With COVID cases spreading rapidly across the state and the holiday season arriving with Thanksgiving this week, Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ provided a COVID-19 update on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Christ said throughout the state, there's been a "concerning increase" in coronavirus cases, percent positivity and COVID-19 patients in ICU and inpatient hospital beds.
As of Monday, Nov. 23, ADHS reported the state had seen a total of 302,324 coronavirus cases since the outbreak started, with 6,464 Arizonans dying after contracting the virus.
Christ said during the week of Nov. 8, all but two counties had a coronavirus percent positivity of above 10%, which indicates substantial spread of the virus. She said metrics were expected to continue the upward trend.
According to Christ, each of Arizona's 15 counties has a COVID-19 case rate above 100 per 100,000 people, which also indicates substantial spread of the virus.
Metrics tracking COVID-19-like illnesses are also increasing in visits to emergency rooms and hospitals, Christ said.
The public health director implored mask wearing for all Arizonans "in every setting."
Standing sans-mask at the press conference today, Ducey reiterated the importance of mask-wearing and said, "masks work, please wear them."
However, Ducey has not issued a statewide mask mandate, reasoning "what I want to avoid is some of the division and politics that have happened around this issue."
"We've got 90% of our state under local mask mandates, and what I want to do is take something that I believe works ... and make sure we have the widest and broadest compliance possible," Ducey said. "We've seen a lot of success with it at the local level where there is local buy-in."
Although many COVID-19 safety protocols have been politicized, the governor says he isn't taking a political stance on the pandemic.
"There are two extreme and distinct camps out there. One side wants to lock everything down, the other side thinks it's all a hoax. Both are loud and vocal," Ducey said. "Most of the public isn't part of either camp, and by the way, neither am I."
In response to the ongoing uptick in COVID-19 cases, Ducey said "we're amplifying our messaging and doubling our investment in public service announcements to ensure every individual in the state knows what steps to take to protect themselves and their loved ones."
He also announced a $25 million disbursement of funds to increase hospital staffing and reward existing health care employees.
The governor said he's asked Christ to work with Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the Tucson International Airport and the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to increase inbound messaging and launch testing sites in order to "allow incomers to get tested immediately with quick turnaround."
As schools across the state grapple with reopening amid rising case numbers, Ducey contends parents should have options to enroll their children for in-person learning and said, "Kids have already missed out on far too much learning due to this pandemic."
He announced the public health director will be issuing an emergency measure to ensure schools throughout the state are following proper safety protocols.
The governor says although many are growing tired of following COVID-19 mitigation tactics, the end is not yet in sight.
"The truth is, this has been a long haul. You can't simplify or underestimate the impact this has had on so many Arizonans," Ducey said. "When I say we just aren't out of the woods quite yet, or that we need to redouble our efforts, I know that these are not easy asks...but it is our ask today."
Ducey called the recent announcements about potentially effective coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna "a positive light at the end of the tunnel."
According to Ducey, Christ assembled a vaccine task force at the beginning of the year that is actively working "to ensure the effective distribution" of the vaccines.
The governor issued an executive order to extend "the enhanced surveillance advisory" to gather information on potential vaccinations and distribution plans.
"This will ensure that all Arizonans who want the vaccine will receive the appropriate follow up doses at the correct time," Ducey said.
As Thanksgiving nears, the health director asked everyone to continue following safety protocol by wearing a mask, sanitizing frequently and socially distancing as much as possible. The health department recommends holding gatherings outside and celebrating virtually with those who are high-risk.
But state lawmakers and local officials called on Ducey to do more. State Sen. Rebecca Rios said that Ducey's response to the virus "came up short."
"Other than the additional $25 million to help hospitals combat the virus, the governor's half measures are inadequate to substantially slow the spread of the virus," Rios said in a prepared statement. "We continue to urge the governor to take swift and preemptive actions to curtail the virus's spread, beginning with a statewide mask mandate. This fragmented approach has had clear consequences for struggling Arizona families and our economy. The holiday and flu season are fast approaching and our COVID-19 cases are reaching deadly summer levels. So please do your part and mask up. We must do more, work together and let science be our guide to stop the spread."
The mayors of Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff also called on Ducey to establish a statewide mask mandate.
"As much as I'd love the city of Tucson to be in a bubble, all it takes is one person traveling to Tucson to visit family during the holidays to make a huge impact in terms of spread here in the city of Tucson," Romero said. "That's why it's so important that we have a statewide mandate for masks because we should all be holding hands in this. This should not be a political issue, this should be an issue that we hold hands that we work together and that we defeat."
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans and Tolleson Mayor Anna Tovar joined Romero in calling for a mask mandate statewide.
The Arizona Department of Health Services issued an emergency measure that masks be worn on all school premises, but the mayors are calling for further action.
"Here in Pima County, we are seeing numbers we've seen only in the summer. Positivity rate is increasing throughout our state, and these things are very, very troubling for all of us," Romero said. "The fact is that currently, we are heading in the wrong direction."