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Pima supes nix school mask mandate in county, refuse to require COVID shots for gov't staffers

The Pima County Board of Supervisors refused make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for county employees, declined to re-up an emergency public health declaration, and shot down a mask mandate for schools during a long, often contentious meeting Tuesday morning.

During the nearly five-hour meeting, the Board of Supervisors declined to implement series of measures requested by District 2 Supervisor Matt Heinz to blunt the spread of the novel coronavirus, including the Delta variant, in Pima County. In two cases, Supervisor Rex Scott blamed Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and the GOP-led state Legislature, calling their decision to sign into law a bill that blocks vaccination and mask mandates "feckless," and part of an "ugly and divisive" political environment.

Following the 4-1 vote against the vaccination requirement, Heinz seethed, declaring "Incredible, you people." He left the virtual meeting for a few minutes, and then returned to vote on other measures

"The lack of action taken by the Board of Supervisors today will prolong the coronavirus pandemic in our community and indeed do direct harm to Pima County residents," Heinz said after the meeting.

Heinz, a working medical doctor at a local hospital, said that the county board should be "acting to slow COVID-19 transmissions, hospitalizations, and deaths, regardless of the consequences to our own political fortunes. We were elected to serve the public, and protecting public safety is job number one."

The other Democrats in the majority on the county board pointed their fingers at Ducey and state Republicans, saying they have blocked many actions that could stem the continuing outbreak.

Supervisor Scott called them feckless, irresponsible, ignorant," and Supervisor Sharon Bronson, chair of the county board, said "Governor Do-Nothing Ducey is putting us all at  risk."

The supervisors did implement a policy to require masks in county government buildings, and the county attorney will review the ability to declare a vaccination mandate for all health-care workers in the county. Additionally, the county administration will send a letter to the presiding constable as a reminder that an federal eviction moratorium remains in effect until October 3 because of the current high level of the pandemic here.

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In the future, the county could seek to test unvaccinated employees, and may create financial dis-incentive, charging unvaccinated employees a higher premium for health insurance, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

The board also voted to continue virtual meetings, and the board's next meeting, scheduled for August 16, will not be held in person.

Bronson had earlier said she favored requiring all of Pima County's government employees to be vaccinated, with limited exceptions. She did not explain why she voted against the measure Tuesday.

The moves will keep the county from getting into a head-on conflict with the Ducey and the Republicans in the state Legislature who passed a law earlier this year to block mask mandates and vaccination requirements.

However, multiple school districts in the state have passed their own mask mandates, including Tucson Unified School District last week, and there are signs that other large employers, including Banner Health, Tucson Medical Center, the Veterans Administration, and the Defense Department have implemented vaccination mandates.

The votes came as Pima County finds itself with a such a sustained pace of new coronavirus infections — rising to 272 cases on Friday, the highest total since February 10 — that the CDC increased its assessment of the level of pandemic severity here from "substantial" to "high" rates of transmission. Another 377 new cases were reported over the weekend, 112 on Monday, and 242 more on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Arizona has begun to fall behind other western states in vaccinations. California has fully vaccinated nearly 63 percent of people eligible for the shot, while New Mexico has vaccinated nearly 68 percent, and Colorado 64 percent. Arizona has vaccinated 53.8 percent, falling just ahead of Nevada, with just 53.2 percent, but behind Utah, which has vaccinated just over 56 percent of people.

Overall, around 50 percent of the total population in the U.S. has been vaccinated.

Tuesday, Banner Health's top clinical officer said that over the past week, Banner hospitals in Arizona have continued to see an increase in COVID emergency room visits, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and ventilator usage.

Currently, Banner Health has 435 patients in their intensive care units, 90 of which are COVID patients. That number is close to the 484 patients that were in their ICUs last year during the peak of the summer COVID surge, said Dr. Marjorie Bessel.

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During the ultimately failed vote to implement a vaccination mandate for county employees, Supervisor Scott launched into a sharp attack aimed at Doug Ducey and Arizona Republicans for making it impossible for the county to require vaccinations.

Before voting against the requirement, Scott said that the "feckless, irresponsible, ignorant decision made by the Legislature and Gov. Ducey" would make the mandate "toothless."

"I would be willing to support this, " he added, but given the Legislature's actions, "I don't want to put a mandate in place that is essentially toothless."

"Unfortunately, our ability to take action is severely limited," Bronson said.

Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican among elected supervisors, sought to link the rising infections to the transfer of asylum seekers, arguing that it was "hypocritical" and "egregious" that professionals among Pima County should be required to be vaccinated while a "foreign population was allowed to travel" through the county unvaccinated.

In response, Huckelberry outlined the county's procedures, noting that since April around 6,300 asylum seekers were transferred through the county and that the county found that  around 100 people had positive cases of COVID-19, or about 1.6 percent of the total number of people. The county's overall positivity rate is about 4 percent based on the  current 14-day average.

Huckelberry said people with positive cases are quarantined in motels or hotels, and sheltered until they test negative for COVID-19, and then they are "processed as usual." He added that 10 to 20 percent of asylum seekers asked for a vaccination and were given the vaccine made by Johnson and Johnson.

Christy argued there were still "gaping holes that could create infections," but did not illustrate his case.

Huckelberry supported the plan, having outlined its possibility in a memo to the board, writing that the increase in reported coronavirus infections because of the Delta variant of COVID-19, along with a "generally static" vaccination rate meant the county should no longer take a "wait and see approach."

Instead, Huckelberry said that continued employment with the county should hinge on vaccination, and said that all county staffers should be vaccinated by October 1.

At least 2,046 of the county's approximately 6,800 employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a memo from Cathy Bohland, the county's director of human resources.

In her memo, Bohland wrote the roughly 2,000 employees asked for an "I'm vaccinated badge," and were verified by a review of their vaccination card, but that the number is likely higher. However, she said that this left around 4,800 employees who require vaccination, and she said it would be difficult to "ascertain the number of exemption requests."

At one point, Scott said that the current rise in coronavirus cases was a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," and he noted that more than 97 percent of people with severe COVID-19 cases are unvaccinated. "Get vaccinated so you do not die," Scott urged. 

Christy later asked how many pediatric cases there are in the county. While Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, said he didn't have those figures "at his fingertips" he said that there are 282 cases among children since July 20. Most of those, in fact, exactly 113 cases have been in children 0-11, he said adding that there are 111 cases among kids 12-19 in school settings, he said.

At Banner, Bessell said that children are about 5 percent of total COVID-19 admissions, and there are 71 pediatric cases,  double the number from June.

Christy highlighted a separate figure that  had just 4 cases statewide, and Garcia said the number was incorrect, and that cases were likely the "tip of a very large iceberg."

"Whatever the exact number is across the state, it was likely preventable and it's a statistic  that becomes very, very different when its your child," said Heinz, adding that he was seeing more COVID cases, including people in their 20s 30s and 40s who are "sicker than I've ever seen."

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In his push for the mask mandate, Heinz wrote that it "our job as a community to take the necessary measures to ensure that our K-12 schools can remain open for the entire school year."

This includes "taking personal responsibility to mask up ourselves when out in public and to get vaccinated if we have not already done so, to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect the most vulnerable members of our community."

And, he criticized HB 2898, writing that the bill was included "at the last minute to appease one hold-out legislator on the budget, and rammed through both houses of the Legislature on the final day of the legislative session — on a party-line vote and with no time for public review or comment."

Heinz, a former state legislator, added that the bill may violate the "single subject rule" of the Arizona Constitution, and thus be unconstitutional.

Scott also hit the governor hard for making limiting mask mandates at Arizona schools,  calling the law "reckless," and he said that Ducey, rather than the bill's sponsor was "selfishly" responsible for the decision. "If he had any courage, decency, or respect of local control" he wouldn't have signed the bill, Scott said. However, he refused to vote to implement the mask mandate, because "at a practical" level it would put school officials "in an ugly, divisive, and politicized environment created by Doug Ducey and the legislature."

"I take no joy, in fact I am damned angry they have put us in this position," Scott said. 

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva — who as a member for Tucson Unified School District's board already voted to implement a mandate in her district — voted for the measure, but said that it would put the county into a position without any real enforcement ability.

"We've got to stand up as a board, get legal cover for school districts and provide for this legal defense, we can't wait around and see what happens," said Heinz. He added that "blood is on the governor's hands," and he said that he expects that some kids will get sick, and "some of them are going to die in front of me."

Christy aid that parents should have the right to determine  whether children wear masks in schools. As he spoke, Heinz repeatedly interrupted him. "Parent should have the right to make that determination. I'm sorry they made the law," Christy said, later adding that Heinz wanted to "break the law, because you don't like it."

"As far as community, they will not tolerate being forced to wear a mask," Christy claimed. "And why aren't teachers being mandated to be vaccinated?" — a rhetorical question that Heinz responded to affirmatively before Bronson told him his interjections were out of order.

Grijalva and Heinz voted for the mandate, losing in a 3-2 vote.

The board considered, but did not take a vote on, a requirement that health-care workers get vaccinated. Istead, they asked the County Attorney's Office to issue a legal opinion on the matter, and that measure be considered at the next board meeting, August 16.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz at a FEMA-managed vaccination site in early May.

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