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Az's top health official leaving after disagreements with Ducey amid COVID spike

Dr. Christ stepping down as coronavirus pandemic resurges in Arizona, Gov. Ducey vows no mask or vaccine mandates

Dr. Cara Christ will resign as head of Arizona's Health Department after six years, following a month of COVID-19 cases increasing while Gov. Doug Ducey has maintained his stance against mandating face masks or vaccinations.

Christ will leave her post as director of the Arizona Department of Health Services next month, Ducey's office announced Wednesday. After August 27, she will become the chief medical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.

The announcement came as Christ joined federal and local health officials in calling on people to wear masks in public to stem the coronavirus pandemic, while Ducey vowed to block any mandates.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations over the past few weeks in counties throughout the state, with Pima County now showing "substantial" community spread and Maricopa, Pinal and several other counties even worse, with "high" spread of new infections.

A new public health advisory will be issued telling residents that they should wear masks indoors in public places even if they're vaccinated, said county Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen on Wednesday.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero ordered Wednesday that anyone entering a city-owned building must wear a mask.

In recent weeks, Christ has made public safety recommendations that were in line with recommendations by the CDC, including pushing for vaccinations and renewed mask wearing. At the same time, the Republican governor continued his stance against a new statewide mask mandate, and signed a law barring schools from instituting their own mask requirements.

Those recommendations apply to anyone in a county with substantial or high transmission of the novel coronavirus. Of Arizona’s 15 counties, only Cochise and Yuma don’t meet that threshold, and Christ said this week that “it’s just going to be a matter of time” before those counties are at that point.

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Despite the timing of the announcement of Christ leaving just after the very public contrast between her statements about COVID and Ducey's continued stance, Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin told the Arizona Mirror on Wednesday that "there is no gap between Dr. Christ and the Governor on COVID policy."

Neither Ducey's office nor Christ immediately responded to TucsonSentinel.com's requests for comment Wednesday, including questions about whether the governor ordered Christ to quit.

Christ called the change in jobs "an incredible opportunity" and a "very difficult decision" in an email to ADHS staff sent prior to Ducey's announcement.

"The past year has been unprecedented, and I am so honored to have navigated the challenges alongside all of you," Christ wrote, telling Health Department workers that she had a "heavy heart" as she wrote the email, "but one thing I don’t worry about is ADHS."

The outgoing health director wrote in the Wednesday email that she "made a commitment to Gov. Ducey and his team to continue to support the agency in any way that I can."

Christ said Tuesday that ADHS was reviewing the new CDC recommendations and would update state guidelines to match them. Given the rise in COVID-19 cases in Arizona and the increasing prevalence of the Delta variant of the virus, Christ said she recommends that Arizonans wear masks in schools and in public spaces when they’re with people who don’t live in their households.

“It doesn't really change the message that public health has been giving. So, our recommendation now is that everyone in schools should wear a mask,” Christ told the Arizona Mirror.

However, public schools in Arizona are now prohibited from requiring students to wear masks due to a new state law that Christ’s boss, Gov. Doug Ducey, signed into law in July, a decision that was widely criticized by public health officials. Ducey also recently reimposed a ban on cities and counties requiring mask usage in public places, and signed legislation exempting businesses from enforcing any such mandates.

After Ducey told school districts they cannot require unvaccinated students to be quarantined after being in contact with virus, Christ recommended local agencies isolate and quarantine. Will Humble, head of the Arizona Public Health Association, said it was “the very first time I've ever seen her disagree with anything that the governor has said or done” in his blog.

Humble, himself a former director of the state Health Department, told TucsonSentinel.com that he was “looking to the future, rather than the past” and that he’d like to see a person in the post "who would report to the governor’s office, but works for the people.”

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“If they have the street-cred from other public health officials they can really push back against the governor’s bad decisions,” Humble said. “But that’s not likely to happen because the governor likes to surround himself with yes men and yes women.”

Asked whether the new laws on barring mask mandates sends a mixed message about the ongoing dangers of COVID-19, Christ said, “That might be a great question for our lawmakers.”

But Ducey was emphatic that he wouldn't change any of the laws restricting public health efforts to combat COVID-19 or any other public health emergency. In a press statement, Ducey emphasized that Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, “vaccine passports” or discrimination in schools against people who aren’t vaccinated.

Humble said the new recommendations will be completely ineffective due to Ducey’s prohibition of mask mandates in schools. That’s especially problematic for students under the age of 12, who are ineligible for the vaccine. 

“Unless you do universal masking, you’re going to have middle schools with like two of the 28 kids wearing masks,” Humble said. 

Humble said he hoped that a school district would sue to overturn the ban.

Humble, who has been a fierce critic of Ducey’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, also said the governor’s comments about the Biden administration were disingenuous, given his support for policies that he said have made it more difficult to combat the outbreak. He noted that Ducey barred universities and community colleges from requiring students be vaccinated to attend school, and that he attempted to bar school districts from requiring that unvaccinated students quarantine for 10 days after being exposed to the coronavirus. 

“He’s removed those tools from all those toolkits, first by executive order and then by signing laws that are counterproductive,” Humble said. “He says he wants high vaccination rates but his policies don’t reflect that desire.”

Since the start of the pandemic, ADHS administered more than 1.6 million doses of the COVID vaccine, implemented a statewide testing strategy, oversaw one of the first state laboratories in the nation to be approved to test for COVID, developed Arizona Surgeline, a service to ensure hospital capacity, equity and inpatient treatment and provided more than 1,300 traveling nurses to hospitals statewide during COVID surges, among other actions, Ducey's announcement said.

During Christ’s tenure as health services director, the department led the state's response to the opioid crisis, maternal mortality and outbreaks of H1N1 influenza, measles and plans to deal with the potential spread of ebola, Ducey's office said.

Christ was “a dedicated leader long before the pandemic hit — developing the Arizona Opioid Action Plan and the Zika Action Plan, expanding access to health care institutions and child care facilities, and always taking creative approaches to better protecting Arizonans," Ducey said in a press release Wednesday. "Through any and every challenge, Dr. Christ put the health and safety of Arizonans first. I am deeply grateful for her years of leadership and service to our state.”

Christ, an infectious disease epidemiologist, received her Bachelor's and M.S. in Microbiology from Arizona State University before earning her medical degree from the University of Arizona College of Medicine. She worked for ADHS for a total of 13 years.

ADHS did not respond to questions about who will be responsible for Christ's duties. Ducey has not announced who will replace her as director.

Arizona Mirror’s Jeremy Duda contributed to this report.


Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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have your say   

3 comments on this story

3
197 comments
Jul 30, 2021, 8:17 pm
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Think of the damage she can do to people at Blue Cross ...

2
2 comments
Jul 29, 2021, 8:32 am
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This is a benefit to Arizona as a whole… Now Governor Ducey can appoint someone that has common sense about the personal rights of the citizens of Arizona.

1
197 comments
Jul 28, 2021, 2:08 pm
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So she finally grew some?

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Dr. Cara Christ will resign as head of Arizona's Health Department after six years, following a month of COVID-19 cases increasing while Gov. Doug Ducey has maintained his stance against mandating face masks or vaccinations.

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