through state or local actions prior to the July 6 vote.

"We have had substantial and sustained improvement in Pima County," Pima County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia said. "I believe it would be safe to lift the emergency declaration. The cases that we're seeing are cases among unvaccinated individuals, and we continue to work on that population very vigorously and we will continue to move that further. I'm not saying the pandemic is over."

The state's highest single day of reported cases was at more than 12,000 on Jan. 4, but as more people have become vaccinated, the number of cases has declined. For the past two months, the state has fluctuated at around 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 individuals.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry noted that the CDC reported last week that 99.5% of the COVID-19 deaths across the country in the past six months involved unvaccinated individuals.

"I think the message is, if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated," Huckelberry told the board on July 6. "The rate of infection is in the hands of those who are unvaccinated."

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