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Heinz: Masks in schools are a public health imperative as Delta spreads in kids

We know how to stop the spread of COVID and we have the tools to do so: get vaccinated and wear a mask.

On Monday, I'll ask my colleagues on the Pima County Board of Supervisors to reverse course and join me to require face masks at all K-12 schools in the county, both public and private.

This comes less than a week after I made a similar motion that was voted down, 3-2 at our last meeting, even though mandatory mask wearing in schools is widely endorsed by pediatric doctors and public health officials nationwide. We must protect our school-age children, and their families and teachers, from the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ripping through our communities.

Since classes began, less than two weeks ago for most students in Pima County, cases of COVID-19 have absolutely exploded in our schools. There have already been an astounding 26 school outbreaks, with 519 students testing positive (as of 3 p.m. Friday — by now, those numbers are unquestionably higher). Many of these kids are younger than 12 years old and are not yet eligible for any COVID vaccine.

By not requiring masks, we are knowingly sending defenseless kids into the epicenter of this global pandemic.

And many of these kids aren't just testing positive – they're getting very sick. Earlier this week Banner's chief clinical officer, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, said that the number of children hospitalized for COVID in Arizona has increased dramatically, with COVID-positive kids admitted to Banner hospitals doubling from June to July to 71 children. And that was before classes began for most kids.

People watching the Board of Supervisors meeting last week, when my colleagues voted down most of the COVID mitigation efforts I brought forward, noticed my frustration for the lack of action taken to stop the spread of the Delta variant in our community.

My exasperation is borne from personal experience. As a hospital doctor, night after night, I treat extremely sick COVID-positive patents – most of whom are not vaccinated and some of whom were exposed to the virus by their kids. These people get intubated, put on ventilators, and the unlucky ones still perish from drowning in their own respiratory secretions.

That's what COVID does. It is an awful, devastating disease.

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And what's more devastating, to me and to so many in my field, is knowing that most of these deaths are entirely preventable. We know how to stop the spread of COVID and we have the tools to do so: get vaccinated and wear a mask. It is that simple. But it does take the whole community pulling together and doing the right thing.

One of my colleagues on the Board stated at last week's meeting that he didn't want to put schools between the county and the state in a political fight and didn't want to put teachers and principals in the position of having to enforce a mask mandate they didn't enact. I respect where he's coming from, and whole-heartedly believe that teachers' and principals' main job right now should not be fighting parents or students over masks. They have a big enough job already and need our full support to focus the entirety of their energy on teaching and learning, and helping our kids recover from a traumatic year and a half.

However, I would remind my colleagues that it was Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature that put schools – and, more precisely, students, teachers, and staff – in this position.

What I am asking the Board to do is protect our students and stand up for our schools and school staff. We can provide the legal and the enforcement cover they need, and we should.

I applaud the school districts, universities, and community colleges that are revolting against the governor and Legislature's disastrous ban on mask mandates in the middle of a surging COVID crisis, and the education and advocacy groups that are challenging the ban in court as unconstitutional. It is time for Pima County to join them.

We should also consider that the GOP-driven ban of mask mandates doesn't go into effect until September 29, and, when it does, it will apply to public schools but not private. The school that Gov. Ducey sent his children to, Brophy College Preparatory, is mandating masks, as are Tucson's Salpointe Catholic High and The Gregory School. But public-school districts that take the same precautionary measure will do so in defiance of state law.

As such, I'll bring this K-12 mask mandate to the Board again because it is a public health imperative.

If you agree with me, I urge you to share your thoughts with my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors ahead of Monday's meeting. You can email us all at COB_mail@pima.gov. I assure you my staff and I read every message received.

When I became a doctor, I took an oath to do no harm. I believe the same principle applies here: we must keep our children, families and teachers safe.

Dr. Matt Heinz is a hospitalist in Tucson who represents District 2 on the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

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