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Pima warns over 'catastrophic' COVID: Stay at home — even on Christmas

Health care system 'near breaking point' as coronavirus infections increase at record rate

Tucson-area residents must stay at home as much as possible to halt the dangerous spike on COVID-19 cases, including skipping holiday gatherings with family, Pima County health and hospital officials said.

"Stay home, even during Christmas and New Year’s," they said. "We know that’s a lot to ask this time of year, but the holidays will come again; sit this one out."

Arizona has set records over the past two weeks for daily new reported coronavirus infections. Friday, another 6,983 confirmed cases were reported in the state, with 1,201 new cases in Pima County. More 7,200 state residents have died from the disease, with 776 deaths just in Pima County. 14 new deaths were recorded here Friday, among 91 additional deaths added to the statewide toll from the disease.

"Without significant changes in community behavior, there will be continued growth in positive COVID cases and hospitalizations through December," a group of hospital leaders, fire department chiefs and top government health officials said in an open letter to Pima County residents Friday.

Letter: Pima health leaders warn of COVID 'catastrophe' over holidays

Last week, Pima County added some teeth to its mandate that everyone in public must wear a face mask. Violators can face a $50 ticket, while businesses that allow customers to flout the requirement can be fined $500, and face the loss of operating permits — which could shut them down.

"If our community does not take immediate action to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 in Pima County, the results for the healthcare delivery system could be catastrophic," said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the county Health Department, and Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima's chief medical officer.

Garcia told reporters Friday that Garcia the county has not yet begun cracking down with citations issued to those who violate the mask order.

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"We've been very vigilant," he said, with county staff "out in force looking at what is happening in our different establishments."

Garcia and Cullen were joined in signing the open letter by the heads of nearly every major local hospital and health care system, and the chiefs of six local fire departments that are tasked with dealing with emergency coronavirus calls to 911.

"Our acute healthcare system is experiencing heavy stress and is near the breaking point," they said. "Our emergency departments and hospitals are full, and they are facing shortages of staff and critical supplies. Hospital workers are exhausted and there is no end in sight, presently."

From the letter, which was signed by the leaders of Banner - University Medical Center, Tucson Medical Center, Northwest Hospital, El Rio Health, the Tucson Fire Department, Northwest Fire District, and others:

We must all rally together and do what is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. We are collectively asking everyone in Pima County to do the following:

•    Stay home as much as possible. Do not participate in unnecessary gatherings. The virus spreads from person-to-person via exhaled droplets in the air. The fewer interactions you have with others, the less likely it is you will contract or spread the virus. In other words, the fewer people you are around, the less of a chance you’ll get COVID-19.

•    Wear a mask. Pima County has made mask wearing mandatory throughout the county. Take that seriously. The mask can help protect you from getting COVID, but more importantly, it can help prevent you from giving COVID to someone else if you have contracted the virus and don’t know it yet. The science is irrefutable. Masks work to help limit the spread of COVID-19, and they are even more effective for infection control if EVERYONE wears one. If you have to go out for work or for essentials, please, we’re imploring you to wear a mask.

•    While we know that this is a time of year to come together as families, friends, and as a community, it is really important that for this holiday season we ask you to avoid altogether any social gatherings, including among non-household family. Again, stay home, even during Christmas and New Year’s. We know that’s a lot to ask this time of year, but the holidays will come again; sit this one out. Use the internet and telephones to communicate with family and friends. 

Not signing off on the letter were representatives of St. Mary's and St. Joseph's hospitals, part of the Carondelet network that is owned by Texas-based Tenet Healthcare system.

Despite recent reports of Pima County employees being exposed to COVID-19 while undertaking their duties, Garcia told TucsonSentinel.com on Friday that he was not "aware" of any staffers who are part of a workplace-related outbreak. He defined an "outbreak" as "two or more cases that are related to each other."

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At least one elected Pima County official, Constable Bennett Bernal, has contracted coronavirus. Others in the Constable's Office, including Constables Kristen Randall and Joe Ferguson, have likely been exposed and are quarantining while awaiting test results.

Closer to the Health Department, multiple communications staffers who have been working on coronavirus-related topics have become infected with the disease, and are quarantined.

About a dozen workers at the Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts are "out with COVID," sources said, along with nearly half the staff of the Miler-Golf Links Library, which is operated by the county.

Pima County officials said Monday that the library was closed Wednesday "due to a discrepancy on what constituted close contact to one COVID-19 positive employee," but "promptly reopened" on Thursday.

Check back for updates.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima health officials Francisco Garcia and Theresa Cullen at a Dec. 4 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.