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Pima supervisors again scuttle K-12 mask mandate, will pay $300 bonus to vaxxed county staffers

Sup. Christy sinks every measure aimed at blunting COVID-19

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will give county employees a $300 incentive to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but punted on a plan to charge employees a higher insurance rate for refusing to get their shots, holding it until the board's September 7 meeting.

Similarly, a mandate that would require vaccinations for health-care workers in the county was continued to the next meeting, leaving the matter on the table to get advice from County Attorney's Office after the day's single unanimous vote on pandemic-related issues.

The county will work to aid schools, providing technical assistance, "tailored" public health orders and expert testimony as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Pima County schools. However, a plan to require masks in K-12 schools once again failed, and a move to consider suing the state over a law that blocks mask mandates also fell in separate 3-2 vote.

Supervisor Matt Heinz, a medical doctor who works in a local hospital and had brought back to the board some of the COVID items on the meeting agenda, blasted his colleagues afterwards, declaring that the board had "abdicated its responsibility to protect public health."

Supervisor Rex Scott, another Democrat on the county board, said he voted against a county K-12 mask order to support local control for school boards.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey reiterated his stance against vaccine mandates in an executive order, put out during the board's meeting Monday morning.

The series of county measures aimed at blocking the spread of COVID-19 comes as cases of the disease, including the more virulent form of COVID-19 known as the Delta variant, have spiked across the state. There were another 2,400 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Arizona on Monday — following 3,052 on Sunday, 3,418 Saturday, 3,225 Friday and 2,970 last Thursday — which was 1,000 more than the previous day.

The spike in cases is at levels not seen since the beginning of February, with Pima County hitting "high" rates of community spread.

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There were no new deaths reported Monday from the coronavirus, with 76 deaths over the last week, Arizona Department of Health Services data indicated. 18,464 Arizonans are now dead from the virus.

As the Delta variant continues to spike, health officials have advised that everyone — even those who've been vaccinated — wear masks while indoors in public.

As the Board of Supervisors considered several motions, Ducey released a new executive order, writing that local governments, including the county and school boards, cannot require vaccinations.

"It is well established law in Arizona that cities, towns and counties have authority granted to them by the Constitution and laws of the state," he wrote. "Unlike the state, cities, towns and counties do not have inherent police power to implement vaccine mandates," he said.

Ducey's order notes that Arizona's SB 1824 specifically blocks vaccines mandates.

"We encourage all Arizonans to get the vaccine — it's safe, effective and free," Ducey said. "But getting it is a personal choice, and we will not allow discrimination based on vaccination status. Today's order builds on our efforts to protect Arizonans from excessive mandates that hinder their freedom to choose what's best for their health."

Ducey has spent months attacking vaccine mandates starting in April 19 when he banned so-called vaccine passports. However, businesses including some of the state's largest employers like Banner Health have required vaccinations, along with federal agencies, including the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs.

In a complicated series of votes, the board decided to give county employees a $300 incentive if they are vaccinated, or receive at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine before October 1. In a memo, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry outlined the plan, writing that it would include employees already vaccinated, as well as those getting vaccinations in the next  several weeks.

All county government workers who are vaccinated will also get an additional three days of leave, the supervisors determined.

In his memo, Huckelberry also outlined a plan to remove a health insurance discount from employees if they remain unvaccinated, which would cost them around $1,573 annually. However, the board balked at that decision, and decided to wait until the next meeting to consider such a measure.

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While Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said she wanted to try positive incentives first, she said she would consider implementing the disincentive if necessary. Board Chairwoman Sharon Bronson said she had "real problems" with the plan, while Supervisor Steve Christy rejected the idea entirely, arguing that any incentive or disincentive program would make the county vulnerable to litigation.

Supervisor Matt Heinz—who pushed a mask mandate and vaccinations for county employees—joined Christy in voting against the incentives, as he favored also instituting disincentives, but the measure passed 3-2. 

Following this vote, the board again considered and ultimately rejected a measure to require masks in K-12 schools, and they also dismissed a measure to again declare an emergency in the county.

In a memo sent to the supervisors before the meeting, Huckelberry wrote that cases in schools were rising, noting that for the week ending Friday Aug. 13, there were 224 cases of COVID-19 in schools, a 39 percent increase over a week earlier. Since July 20, there have been 489 cases in school across 141 schools were reported to the Health Department, including 25 outbreaks. This has required the closure of 12 classrooms, Huckelberry said. 

Of those, around 84 percent cases were students, while the remainder of cases or about 16 percent, were among staff.

"To be clear this is now a system-wide issue impacting all our school districts, charters, and private schools," he said.

Heinz criticized the other supervisors after the votes.

"We are currently in a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Thousands of kids in Pima County under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for any COVID vaccine. By choosing to not require universal masking in schools, the Pima County Board of Supervisors is knowingly sending defenseless children into the eye of the storm and ignoring the concerns of thousands of anxious parents," he said in a press release.

"These numbers will continue to climb faster because of the Board’s inaction today and, as we’ve already seen over the past two weeks, the rate of pediatric hospitalizations will rise as well. Our children deserve better," Heinz said.

Assisting schools that implement their own masks mandates "is absolutely the bare minimum in terms of exercising our public health authority and responsibility to keep kids safe. It is a far cry from the universal masking that public health experts tell us is needed to slow the spread of this disease," Heinz said.

Scott said that "the policy the board approved today will empower Pima County school districts that want to take this step. We will also be stating our intent that we stand shoulder to should with these districts against a state law that is an affront to both public health and local control."

"I was a school district teacher or administrator for almost 30 years, so I know that a governing board taking this step has more power and more of an effect on enforcement than a county 'mandate' that puts the district between the county and the state, but still puts the onus of enforcement on the schools," Scott said in a press release.

"Virtually all of the superintendents of the public school districts have told county staff that they support adoption of this policy. None have said they are opposed," Scott said. "Their support does not mean that they will be recommending that their governing boards enact mask mandates, but they will appreciate the support of Pima County if their board members decide to take that step."

The largest share of cases came from the Vail School District, which has been open since mid-July, and Marana, which began August 2. Vail has 125 cases, followed by Marana Unified School District with 84 cases. Tucson Unified School District, which began classes on Aug. 5 has 76 cases, Huckelberry wrote. Charter schools in the county account for 54 cases, he wrote.

On Wednesday alone officials detected 62 COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

Dr. Francisco Garcia,  the county's chief medical officer, said there's a "growing progression in terms of the shear number of  cases," in Pima County schools, adding that public health officials expect to see "the association with cases to happen this week."

During the discussion, Christy referred to HealthData.gov, a federal website, asking why the site showed just two pediatric cases when Garcia said there are four positive, and two pending cases in Pima County hospitals.

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"There's a significant delay on the data on that website," Garcia explained.

Christy followed up, asking why TUSD is "having so many cases when they have a mask mandate?"

"Please understand, early on, most cases were not associated with in-school activity, children are being infected in their homes and in their community," Garcia said. "Most infections children have, they showed up to school with," he said, adding that the data was not useful in explaining the "efficacy of a particular mitigation strategy."

"Except perhaps for vaccinations," he said.

Mask mandate falls, again

Last week, Arizona's public universities and two major community colleges—Maricopa Community College and Pima Community College—decided to require mask on campus, joining Tucson Unified School District and several districts in Phoenix.

On August 10, the Pima County board rejected Heinz's move to mandate masks in K-12 schools in a 3-2 vote, with Bronson and Supervisor Rex Scott joining Christy. Heinz presented a new mandate for the board to consider, however it fell during a complex vote over parliamentary procedure after Bronson rejected the amended motion, and during an appeal, the board refused to pass the new version.

During the discussion Christy attacked masks entirely, arguing that it was "repugnant" to "impose these kinds of mandates against little kids."

"This just sounds horrible," he said. "They hate it; they can't breathe."

During the discussion, Heinz invited Will Humble, the head of the Arizona Public Health Association, to defend masks. Humble, a former director of the state Health Department, said that masks should be used "universally" in schools to help protect kids, adding that mask "help improve the chances for in-person classrooms" to continue.

Nonetheless, Scott argued that a mandate was "in name only" and that it gave "no tools or leverage" to school districts, and he rejected the idea.

"This pandemic should be an opportunity to come together as a community," said Grijalva, but "some of us are fighting against the bare minimum."

Similarly, a move to have the county attorney investigate the possibility of filing its own lawsuit over the state's prohibition of masks mandates also fell apart, as Grijalva and Heinz lost in another 3-2 vote against Christy, Bronson, and Scott.

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County will provide 'assistance' to districts

However, Scott and Bronson joined Grijalva and Heinz to vote for a measure to assist local school districts. In his memo to the board, Huckelberry wrote that the county should aid school boards that require protective measures against COVID-19, including technical assistance, "tailored" public health orders, and expert testimony to help districts that "make the decision to require face masks" in schools.

Huckelberry "until clarified by a court, the county is precluded from enforcing recognized public health principles," Huckelberry wrote. "This legislation is contrary to long established and scientifically proven public health principles."

He also asked the board to allow Pima County to become party to any litigation launched by the governor and state legislators to "assist in the defense of a decision of that local school district."

"The county has a long history of collaborating with our local school districts on public health issues that predate COVID-19," he wrote. "The county public health agency, the Pima County Health Department, will continue to support decisions made by our local school boards and superintendents. We believe these individuals are best suited to evaluate local conditions and require certain activities to minimize the spread of a communicable disease such as COVID-19," he wrote.

"Indeed, there is an existing statutory mandate that requires parents and schools to document the status of six different vaccines at the time of enrollment and a condition for entry in the learning environment," he wrote.

This includes vaccinations for hepatitis B, polio, a single dose against the three diseases measles mumps and rubella, a dose against chickenpox, a dose against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, and a vaccine against meningitis.

Scott praised the idea, saying that unlike a mask mandate which puts school boards between the state and the county, and puts the onus of enforcement in their hands, the plan to provide assistance comes with "real backup and support."

"I love this argument about local control," said Christy. Students and parents are "not getting the response or representation that they are demanding," forcing them to "seek help and aid from the state."

"School boards are not responding to parent, so they have no other choice, no other recourse," he said.

Former supervisor weighs in

The county received just four emails against the mandates, including two from JoAnn DiFilipo, who once served as the chief of staff for former Supervisor Ally Miller.

DiFilipo reiterated her arguments during the call to the audience, accusing Heinz of "childish antics," and arguing that Grijalva should have recused herself from the vote because she also voted for Tucson Unified School District's mask mandate as a member of TUSD's Governing Board.

DiFilipo's former boss, Miller, also weighed in, attacking Heinz for his sartorial choices, linking a requirement that Heinz wear a "shirt and tie" to the mask mandate. The former supervisor, a Republican, also claimed that the increase in COVID-19 cases was not because of the Delta variant, but rather because of the "invasion" of people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border.

After her remarks, Heinz changed the open-collared button-down shirt he had been wearing for a doctor's scrubs — which has been his usual attire during remote board meetings — but did not drape a stethoscope around his neck as she had mockingly suggested.

While immigrants who are brought into the U.S. are tested against COVID-19 by both U.S. Customs and Border Protection and by non-governmental organizations—and their  positivity rate is lower than the overall rate in the U.S.—Miller argued that the county's effort to aid asylum seekers was creating new cases.

Douglas Chappell, the district administrator for Drexel Heights Fire District, asked the board to vote "no" on vaccine mandates. Chappell, whose district manages five fire stations covering about 60 square miles west of Tucson, argued that the district would shed "valuable employees" if vaccines were required, and that if the loss "gets high enough" the district would be forced to take ambulances out of service. "We need help, we don't need more regulation," he said, adding that the district was not "anti-vaccine."

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A woman waits for a vaccination at a vaccination clinic in May.

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