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Nearly 2,000 new COVID-19 cases reported in Arizona as Delta spreads

There were 1,965 new confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in Arizona on Friday — the highest daily tally of new infections in five months, as Delta variant cases continue to spike. Officials have advised that everyone — even those who've been fully vaccinated — wear face masks while indoors in public.

Friday's daily case update was the largest increase since the beginning of March, according to Arizona Department of Health Service data.

18,224 Arizonans have died from COVID-19, with 24 additional deaths added to the total on Friday. 12 new deaths were reported Tuesday, 2 deaths on Wednesday, and an additional 15 were reported Thursday.

The number of people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID infections has also hit numbers not seen since the start of March, with more than 1,070 patients — double the number at the beginning of July.

In Pima County, 2,458 people have died from the coronavirus.

There have been more than 120,000 reported cases in the county — with 106 new confirmed infections on Friday, following 174 new cases Thursday, 114 new cases reported Wednesday, and 58 new reports Tuesday. Across the state, there have been more than 925,000 confirmed positive cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began last year. Statewide, 1,965 new confirmed infections were reported Friday, following 1,759 new reported cases Thursday, with 1,361 new confirmed cases Wednesday and 1,475 new cases reported Tuesday.

ADHS figures are updated each morning, based on reports from hospitals and laboratories the previous day, but not all new cases precisely correspond with the date they are reported. Some new cases may not be included for 4-7 days, state health officials have said.

In Pima County, one out of 426 residents has died 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.

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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."

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.

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, County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen told reporters this week.

"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."

"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.

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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 this week 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.

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 has 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.

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."

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"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.

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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