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Huckelberry backs Catalina Foothills on quarantines as schools prepare to open in August

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Huckelberry backs Catalina Foothills on quarantines as schools prepare to open in August

Humble: Ducey, Republicans have 'tied hands' against taking steps to slow COVID in Arizona

  • People receive vaccinations at a clinic at Tucson Medical Center in January.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPeople receive vaccinations at a clinic at Tucson Medical Center in January.

As most of Pima County's school district prepare to open for classes in the coming weeks, school superintendents are working to establish mitigation efforts after Arizona Republicans passed a law that prohibits mask mandates and required vaccinations for students and staff.

Last week, Catalina Foothills School District was warned by a member of Gov. Doug Ducey's staff that it was violating the new law—which went into effect on July 1—because part of its mitigation strategy required students or staff who have "close contact" with an infected person to stay home while allowing students who had been vaccinated to continue coming to school.

Meanwhile, Tucson Unified School District said last week that it would not mandate masks, and this week, TUSD's Supt. Gabriel Trujillo said that the new law would hamper social distancing, and that the district would avoid asking students or staff if they're vaccinated out of a fear of litigation.

A former director of the state Department of Health Services said that Ducey and GOP lawmakers have "tied the hands of virtually the entire state" even as the more infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 is on the rise across Arizona.

Following the warning to schools from Ducey's office, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry weighed in.

Citing the county's "independent statutory authority," and the "responsibility" to take such actions,  Huckelberry told the superintendents of the county's 14 school districts that health officials could enforce quarantines and isolation for COVID-19 cases.

Huckelberry's letter, sent on July 15, rejects arguments made by Kaitlin Harrier, education policy advisor for the governor's office, who told CFUSD and the Phoenix-area Peoria Unified School District that they could not enforce quarantines for students who had "close contact" with an infected person. Harrier said that Catalina Foothills' plan "does not comply with state law."

Lawyers representing both districts shot back last Thursday, writing that they were "in full compliance" with state law, and said the governor's office should "formally withdraw" the letter.

"Simply stated, a student's temporary quarantine in conformance with guidance published by the CDC, the Arizona Department of Health Services, and the Pima and Maricopa County Health  does not violate the letter or spirit" of Arizona law, they wrote. "Instead, this practice, promotes public health."

The clash over quarantines for some students comes as districts begin to outline mitigation efforts designed to stymie infections of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has infected 34 million people in the U.S., and killed around 607,000. As most schools in Pima County prepare to begin classes on August 5, cases of COVID-19 have begun to increase after record lows in mid-June.

Statewide data shows that just 14 percent of those aged 20 or below have received one or more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. While those 12-15 were authorized to begin receiving the vaccine in May, the FDA has not approved coronavirus vaccinations for kids under 12. Pima County has distributed about 62,000 doses to people 12 to 18 years old.

Nonetheless, more than 24,000 kids in TUSD alone are unable to receive a vaccination against the virus because they are too young under the current vaccine authorizations, according to enrollment data from the district.

In his letter, Huckelberry told school districts the county and the Pima County Health Department, have "independent statutory authority and the responsibility to take such actions as required to protect the  community from infectious disease."

"A Health Department decision to recommend quarantine or isolation, is based on testing results provided by the state and the information gathered through our case investigation and contact tracing process," he said. He added that the Health Department's quarantine and isolation recommendations are based federal and state public health guidelines.

He also told educators that the county was willing to go to court to enforce an order of quarantine "when it becomes necessary."

"Such orders are rarely needed," he added.

Trujillo said Wednesday that TUSD would work to mitigate COVID-19 infections,  but that action from Ducey meant the district could not mandate masks in the district, and that a requirement built into HB 2898 meant the district would struggle to establish physical distancing.

"We will be physically distancing to the extent possible," Trujillo said during a press conference Wednesday, but HB 2898 means the district cannot "limit  or inhibit" students from in-person instruction. "We are not allowed to make student go online to implement greater physical distancing," he said. "Which means, we will have full class sizes," he said.

Trujillo also said that the district would not ask students or staff if they've been vaccinated. "That is not a route we're willing to do because of legal implications," he said, adding that TUSD is susceptible to litigation or lawsuits, and "that's not an avenue we wanted to travel."

Trujillo announced that his district could not require students and staff members to wear masks, even though the practice remains highly recommended as a way to staunch COVID-19 infections in an email to parents and staff last week.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said Sunday that all staff and students who are 2 years or older should wear face masks "unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit their use."

"As we start the 2021-2022 school year, a large portion of students are not eligible to be vaccinated and there are COVID variants that are more contagious. Because of this and because we want to have all students in school, the AAP advocates for all students, teachers and staff to wear masks while indoors in school," said Dr. Sonja O'Leary, M.D., chair of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee.

Similarly, the CDC continues to recommend masking, writing that "consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained." 

"Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households," the CDC said. "COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers, and staff, who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels."

GOP has 'tied hands' against COVID measures

Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association and the former head of the state Health Department, wrote that "exponential growth" of the coronavirus was back in Arizona

For the week ending July 11, 5,813 Arizonans were diagnosed with COVID-19, a 48% increase from last week's initial tally of 3842 cases, Humble wrote. "This marks the fifth consecutive weekly increase and a brisk acceleration over past trends." He added that the last time that Arizona recorded "this level of transmission on an upward trajectory was October 18, 2020 when 6330 cases were reported."

"Unlike the update earlier this week, which suggested slowly worsening conditions," Humble wrote, this week's change makes it likely that Arizona will soon experience cases above 100 per 100,000 residents per week, "marking a transition from substantial to high levels of transmission."

"At this point, Gov. Ducey, Director Christ and a majority of the state Legislature have tied the hands of virtually the entire state to the point where nobody is allowed to do virtually anything to slow the spread of COVID-19. "

"K-12 schools are prohibited from requiring masks on campus," he wrote. "Universities and community colleges cannot require masks nor can they have a student code of conduct that has different expectations for vaccinated and unvaccinated students. Cities and counties cannot have mask requirements in their jurisdictions. Vaccination requirements and requirements for vaccination records are prohibited. It's like they have us in reverse lockdown."

School districts across Pima County are recommending masks, but only the Continental district is requiring the use of masks on school buses.  The remaining districts have said that face-coverings are optional.

On Wednesday, TUSD's Trujillo said that the school district remains "powerless," to maintain what he called  "our number one most effective strategy" to mitigate COVID-19 infections. He said that last year, "when we were masked up," and masking was obligatory and mandatory, the district was able to limit case positives.

"We are no longer able to do that," he said, adding that he didn't blame parents who wanted to keep kids at home and begin using the district's Tucson Unified Virtual Academy. 

So far, the district has around 1,200 kids signed up for TUVA, and Trujillo said he expects 1,500 to 1,700 students to sign up. Even 2,000 is "feasible," based on the district's plan, Trujillo said. The virtual academy remains a "viable option," especially for kids 11 and under who cannot get the COVID-19 vaccine, and for parents worried about a potential fourth wave of COVID-19 cases.

Delta variant spreading in Arizona

Cases have begun to increase across the state, rising from about 4 cases per 100,000 people on June 12 to 12.3 cases per 100,000 people on July 18, according to data from the Delphi Research Group, based at Carnegie Mellon University. This is above the national average of about 7.3 case per 100,000. The Delphi Group said that some indicators were improving in the state, including the increasing acceptance of vaccinations, but the group warned that mask-wearing had declined significantly over the last 7 days, dropping around 7 percent.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 1,043 new cases Wednesday, and another 10 deaths, sending the total number of cases in the state to over 911,000 and there are now 18,127 deaths statewide. In Pima County, there have been around 119,000 total reported coronavirus infections, and nearly 2,500 deaths.

While cases among young people are rarer, data from the Pima County Health Department shows that there have been nearly 19,500 cases of COVID-19 among people under 20 years old, but luckily zero deaths in the county. In fact, the lion's share of deaths from COVID-19 in Pima County was those 65 and older, who account for 1,962 deaths.

However, officials worry about the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which appeared in tests for the disease in mid-June, and is increasingly the dominant form of COVID-19.

"Please be assured that Pima County and our Health Department remain committed to you and all our schools as you work to maintain a safe and healthy school environment," Huckelberry wrote.

"Now more than ever, as the Delta variant comes into this community, it is critical that we continue to work as a team," he said, "to ensure the health of all of Pima County."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the last name of the Pima County administrator.

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