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Pima County revisits COVID policies as virus become endemic

Lesher asks supervisors to continue requiring clinic workers to be vaccinated, offer perks for all staff who get shots

Pima County is revisiting COVID-19 public health policies, including vaccine requirements and sick leave for government workers, as the number of weekly cases of new infections among area residents continues to decline. The Board of Supervisors will decide whether to change those policies next Tuesday.

In a series of memos last week, Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher advised the board to continue to require vaccinations for anyone who wants to be hired or promoted as a county staffer. Officials also said employees who work in county-run health care settings, which are mostly clinics, should be required to have their shots against COVID-19.

The board should also approve continued incentives such as the wellness points system to reward employees for getting their vaccines and boosters, Lesher said.

If the elected supervisors follow her recommendation, the current policies would essentially continue in place.

But, the vaccination requirement for new county hires would only last until 90 days after the end of the state legislative session, however. A new state law will prohibit jurisdictions from requiring residents to get COVID-19 shots, and is expected to bar local governments from requiring COVID vaccinations for new employees.

The supervisors will also consider giving additional paid sick time to 464 county employees who had to use their paid leave during the statewide stay-at-home orders issued in March 2020. The board already rejected rewarding additional sick time to all of its approximately 6,200 full-time employees who worked through the pandemic, citing concerns about equity given wide range of pay grades among county workers.

Under the proposal, 264 full-time workers would get 80 more hours and 200 part-time or intermittent workers would get 40 more hours of paid sick leave.

Full-time employees were already allowed to keep their federally mandated 80 hours of sick leave, that was set to expire at the end of March, after a unanimous board vote in mid-March. Those employees will be able to receive a pay-out for those hours if they leave their jobs.

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New COVID infections dropping off

The policy review comes “as COVID-19 becomes increasingly endemic and the mitigation tools (e.g. rapid testing, vaccination, therapeutics, and masks) in our community become better and more ubiquitous,” Lesher wrote two weeks ago, saying it’s now “appropriate to review our policies and practices.”

New COVID infections in the county dropped to 297 in the last week of April, down from the peak of 18,483 for the week of Jan. 9, and "we appear to be plateauing," Lesher said. The lowest number of new infections here since the pandemic reached Pima County was 244, which came in the first week of June 2021.

The percentage of Pima County residents who are fully vaccinated has held 69 percent since late last year, with 48 percent of that group also having gotten their first booster shot.

County vaccine requirements led to “a notably high level of complete vaccination among our workforce,” Lesher wrote on April 28, and “generally contributed to the high vaccination rate for Pima County as a whole.”

Late last year, the county set a deadline for employees to get their COVID vaccinations if their work involved “sustained in-person contact with members of the public for more than 15 minutes at a time and at less than 6 feet without an intervening physical barrier.” The county defined this as working with vulnerable populations and included the Sheriff’s Department, clinical staff and community center employees, among others, as those who needed a vaccine.

This led to 56 county employees losing their jobs in early January of this year, out of a total of more than 2,000 full-time employees who needed to be vaccinated. This included 17 workers from the Sheriff’s Department.

Some employees were given religious or medical exceptions from this rule, though the county wrote this was “relatively rare,” with just 23 receiving such accommodations.

The vaccine requirements for those county employees worked, county officials wrote, saying “by any metric the board’s action (to pass the vaccine requirement) has been a success and has achieved the desired policy objective.”

As of May 9, the Sheriff’s Department, which is the largest county department, had 1,066 active employees who have gotten their shots, out of a total of 1,285 workers — 83 percent. Several departments have a 100 percent vaccination rate including county communications, human resources and the stadium district at the Kino Sports Complex.

Other county departments have 30-40 unvaccinated active employees. The second-most number of unvaccinated employees is in Community Workforce and Development, with 85 unvaccinated employees out of 275 total active — a 69 percent vaccination rate.

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By the numbers

Since Gov. Doug Ducey ended the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration on March 30, hospitals have no longer had to report daily capacity numbers such as ICU bed availability nor COVID-related admissions.

However, fewer than 23 county residents per week were hospitalized for COVID-related reasons in April. The last peak in COVID hospital admissions was the third week of January 2022, with 312 patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has Pima County marked “low” for the level of community transmission and the risk of being infected with COVID. The county now has fewer than 30 new weekly cases per 100,000 individuals, according to the CDC.

Pima County and every other county in Arizona had been stuck at “high” community transmission per the CDC from late summer through February as the reopening of schools and the spread of the Delta and Omicron variants spurred several surges in infections.

Since the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, which will end for Pima County schools in late May, there have been a reported 24,440 cases by 337 different schools — a rough average of 73 infected people per school.

Students made up 85 percent of those cases. Children 0-11 years old, which includes vaccine-ineligible children under 5, made up 10,851 of the total 24,440. Teenagers between 12 and 19 accounted for 9,302, and about 3,700 cases were among teachers and staff.

TUSD, the largest school district, reported 6,997 cases for the academic year. The next-closest school district was Vail with 2,958 reported cases, and the third-highest total came from Sunnyside with 2,671.

Charter schools reported 2,467 cases, and the Amphitheater district reported 2,254 infections.

Schools also experienced 4,462 outbreaks, which led the county to recommend that 199 different classrooms be closed.

The number of school cases has been declining each week from a high of 4,403 cases in the second week of Jan. 2022, up from 2126 the week before. Schools reported 42 cases in the last week of April.

January was the worst month during the entire pandemic for Pima County overall, with 63,748 new cases reported countywide. The second worst was in December 2020, with 33,051 cases reported for that month.

December 2020 was worse than January 2022 in terms of COVID deaths and hospitalizations, however, as that was before vaccinations became available.

Pima County reported 1,917 deaths in December 2020 and 706 COVID-related hospitalizations, making it the worst month for both those statistics. January 2022, by comparison, had 1,182 COVID deaths and 274 hospitalizations.

The next month with the second highest totals in COVID deaths and hospitalizations was Jan. 2021, with 1,368 deaths and 577 hospitalizations. With 26,892 COVID cases reported that month, it had less than half the number of cases than Jan. 2022 but more than double the number of hospitalizations.

Out of the vaccine-eligible county population — anyone older than age 5 — 73 percent are fully vaccinated, and the county has reported administering 1,868,298 total doses of the vaccine.

Pima County continues to offer vaccines at fixed and mobile locations listed online. They’re also still available at retail pharmacies.

The county reported 53,479 breakthrough cases, or COVID cases in fully vaccinated people, which amounts to almost 8 percent of the county’s fully vaccinated population. A reported 995 fully vaccinated individuals in the county have had to be hospitalized for COVID, or .14 percent of that group, and 296 from the group have died from the virus, which is about .04 percent.

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Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, the county has reported the results of over 3 million COVID tests. The highest positivity rate came on Jan. 16, 2022, with 28 percent of reported tests coming back positive.

Testing in Pima County dropped to its lowest point in the last week of April to 7,811, which is down from a peak in the second week of January 2022 of about 80,431 tests. The positivity rate last month hovered between 3 and 5 percent.

State and county-sponsored free testing sites are still available and listed online, but three such locations remain — the Ellie Towne Center, Paradigm Labs at 6009 E. Grant Rd., and at the Tucson International Airport. Self-test distribution events are scheduled for this week at multiple libraries.

County guidance for COVID continues to be that residents should protect themselves and each other with vaccinations and booster shots. They should also stay home when sick, and wear face masks around vulnerable populations such as people with weak immune systems or the elderly.

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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