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COVID face-coverings will go from required to recommended at Pima College campuses

Pima Community College officials said Wednesday they will lift the mandate for face-coverings on campus as students return from spring break on March 28. COVID masks will remain recommended.

In a campus-wide email, PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert said that he was "pleased to report" that most state and local figures show COVID-19 cases, transmission and hospitalizations in Pima County have declined to low or moderate levels. Given the improving numbers, Pima County’s high vaccination rate, and the actions of state universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, and officials with Pima County and the City of Tucson, Lambert told college staff to "prepare for making masks optional but encouraged in indoor spaces of the College beginning on Monday, March 28, 2022." 

Lambert's announcement follows a similar one from the University of Arizona.

On Monday, UA President Robert C. Robbins announced that the university would likely rescind its mask mandate next week, though this decision will be based on campus-wide testing following the return of students and faculty from spring break.

PCC's mask mandate has been in place since August when the college joined the University of Arizona and the state's other public universities as classes started for the fall semester.

"This decision was made after discussion by the Pandemic Advisory Group to consider lifting the mask mandate after Spring Break," Lambert said, adding that the Faculty Senate, the Student Senate, the All College Council, the All Employee Representative Council, and Staff Council weighed in on the decision. 

Lambert asked that before March 28, faculty and staff continue to observe the indoor mask mandate, and said that Pandemic Advisory Group will be "closely monitoring the data trends, especially as students return from Spring Break, and will be prepared to make further recommendations based on the data as necessary."

"Also, please know that pandemic-related policies other than masking such as encouraging social distancing, COVID-19 self-reporting, operation of Synexis machines in classrooms and open spaces, sanitation stations and the availability of masks and COVID-19 test kits on campuses will remain in place when masks become optional," he said. "If you seek a medical or disability accommodation, please contact the Employee Service Center."

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"We’re hopeful the improved metrics leading to the new 'mask optional but encouraged' policy is a promising sign that the pandemic is beginning to ease," he said. "Thank you for your continued work, flexibility and dedication to keep our campus communities healthy and safe."

As COVID-19 cases have declined precipitously, mask mandates have collapsed across the United States.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors allowed their mask mandate to lapse on Feb. 28, and Tucson Unified School District voted last week to end its own mask mandate, also on March 28.

At the end of February, the CDC introduced a new model for issuing community-level health recommendations, putting counties around the country into low, medium, or high-levels of community transmission based on the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospital occupancy and capacity.

For people in counties with "low" levels, they are asked to stay up to date with vaccinations, and get tested if they have symptoms. For people in "medium" counties, those who are at "high risk for severe illness" are told to consider wearing a mask, and take "other precautions," according to the CDC's guidelines.

Those in communities with "high" rates of community transmission should wear a mask indoors, keep up their vaccinations, and get tested. Officials also said in communities with "high" rates, those who are higher risk for severe illness should consider "additional precautions."

Pima County's rate is at 11 cases per 100,000, slightly below Maricopa's rate of around 14 cases per 100,000 people. However, it has become increasingly more difficult to analyze cases each week, in part because the Arizona Department of Health Services has shifted to weekly-reporting, abandoning the day-to-day case figures pushed out during the worst parts of the pandemic.

According to ADHS, during the week of Feb. 27, there were 4,326 cases in the state. The last time cases were this low was in mid-June 2021.

Driven by the Omicron variant, COVID-19 cases peaked in Arizona with 26,179 reported cases on Jan. 10, according to data from ADHS. During the pandemic's previous peak in January 2021, the state reported a record of 12,460 cases in a single day. However, the latest surge topped that record almost daily.

From New Year's Day to the end of January, there were at least 491,431 cases in Arizona, averaging about 12,539 cases per day.

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Data from the CDC shows that just one county in the state, Mohave County, is at a low-level of community transmission. Mohave County has often had high-case loads relative to the population, and has a low vaccination rate hitting just under 43 percent, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, community transmission remains high in three counties, including Yuma County, La Paz County, and Apache County, located in the northeast corner. Arizona's most populous counties, including Pima and Maricopa County remain stubbornly at "medium," according to the CDC.

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