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Mask up indoors even if vaxxed, Pima County health chief says, echoing CDC caution

Pima County residents should wear masks indoors in public places even if they're vaccinated, said the head of the Pima County Health Department, in line with new CDC guidelines about areas where COVID-19 continues to spread, including Southern Arizona.

A new public health advisory will be issued with that caution, said county Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen in a press conference with local reporters Wednesday.

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.

Pima County has seen a 680 new cases over the past seven days, which the CDC has called a "substantial" spread or transmission. Both the CDC and PCHD have raised concerns about the transmission of the Delta variant and the K-12 population returning to school, leading to the new recommendations to mask up indoors.

"Masking is the one thing that is out there as a vehicle and a tool that can be used by siblings, parents, grandparents, faculty, staff, the districts to help encourage a decrease in any other outbreak," Cullen said.

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

The county reached a "substantial" transmission level on July 19 after starting the month with a "moderate" number of cases, said Cullen. If Pima County continues to see the number of cases that it has over the past week it will see its transmission rate raised to "high" as is the case with Maricopa, Pinal, Yavapai, Gila, Mohave, Navajo and Apache counties.

Many school districts in the county will start in-person classes for the fall in the coming weeks, including TUSD on Aug. 5, and since July 19, Cullen said that the county has seen 56 school-related cases reported and expects to hear about another 10 cases on Wednesday.

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Cullen said that between 5 and 10 percent of the recent cases in the county were school-based, as opposed to the 4 percent of school-related cases over the preceding 12 months.

The county is also seeing an increase in COVID-related pediatric visits and admissions, Cullen said, including ICU admissions and an increase in post-COVID symptoms.

The county had also seen eight COVID outbreaks reported in recent weeks after seeing none over the earlier part of the summer.

As kids are heading back to class, the appearance of the Delta variant is also increasing, Cullen said. July 17 was the last time they had a report of the Delta variant.

Cullen said that sequencing, or testing for what variant of COVID if found in cases, is happening in 12 percent of cases, and, based on how the random sequencing is done, the number of actual cases of the Delta variant could be double what's reported.

"There is a potential for a very significant impact on the community at large because of the school-based cases," she said.

According to the CDC data tracker, which the county now uses in favor of the Arizona Department of Health Services data tracker that Cullen said can be "confusing," the overall vaccination rate in Pima County is 52 percent. While COVID rates are up, Cullen said that they are nowhere near where they were the last time the county had a spike.

She also said that hospital bed utilization rates are up but because of "other diseases" that they're seeing in the county as well as COVID.

'Substantial' COVID spread in Pima County taking place

Pima County has had "substantial" spread over the last seven days, with more than 680 new cases — an increase of nearly 30% over the preceding week. Santa Cruz County is also classified as having "substantial" spread.

To start July, the level of community spread in Pima County was determined to be "moderate," but the recent increase in the number of new infections has changed that metric.

Maricopa, Pinal, Yavapai, Gila, Mohave, Navajo and Apache counties are even worse, all classified with "high" spread, according to the CDC.

More than 18,180 Arizonans have died from COVID-19, with 12 new deaths added to the total Tuesday, and an additional 2 deaths reported Wednesday.

In Pima County, more than 2,450 people have died from the coronavirus.

There have been nearly 120,000 reported cases in the county — with 58 new cases Tuesday and 114 new infections reported Wednesday. Across the state, there have been more than 920,000 confirmed positive cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began last year. Statewide, 1,361 new confirmed cases were reported Wednesday, following 1,475 new cases Tuesday.

Ducey, Az Republicans blocked requiring masks in schools

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Republicans in the state Legislature have outlawed requiring face-coverings in schools.

Ducey signed a law in June that "prevents schools from requiring student and staff vaccinations, and makes it clear that wearing a face covering at school is an individual choice — not a mandate," he said. He also signed a similar bill that keeps public colleges and universities from establishing their own mandates.

Ducey reiterated his stance Tuesday in response to the CDC's announcement.

"Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports or discrimination in schools based on who is or isn't vaccinated. We've passed all of this into law, and it will not change," he said.

The move to bar mask requirements was blasted by some public health and education advocates last month.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, an elected Democrat, did so again Tuesday, calling on Ducey "to follow the guidance of public health experts and give schools back their local decision-making authority to set policies for safe in-person instruction."

"The CDC is once again recommending schools, teachers, and students wear a mask if attending in-person school regardless of vaccination status," Hoffman said. "We know masks work and with rising cases, they're a vital part of our effort to reduce everyone's COVID-19 risks."

"I encourage teachers, administrators, and families to listen to the CDC and take individual action to keep themselves and each other safe by wearing a mask during in-person school," she said. "Students, teachers, and parents are ready to get back to in-person learning, but it takes all of us."

In the Tucson area, students in the Vail Unified School District have already returned to in-person classes for the fall semester. In the Tucson Unified School District, Flowing Wells, Amphitheater, Sunnyside and other area districts, classes are due to begin August 5. Catalina Foothills students will return to class August 9, while Marana students are due back in class on August 2.

Tens of thousands of students at the University of Arizona are set to return to campus also, with classes beginning August 23.

Heinz calls for renewed public health emergency

Pima County should "re-declare a public health emergency in light of all of the new information," said County Supervisor Matt Heinz, who is a medical doctor practicing at a local hospital. Heinz cited concerns about the Delta variant, along with "cases and hospitalizations on the rise, and schools about to reconvene."

Last week, Supervisor Sharon Bronson said that she would favor requiring all county employees to be vaccinated — a move that local officials had considered and not taken last winter.

Bronson said that she would bring the matter up again at the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors, set for August 10.

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Heinz said Tuesday that he wants the supervisors to take action on requiring masks in public, "especially regarding school staff and children under 12 who are not yet vaccine-eligible."

In Arizona, about 51.3 percent of people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and another .7 percent of people have received at least one vaccination, according to state data. In Pima County, more than 70 percent of people eligible to get the vaccine have received at least one dose, however, children under 12 cannot be vaccinated pending an approval by the FDA.

This leaves more than 24,000 kids in TUSD alone unable to receive a vaccination against the virus, according to enrollment data from the district.

Throughout the pandemic, more than 149,000 people aged 20 or below were infected by COVID-19 across the state, including about 19,000 in Pima County, state data shows.

Of the nearly 13,000 new Arizona cases reported in June, 92.4 percent "were among those who weren't vaccinated or weren't fully vaccinated," state health director Dr. Cara Christ said two weeks ago. "All this points to a fundamental truth: Vaccines are demonstrating their effectiveness at preventing serious cases and deaths from COVID-19 and providing the strongest possible argument for the benefits of vaccination."

"We’ve reached the point where severe cases and deaths from COVID-19 are almost entirely preventable," Christ said.

Ducey's office announced Wednesday that Christ was leaving her state position, to take a job as the chief medical officer for health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield Arizona.

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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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The Pima County Health Department is following the CDC in recommending that the people mask up indoors, especially kids and teachers returning school as the COVID cases begin to spike again and students return to classes. (Cullen during a December 2020 meeting.)