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Pima County supervisors vote to end COVID-19 emergency declaration

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Pima County supervisors vote to end COVID-19 emergency declaration

  • A map of COVID-19 cases in the county, shown in the Board of Supervisors hearing room in December 2020.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA map of COVID-19 cases in the county, shown in the Board of Supervisors hearing room in December 2020.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to end the emergency proclamation established last March in the early days of COVID-19 pandemic.

Supervisor Matt Heinz, who voted against the move — joined by Supervisor Adelita Grijalva — said the end of the declaration of a public health emergency would send the wrong message, giving people the impression that the pandemic is over, even as people continue to be hospitalized, and the Delta variant has been detected in Pima County.

Board Chair Sharon Bronson said that it was time to rescind the emergency proclamation because the county has reached a "new normal," but the Board of Supervisors could enact new emergency measures, if necessary.

In March 2020, the board voted to declare a public health emergency, allowing officials to institute pandemic restrictions, as the first wave of coronavirus cases reached Arizona. Following the proclamation, the county ordered an halt to dine-in service at restaurants,  as well as closing theaters, museums and other facilities.

Bronson, a Democrat, was joined Tuesday by Republican Supervisor Steve Christy and Democratic Supervisor Rex Scott in repealing the declaration. The two other Democrats on the county board voted against rolling back the emergency proclamation.

Just less than 70% at least partly vaccinated

Tuesday's move comes as Pima County narrowly missed a goal set by President Joe  Biden to vaccinate 70 percent of the population by the July 4 holiday weekend. Here, 69.8 percent of people 18 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and about 61.5 percent of adults have received two doses.

Among the total population, which includes children under 12 who yet cannot receive a vaccination, about 58.2 percent of the population has received at least one dose, and just 51 percent has received both doses. 

This puts Pima County ahead of Maricopa County, where just less than 60 percent of people 18 and over have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but far below Santa Cruz County where CDC data shows that 99 percent of people who could receive a vaccine have been given at least one dose. And, Santa Cruz County has managed to vaccinate 75.2 percent of its total population. 

In January, the county presented an audacious plan to vaccinate up to 775,000 people by June. While the county has not met the highest part of that goal, the county has put 876,699 vaccines into people's arms, and the University of Arizona site added another 240,000 shots. Additionally, as part of the January plan, the county estimated that around 118,000 people were resistant to getting to the vaccine, either waiting to get the vaccine, or refusing it altogether.

Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 117,783 COVID-19 cases in Pima County, and CDC data shows that residents here remain at moderate risk for coronavirus transmission. Two Arizona counties—Mohave and Navajo—continue to have high transmission rates, while data from Graham County shows a low transmission for new COVID-19 cases, according to the CDC.

1 out of 450 Pima residents dead from COVID

As Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry noted in his memo to the board, one of out every 450 Pima County residents died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and there remain major questions about how the new "Delta" variant of COVID-19 could accelerate cases in the next several weeks among those who remain unvaccinated, including children under 12 years old.

Through Tuesday, 2,437 Pima residents have died from the virus, with 4 additional deaths reported by the Arizona Department of Health Services on Tuesday morning, along with 43 new infections. Across Arizona, 18,000 people have died from coronavirus.

Since May, the county began sending 1 out of 10 positive COVID-19 tests to a state lab for genetic sequencing, and out of 285 cases, state officials have found the Delta variant twice, indicating that the more contagious and possibly more deadly strain, is already among the county's population. 

"At this time, over 95 percent of people diagnosed with COVID-19 are unvaccinated," Huckelberry wrote in a memo to the board. 

The county also said that there have been 317 "breakthrough" cases of COVID-19, or people who were infected with the disease after receiving a vaccine. However, these cases remain exceptionally rare among those vaccinated, representing just 0.066 percent. The Pima County Health Department will to continue to monitor those cases, but "no significant pattern has been identified to date," Huckleberry wrote. 

In his 23-page memo submitted as part of Tuesday's agenda, Huckleberry defended calling for an end to the March 2020 emergency declaration, writing: 

"Doing so not to signal that the pandemic is over in Pima County, but rather to call attention to the fact that we are moving to a new phase of baseline sustained lower levels of infection among unvaccinated individuals. It is this residual unvaccinated population that will continue to be the focus on the Health Department's continued efforts."

Heinz: Why move before Ducey ends statewide health emergency?

However, Heinz remained frustrated with Tuesday's vote, arguing that the end of the emergency proclamation puts the county ahead of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who has ended many pandemic-related measures but not yet repealed his declaration of a statewide public health emergency.

"I don't know why we voted to move forward before Ducey," Heinz said. "Why do you want to get out ahead of the state, which has just been abysmal in its response?" 

He added that he continues to see cases of COVID-19, including one man in his 30s who was "perfectly healthy," but is hospitalized and on a ventilator because of the disease. "He's young, healthy, has no co-morbidities—asthma, diabetes—and yet, he's on a ventilator, and he may never come off," Heinz said. 

He added that he was "stunned" to hear the board's decision. "I'm really perplexed," Heinz added. 

"People will let their guard down, and some may think 'why do I need a vaccine if the pandemic is over?'" Heinz said. "There are reasons to keep this in place, so we have the dexterity to do what we want to do." 

Bronson disagreed, saying that the county had already rescinded other orders. 

"I think it's important to do because that's what the state is going to do," said Bronson. "The only COVID-19 infections we see now, are people who haven't gotten the vaccine. We've reached where we need to be, this is the new normal for us." 

"We've already rescinded other orders," she said, noting that orders to shut down restaurants and other businesses had been removed, and that the county's attempt to institute a curfew was overturned by a state court. "And, I don't think that people's behavior will change." 

Bronson said that the county could issue a new emergency proclamation if need be. "This is an ever-changing situation, we can easily reinstate it. That depends on what the state does, but I don't think we're going to see much beyond that. But again, we'll see what happens with the Delta variant." 

"We're never getting back to the old normal," she said. 

Huckleberry wrote that as the county board plans to begin meeting by August 16, the board would follow the same protocols that went into effect at county buildings beginning July 5 based on recommendations from both Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, and Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen. 

"At this time, we are not included to require proof of vaccination to entre the hearing room," Huckleberry said. "I believe this is a matter that shoudl be left to the Board of Supervisors." He said that the county would not install plexiglass barriers between the board members, but the barrier at the podium will remain in place. The hearing room will also return to previous capacity, he said. 

The board also voted to reimburse the University of Arizona $1.3 million for the period that the university acted as a county-run vaccination site. From Jan. 11 to Feb. 18, 2021m, the university operated the site for the county, but that changed after the site on the UA mall was taken over by state officials.

Huckleberry said that the county had already received $7.1 million from the federal government through the state to set up regional vaccination sites. "We can painstakingly take you through these numbers," he said. "Universities have higher overhead, you could say." 

At the end of the meeting, Christy asked after the vote: "What does this mean with the proclamation being gone?" 

"The message is if you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated," Huckelberry said, adding that most of the county's restrictions had already been lifted by the governor's office. Christy pushed further, asking if there were "zero regulations." 

"No more so that what we might have had previously," Huckelberry said. "If there's a resurgence we can craft a new proclamation," he said. "We've done as much as we can do," he said, "and the rate of infection is the hands of those who are unvaccinated." 

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