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Pima County ends mask rule for gov't buildings as COVID cases drop

Visitors and workers in Pima County government buildings will no longer be required to wear face masks, although a "recommendation" will remain as the rate of new COVID-19 infections slows in the Tucson area.

The policy change, announced on Monday, follows the end of a countywide mask mandate at the end of February and the resumption of in-person meetings of the Board of Supervisors on March 15.

The Centers for Disease Control lowered the status of Pima County’s COVID transmission level on March 3 from “high,” which means more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, to “medium” as the infection rate is now less than half that at 44 cases per 100,000 people. The county rate had been “high” since last August and went as high as three times the baseline for the “high” infection rate during surges in December and January.

There were 9,647 COVID-19 infections statewide reported for last week and 449 new deaths from the virus. Pima County reported 1,216 new COVID cases and 47 additional deaths last week.

The number of available local hospital and intensive-care beds increased slightly in mid-February, according to county reports. The gap between total ICU beds and the number in use has widened compared to earlier in the winter, but since the beginning of March, occupancy is still close to 100 percent.

As much as 71 percent of the total county population has been fully vaccinated, the county reports, with the 65 and older age group 93 percent fully vaccinated. The county’s positivity rate — or what percent of the community is reporting a positive COVID test — is at 6 percent, about half of what it was during earlier surges.

Masks are still recommended by the county. COVID continues to infect hundreds locally, County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen noted in a March 4 public health advisory. People should still be careful by staying home if sick, getting vaccinated and boosted and testing if exposed to COVID, according to recommendations by Cullen. She also advised masking for any one who’s at least 65 years old, has symptoms of COVID or if indoors with someone who’s at-risk of getting very sick from the virus. The unvaccinated get more severely ill from COVID than people who have been fully vaccinated, health experts warn.

The county building mask mandate was relaxed by Jan Lesher, the acting county administrator, but the county’s chief medical officer, Dr. Francisco Garcia, can still require masking in facilities such as health clinics.

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Pima County residents shouldn’t let their guard down all the way, Lesher said in a press release on Monday.

“We’ve been down this road before with COVID, where the disease seems to be receding and then it comes roaring back worse than before, so I’m relaxing these mitigation rules with cautious optimism,” she said. “The county, like everyone else, needs to be vigilant about COVID and not consider the pandemic over. We may need to tighten the mitigation strategies again if there is another major spike.”

County Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, said that the pandemic is “pretty much” over. He had long railed against mask mandates throughout the pandemic, and he called for the return of in-person meetings months earlier but only if masks weren’t required.

“I think it’s long overdue,” he said about ending the county building mask mandate. The mandate should take effect immediately too, he said, instead at the end of the week, saying “this mask issue needs to be put to rest once and for all.”

“It’s very difficult for (county administration and the health department) to release and relieve the mask mandate without having either a baby step towards a dateline or the possibility that (mandates) might be coming back,” Christy said. “They can’t accept the fact that the mask mandates are over and they should be over. There’s no reason for them. They haven’t, in my opinion, done what they promised to do by so many people for so many months.”

The county should now have an independent review of the effectiveness and “damage” of county COVID policies like shutting down businesses and mask mandates, Christy said. His expectation is that such a review would “find that a lot of the restrictions were unnecessary.”

Mask mandates had mixed support from other supervisors during the past few months. Board Chair Sharon Bronson had voted in favor of the most recent mask mandate for February, which was put forward by Supervisor Matt Heinz, a physician, but did not vote to extend it into March.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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