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Mayors again call for statewide mask mandate as Arizona COVID-19 cases surge

Democratic mayors from across the state urged Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday to implement a statewide mask mandate, as COVID-19 cases surged past 4,000 for a second straight day and state hospitals neared capacity in their intensive care units.

The call by mayors of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and Tolleson came two days after Ducey called on Arizonans to take steps to stem the coronavirus, such as wearing masks, avoiding large crowds and limiting Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings.

But Ducey again declined to impose a mandate, a step the mayors said should no longer be an option.

“Gov. Ducey said Wednesday during his press conference that we need more than just messaging. I completely agree. What we need is decisive state action,” said Tucson Mayor Regina Romero. “Unfortunately, we have yet to see that from Gov. Ducey.”

Ducey’s office did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

The mayors’ call came as the state, which had been a national hotspot for COVID-19 infections in the summer, is undergoing a second wave of cases, which totaled 291,696 as of Friday. The Arizona Department of Health Services has also recorded 6,427 deaths related to the disease.

In the past week, the state has averaged just under 3,160 new cases and 25 deaths per day, according to state data. That’s among the highest weekly counts since the first Arizona case was reported in late January, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department.

Cullen said there were days in the summer “where we had single-digit ICU bed availability. We are back in that same situation right now.” At the rate that cases are growing, she said, there’s a “very high probability” that hospitals will soon be overrun, despite the fact that they are preparing for a surge.

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The fallout after Thanksgiving could be the tipping point.

“I’m really worried,” Cullen said. “We had five hospitals this morning on cautionary diversion status,” meaning hospitals were worried they might not have enough beds for incoming patients.

She said Pima County Health Department officials are creating a model to identify whether the county will require an emergency shelter.

“None of us want to choose to be in that spot, so we really need the community to work really closely with us to try to mitigate infection until we can get immunization out there,” Cullen said.

The mayors also called on people to be responsible but they are not relying on good will in at least three of the cities: Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff have had mask mandates since June.

A mask mandate “wouldn’t stop transmission,” Cullen said, but research shows “that if about 80% of the population wears masks, we do see a significant decrease in transmission of the disease.”

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said Ducey’s refusal to impose a mask mandate, after he said that masks and social distancing can stem the spread of COVID-19, is like “winking and introducing uncertainty.” She advised the public to fight “COVID fatigue” and continue protecting their fellow Arizonans.

“Our public health officials agree masks are important,” Gallego said. “I understand they hurt your ears – mine too. But wearing a mask is more comfortable than wearing a ventilator.”

Gallego and the other mayor said they have not spoken to Ducey in months, and noted that he has stopped the daily briefings that were held at the height of the earlier surge.

The mayors said that until a vaccine is widely available, Arizona communities should “hold hands” – though not literally – and face the COVID crisis together.

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Cullen said fighting the pandemic is everyone’s duty.

“There is a responsibility to at least consider the data that’s available to help protect the populace,” Cullen said. “The main intervention that is available, ubiquitously, is mask wearing.”

“We’re not doing anything right now,” she said.

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