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Pima County looks to extend COVID mask mandate through March

Lesher tells Board of Supervisors that numbers of new cases & deaths remain higher than December

Pima officials are asking the Board of Supervisors to extend the county's mask mandate through the end of March, as the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths remain above the levels when the requirement was put in place in December.

In a memo to the board Tuesday, Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher noted that the December measure requiring the use of masks in indoor public settings is set to expire on Feb. 28, and the resolution passed by the supervisors includes language that the decision should be reconsidered "depending on the progress of the pandemic."

Citing the still-high rates of new infections, the pace of deaths and the percentage of tests showing more cases, she asked the board to keep the mandate in place until March 28, 2022.

"Although it is clear that the Omicron surge is beginning to recede, community transmission continues to occur at a concerning level and schools, workplaces and hospitals continue to be substantially impacted," Lesher told the board.

Most of the pandemic markers remain far above what they were at when the county approved the mask resolution.

When the board put the mandate in place on Dec. 21, there were 2,413 cases per week, testing positivity was at 9 percent, and there were 53 deaths from COVID-19.

As of Feb. 8, the county reported 5,443 cases that week—an increase of nearly 126 percent—and overall COVID-19 test positivity is more than double what it was in December, hitting 19 percent. The county also reported 54 deaths, a slight uptick from December.

In fact, the only metric that has decreased is new hospital admissions, which went from 127 per week to 112 per week.

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The county has greatly expanded COVID-19 testing over the last four weeks, including the addition of a FEMA-operated site at Pima Community College's West Campus. As of Feb. 8, there were 41,598 tests per week. In December, the county maintained around 31,000 tests per week.

Lesher also compared the current figures to those from the previous mandate, implemented in June 2020 and then abandoned in July 2021. When the Board of Supervisors passed the first mask mandate, the county reported 2,115 cases per week and there were 55 deaths. Further, weekly positivity was at 12 percent, and hospitalizations were at 138.

"Given the current number of COVID-19 cases (and case rate per 100,000 population), continued elevated test positivity, as well as elevated COVID-19 related hospitalizations, staff recommends the Board continue its mask Resolution for an additional month to expire on March 28, 2022," Lesher wrote.

Board passed mandate 3-2

Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz pushed for the mandate in December, and it passed 3-2, with Supervisors Rex Scott and Steve Christy voting against it. Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Adelita Grijalva voted for it.

Christy has vehemently opposed county-wide and school-issued mandates, and has balked at returning to in-person meetings if he is required to wear mask. Meanwhile, Scott opposed the measure because it lacked an enforcement mechanism—owing to a new state law passed by the legislature and signed by Ariz. Gov Doug Ducey that exempts businesses from having to enforce mandates—and he said the mandate would be attacked or ignored by some members of the public.

"If there were any certainty that a mask mandate imposed by this Board of Supervisors would achieve that result, I would vote for it in an instant," he said. "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 forever be ashamed of their ignorance and selfishness."

On Tuesday, there were 3,790 new COVID-19 cases in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Since the pandemic began, there have been 1.9 million cases of the novel coronavirus, including 479,980 in January alone. In the first week of February, the state added another 24,085 cases.

In fact, the pandemic in January fundamentally dwarfed the previous peak a year earlier. During the previous peak in Jan. 2021, the state reported 12,460 cases in a single day. However, during this January, the state's daily average was over 16,000 cases per day, peaking on Jan. 10 with more than 26,000 cases.

Luckily, Omicron appears less virulent, and vaccines better at blunting the massive spike in cases, and this has mitigating deaths from COVID-19. Since the year began, at least 1,579 Arizonans have died from COVID-19, averaging about 46 deaths per day. The deadliest day was Jan. 11 with 75 deaths. This is significantly lower than the pandemic's previous peak, when 176 people died during a single day in January 2021.

Nonetheless, the state has lost 26,822 people since the pandemic began, and there are 183 new reported deaths, according to ADHS.

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'Masks make sense'

Last week, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, told the board that since the pandemic began, the county had more than 234,000 COVID-19 cases in Pima County, and that around 24 percent occurred in January. Garcia noted that in January, the county had a "real peak" of 17,739 cases during the second week of January, a massive increase compared to the winter before, when there were about 9,000 cases in a week.

This put Pima County in the "same boat" as nearly every other county in the United States, and he said that the county continued to endure "a high level of transmission" because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

As Garcia noted in his presentation, when the county lifted its previous mandate, testing positivity was around 3 percent, but during the third week in January it peaked at 20 percent.

Garcia noted that the pandemic has been "particularly tough on schools" in January, adding that during the school year, there were 6,633 cases reported by the school district just in January. "That's a staggering amount by any judgement," he said, noting that around 44 percent children who were infected by COVID-19 were under the age of 11, and around 39 percent were 12 to 19.

"Masks continue to make sense," he said, adding that they "are very effective at reducing COVID-19 transmission." He added that while the CDC has recommended people upgrade to N95/KN95 masks and surgical masks over cloth masks, "any mask is better than no mask."

"The most important feature of the mask is the person who's wearing it, and the willingness to keep it on," he said. He also added that there are dozens of publications recommend mask wearing. In Sept., the CDC released a study evaluating Arizona schools and found that schools without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to experience an outbreak of COVID-19.

While this study was criticized for its methodology, data from districts in Tucson from August to December showed that mask mandates helped blunt the number of COVID cases among students.

At Tucson Unified School District, the largest district in the county, there were 2,102 cases during that first semester, with an enrollment of nearly 46,000. However, when adjusted for the number of cases per student, the district had around 4.6 cases per student, one of the lowest rates in the county, second only to Altar Valley Elementary District, which has just 639 students. Meanwhile, the Vail School District which avoided implementing a mask mandate had 981 cases among nearly 13,400 students, an incidence rate of 7.3, or nearly 160 percent higher.

Despite this, the pandemic was "particularly tough on schools" in January, adding that during the school year, there were 6,633 cases reported by the school district just in January. "That's a staggering amount by any judgement," he said, noting that around 44 percent children who were infected by COVID-19 were under the age of 11, and around 39 percent were 12 to 19.

On Feb. 4, the CDC released a new study, which found that among residents of California who reported wearing masks in indoor settings from Feb. to Dec. 2021 were less likely to be infected by COVID-19. Those who wore cloth masks were 56 percent less likely to test positive for COVID-19, those who wore surgical masks were 66 percent less likely to test positive, and those who wore N95 or KN95 masks were 83 percent less likely to test positive.

"Although consistent use of any face mask or respirator indoors was protective, the adjusted odds of infection were lowest among persons who reported typically wearing an N95/KN95 respirator, followed by wearing a surgical mask," wrote researchers from California's public health department. "These data from real-world settings reinforce the importance of consistently wearing face masks or respirators to reduce the risk of acquisition of SARS-CoV-2 infection among the general public in indoor community settings."

As Jessica Rigler, the assistant director for public health preparedness with the Arizona Department of Health Services, wrote "Masking up and being up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations are a powerful combination when it comes to reducing the risk of testing positive."

Vaccines a 'good story to tell'

Meanwhile, the county has a "good story to tell" about vaccines, Garcia said. Since vaccines became available, the county has administered 1.8 million doses, fully-vaccinating around 66 percent of the population, or about 690,000 people. And, among people over 65, that figure is close to 70 percent, he said. "We do very well in terms of total population," he said. However, the county needs to improve booster availability because just 43.8 percent of those eligible have received an additional shot to guard against COVID-19, he added.

In a memo to the board, Lesher also noted that the county has been relatively successful in vaccinating children, especially those 5-11 who were not eligible for the vaccine until November. As of Feb. 3, around 48 percent of children aged 5 to 9 received at least one dose. Around 65 percent of children aged 10 to 14 had at least one dose, and nearly 73 percent of young people 15 to 19 had at least one dose.

"The degree of penetration in pediatric age groups over such a brief period of time is quite impressive, and affirms our strategy to prioritize school-age vaccinations," Lesher wrote.

Garcia added last week that while there have been around 34,000 "breakthrough infections" hospitalizations among the vaccinated are "extremely rare" and deaths even more so, Garcia said. "Just to put it simply," Garcia said, unvaccinated individuals are two times more likely to get infected, 19 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 64 times more likely to die in Pima County.

Statewide, over 10.7 million vaccine doses have been administered, including nearly 14,000 by Tuesday.

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Around 68.8 percent of those people are vaccinated, and among those eligible for vaccination, which does not include children under 5, the rate rises to 73.3 percent. However, this ranges significantly between counties from nearly 133 percent in Santa Cruz County—owing to the county's efforts to vaccinate people outside of the county, including people in neighboring Sonora, Mexico—to just 44.3 percent in La Paz County.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

County figures for coronavirus cases displayed on maps during the last in-person meeting of the Pima County Board of Supervisors in December 2020.

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