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Pima County: Masks still required despite Ducey lifting COVID measures

Chief medical officer calls face-coverings a 'game-changer' to mitigate coronavirus spread as new variants reach Tucson

Face masks are still required in public in Pima County, despite an executive order last week from Gov Doug Ducey declaring that Arizona cities and counties should no longer mandate them, officials said.

Ducey does not have the legal authority to prevent the county's Health Department from "enacting reasonable public health measures," they said Monday, and officials will continue to enforce a December resolution by the Board of Supervisors, which mandates that everyone over the age of 5 must wear a face mask over their nose and mouth, unless they have a qualifying exemption, or are able to maintain physical distance. 

Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, called masks "a game-changer in this county" to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and called Ducey's order to end mask mandates "executive overreach." 

Garcia said that it was "unfortunate" that the governor had taken this action because it led to mixed messages that the pandemic was over.

"Our goal here isn't to fight with the governor," he said, but rather that the county needs "buy enough time to get a greater penetration of vaccine coverage." 

"Most citizens are doing the right thing and we want to continue to give them the tools they need to demand masks in public spaces," said Garcia.

A spokesman for the governor called Pima's reiteration of the requirement "completely inconsequential; they never enforced the mask mandate."

"The Arizona Department of Health is continuing to recommend that Arizonans wear masks, and practice social distancing, wash their hands and follow health guidance," said spokesman C.J. Karamargin.

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While Pima County has not issued any citations nor revoked any business permits due to violations of the mask mandate, local Health Department officials and others have spent months carrying out educational visits and responding to reports of restaurants and other businesses that might be violating the public health measures.

The county decision likely sets up a legal fight between local and state officials, even while the county has experienced a slight uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases, ending a 10-week-long decline in cases week over week, said Garcia. Meanwhile, county health officials also worry about new cases caused by one of two variants of COVID-19 that have arrived in the state. 

On Thursday, Ducey lifted restrictions on bars, and ordered cities and counties from mandating face-covering be worn in public— a move called "irresponsible, unethical and unprecedented" by the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors and "premature" and "reckless" by the mayor of Tucson.

In a memo last week, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry asked the county attorney to consider how the county would need to modify the emergency-related public health resolutions to be consistent with the governor's order. In his memo, Huckelberry noted that wastewater surveillance testing for coronavirus detected the U.K. variant, or B.1.1.7, "confirming its widespread presence" here.

"This variant in particular is concerning because it is more easily transmitted and also potentially more likely to cause severe disease and event death," Huckelberry wrote. "This type of variant expansion is not uncommon or unexpected, but it does create a greater urgency in order to achieve a level of community immunity before the new variants take hold," he wrote. "Therefore, a public health reason to remain vigilant and retain rules related to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and its variants." 

On Friday, ADHS reported that another variant,  known as the South African variant, or B.1.351, was confirmed in two test samples from the state. 

Last week, Garcia said that the county was in an "arms race," pitting vaccinations against the new variants of COVID-19. 

"We cannot let off the pressure now, we cannot stop masking at this time, because even through the gain of vaccinations are important and tremendous, we are facing the threat of emerging variants," Garcia said. 

During a press conference Monday, Garcia showed the number of cases, noting that after a 10-week-long decline in cases week-over-week, the county saw a slight uptick from 463 cases to 479 cases. He also noted that the number of deaths in the county rose by 1. 

Overall, the number of cases in the U.S. has exceeded 30.2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the county, there have been more than 112,000 cases, and the virus killed 2,348 people. During the worst spike in coronavirus cases, Arizona had one of the worst rates of cases per 100,000 people in the world, with a seven-day average of 112.1 cases per 100,000 people. 

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With 841,078 cases in Arizona, more than 1 out of 10 people in the state have been infected with COVID-19. 

In recent weeks, officials have warned of the possibility of a fourth wave in cases, as states begin to tear down mitigation efforts, and the new variants drive up new cases. During a briefing at the White House, the new director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, said there are "continuing concerning trends," including a rise in the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. 

"I'm going to pause here, I'm going to lose the script and I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom," Walensky said. "We have so much to look forward to. So much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now I'm scared."

After passing the mask mandate on December 4, the Board of Supervisors followed with a curfew, requiring businesses to close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., however that was struck down in January when a judge ruled that the attempt to mitigate COVID-19 cases was "not statutorily authorized," and violated Ducey's executive orders. 

"We believe that we stand on solid ground," Garica said. "Do we anticipate that we'll be challenged on this? Absolutely, and bring it on," he said. 

County health inspectors will continue to enforce the mask mandate at places regulated by the Health Department, which is primarily places preparing or serving food.

Garcia said that county officials don't have a "mask police," but would rather depend on complaints about the use of masks, which will be followed with a phone call. County officials will "work with" business owners, Garcia said, and will attempt to public education efforts to convince business owners to require masking. However, he warned that business owners would face a "three-strikes" policy, and if the county continues to receive complaints, a business owner could be cited $500. The county added that a business could be fined $500 per infraction, and could face "suspension or revocation of its operating permits." 

"This pandemic is not over. There are still hundreds of thousands of people in Pima County who are not vaccinated and who remain at risk for serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19," Garcia said. "The best protection they have until they get vaccinated is for everyone to continue to wear their masks."

Dr. Teresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, said that the number of vaccinations is accelerating, and praised the news that the county can work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish vaccination sites that could reach up to 210,000 people in the county. However, it will take until early summer for the county to hit the threshold of "herd immunity," when enough people are vaccinated that it becomes unlikely for  COVID-19 to spread in the community. 

"We need between 700,000 and 800,000 people to get vaccinated. We need people to choose to get vaccinated at rates high enough to achieve herd immunity quickly," Cullen said. "If we want to stop wearing masks, we need to stop community spread of COVID-19. And we can’t stop community spread of COVID until we get to herd immunity. So, if you want to stop having to wear a mask, go get your shot." 

Garcia said it was important to get people to "adhere to this fairly easy measure." 

"We cannot  pretend that the behaviors that we're engaged in, in public don't impact the health and well-being of others," he said adding that "this is not forever." Rather it was only a matter of time before the county reaches 75 percent vaccine coverage. Currently, more than 3.3 million doses of the vaccine have administered state-wide, and nearly 1.3 million people have been fully-vaccinated. 

In Pima County, more than 28 percent of people have been vaccinated, not including those vaccinated by the state-run point-of-delivery based at the University of Arizona—which has covered nearly 80,000 people, according to figures from the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

"In another two to three months, we will have achieved a level of vaccination that allows this community to take a deep breath, but we're not there yet," he said. "I know that feels onerous, I know that feels tiring—people are sick of it, I'm sick of it. But the deaths, and cases, and the hospitalizations are real," Garcia said, adding that the county still endures more cases than the number of cases reported on Memorial Day week in May 2020. 

"If we want to have a normal fall, we need to invest now," he said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dr. Francisco Garcia, the chief medical officer for Pima County, during a meeting at the Board of Supervisors in December 2020.

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