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COVID 'outbreak' in Pima Health Dep't includes Director Cullen

Dozens of county workers testing positive for coronavirus

There is an "outbreak" of COVID-19 within the Pima County Health Department, with Director Theresa Cullen and other staffers testing positive for the virus, officials said Wednesday. Last week, they brushed off questions about infected county staff, even as dozens were contracting coronavirus.

Cullen was confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 on Tuesday, officials said. Cullen has symptoms of the disease, county sources said. There are at least 11 employees who are part of that outbreak in the Health Department — among dozens of county workers who have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks.

"This just goes to prove that when there is substantial community spread of the virus like we're experiencing now throughout the County, the virus can get into your homes and places of work any number of ways no matter how vigilant you are being with your precautions," said county Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia.

"At least one other" employee of the county department tested positive last week, officials said in a news release Wednesday. At least 60 county employees have been confirmed to be carrying the virus within just the past two weeks, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

There are more than 8,000 people in Pima County who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past seven days, with nearly 15,000 reported infected since December 1.

More than 830 Pima County residents have died from COVID-19, with 19 new deaths reported on Wednesday morning. Across Arizona, 7,530 people have died from coronavirus, with 108 additional deaths announced Wednesday. Nearly 430,000 state residents have been infected, with 4,848 new cases Wednesday.

Last Friday, TucsonSentinel.com reported that multiple county staffers who work in the Health Department, or closely with health staffers, were quarantined because of positive tests for the virus, or potential exposure.

Garcia told the Sentinel 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.

Also testing positive was Supervisor-elect Adelita Grijavla, who is set to take office in January.

About a dozen workers at the Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts are "out with COVID," sources said last week. The Miller-Golf Links Library, which is operated by the county, was closed for a day "due to a discrepancy on what constituted close contact to one COVID-19 positive employee," but "promptly reopened" on Thursday, officials said.

""We require mask wearing at the Health Department and staying home when sick. However, when people can spread the virus before they show symptoms or when completely asymptomatic, outbreaks can happen anywhere," Garcia said.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday to approve requiring a substantial portion of the county's workforce of 7,000 to either work from home or take leave over the next three weeks, in a move to stem the outbreak. The policy will cover hundreds of employees, but thousands of direct service workers and blue-collar staffers will still be reporting for work every day.

The supervisors also voted to make a nightly curfew mandatory, enforcing it by potentially revoking any operating permits of businesses that flout the restriction. That curfew will remain in effect from Tuesday night until the rate of new positive cases falls below 100 per 100,000 residents in a 7-day rolling average. That indicator now stands at 1,300 per 100,000. — "four times what it was in June and July," said county Chairman Ramon Valadez.

From the county:

County case investigators and contact tracers are working to track down the sources of the outbreak, however Garcia said a protest at the building Dec. 10 of several dozen people, some of whom entered the lobby to protest and had close contact with security staff and other building staff, may make that tracing effort extremely difficult. Few of the protestors were wearing masks. They were there to protest Health Department COVID-19 protection and enforcement actions. Garcia also noted that there was at least one covid positive health department employee reported a few days before the protest.

"The effects of this outbreak at the Health Department will be a significant challenge but it is one we are able to handle," Garcia said. "We have redundant capacity in staffing and facilities, and this will not affect our ability to continue to our mission protecting public health or the Health Department's vital role in the struggle to control and end the spread of COVID-19 in Pima County."

"Please, stay home as much as possible. Wear a mask when you're not at home. Stay as far away from others as you possibly can. These are the most effective tools we have to get control of this outbreak until the vaccine is widely available and the majority of county residents have been inoculated, and that won't be until much later in 2021," Garcia said.

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The county is offering testing to all Health Department staff who work in the headquarters building on East Ajo Way, and moving them to alternative work locations or having them work from home while the affected floors are cleaned, officials said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Cullen during a Dec. 4 meeting.