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1 out of 426 Pima residents dead from COVID — officials renew call to wear masks in public

More Tucson-area kids catching coronavirus, with schools poised to open

COVID-19 continues to spread in Pima County, where one out of 426 residents is dead from the virus, and health officials are "strongly recommending" that everyone wear face masks in public indoor settings — even those who've been fully vaccinated.

A new public health advisory from the Pima County Health Department is in line with the latest guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Along with an increase in overall COVID cases that falls under the CDC's "substantial transmission" metrics, the coronavirus outbreak here is beginning to infect children and reach into schools more than previously, Pima officials said.

In addition to the push for everyone to wear masks when inside public buildings if they cannot remain six feet away from others, the latest Pima advisory "strongly recommends that all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks indoors at all times during school regardless of vaccination status."

County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen told reporters during in a press conference Wednesday morning that the advisory would be released. Officials finally sent out the advisory document late Thursday morning.

"We are strongly recommending with the hope that as we increase our education of the community ... there will be increased adherence to these recommendations," Cullen said in a news release about the updated advisory. "We encourage people to get vaccinated. Please, please get vaccinated if you haven't."

More than 95% of new confirmed coronavirus infections are in people who have not been vaccinated — including children under 12, who are not yet eligible to get the COVID shots. Breakthrough cases — cases in people who have been fully vaccinated — account for less than 0.1% of all cases, officials said.

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 Arizona.

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Pima County had 680 new cases over the preceding seven days, according to the latest CDC report, which the agency listed as "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.

"We are experiencing decreased availability of hospital beds over the last three weeks," officials said. "In addition, there are increasing pediatric admissions and ER visits reported in the last two weeks.

Statewide, about 75% of the reported confirmed COVID-19 cases that are PCR tested to determine variants are being found to be the Delta version of the virus. In Pima County, which has been sequencing a random selection of about 15% of cases, with 41 shown to be the Delta variant and 359 to be the Alpha variant since May. But officials have cautioned that the widespread presence of Delta infections across the rest of the state, and the higher transmissibility of that type of the virus, means that the number of Delta cases here is bound to increase rapidly.

The number of actual cases of the Delta variant here could be double what's being found in the testing of a limited number of samples, Cullen told reporters.

"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 told reporters Wednesday.

Teachers, school administrators and staff should continue to follow  the CDC's guidance for schools, county officials said.

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

County officials included a reminder in the advisory that "regardless of vaccination status, correct use of well-fitted face coverings may be required by businesses, health care facilities, public transportation and other entities that serve the public."

A number of local businesses announced Wednesday and Thursday that they would follow the guidance from the CDC and local health officials, and again require their patrons to wear masks.

'Substantial' spread of COVID in Pima County

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.

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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.

Cullen said that between 8 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 school-related 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.

"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.

18,200 Arizonans have died from COVID-19, with 12 new deaths added to the total Tuesday, 2 deaths reported Wednesday, and an additional 15 reported Thursday.

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 174 new confirmed infections Thursday, following 58 new cases Tuesday and 114 new cases reported Wednesday. Across the state, there have been more than 923,000 confirmed positive cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began last year. Statewide, 1,759 new infections were reported Thursday, following 1,361 new confirmed cases Wednesday and 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.

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"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.

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.

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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.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Bennito L. Kelty contributed to this report.

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have your say   

2 comments on this story

Jul 31, 2021, 11:52 pm
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1 in 426 dead from COVID-19.  This is about 2500 out of the Pima County population of 1,000,000.
No time frame is defined, so let’s say it’s from March 2020 to March 2021, when COVID was claiming the mot lives. In the same time frame the preceding year, 1700 died of coronary issues, and 1550 of cancers, 500 of ‘unintentional injuries’ (Data from Pima County), the latter being mostly poisonings, falls, and traffic accidents.  Upshot?  COVID is indeed often fatal, joining coronaries and cancer in the top causes of death.
But keep in mind that most COVID deaths were in the 75+ age group, where 1 of 10 deaths (10%) were attributed to COVID.  Compare that to 1-17 age group, where COVID resulted in 1 of 200 deaths (0.5%).  What does 0.5% mean? Yes, 1-17 year olds can die of COVID, but of the 34,000 deaths nationwide in this age group, only 200 died of COVID.  The other 33,800 (99.5%) died in a car crash, suicide, homicide, and other ways that should occupy our conversation when it comes to opening schools and protecting youth.  COVID is a threat to oldsters, for sure, and those in poor physical condition or simply susceptible to flu-like disease, with the latter including otherwise healthy folks.  But simply stating that 1 in 426 dead from COVID-19 is poor journalism.  I did this research with the web and some beer – you can do better.

Jul 29, 2021, 3:53 pm
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So Covid was ok when 1 in 427 were dead but not 426? 

Look. I’m done.  I had I Covid. I had the vax. My risk of serious disease is 0.003 out of 0.00098.  I don’t give a crap about the unvaccinated.  You made that choice. I’m done.

None of these health officials asked me what my risk tolerance is.  My risk tolerance is what it was last week.

If people have decided to take a different risk.  Good for them. Don’t involve me.

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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.)