As COVID-19 cases surge, Arizona governor says he won't impose a statewide mask mandate
As Arizona's COVID-19 trends spike, the state is giving hospitals $25 million to bolster staffing, but Gov. Doug Ducey said Wednesday that he won't impose a statewide mask mandate.
In his first news briefing since Oct. 29, Ducey, a Republican, said rising COVID-19 numbers in the state mean "getting back to normal is not in the cards right now." He also held a moment of silence, prayer and reflection for the 6,365 Arizonans known to have died from COVID-19, and their families.
But Ducey did not announce any new restrictions or requirements on Arizonans to stop the spread of COVID-19, despite increasing calls for a statewide mask mandate and other measures in recent days as COVID-19 cases in Arizona continue to climb.
Arizona's COVID-19 surge is behaving differently than it did in the summer with spikes happening in rural areas such as Graham County that had far fewer cases during the state's first surge. Graham County has no mask requirement; in Arizona, it's up to counties and cities and town to enact their own mask mandates and some have never done so or repealed ones put in place earlier.
After the briefing, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego tweeted that she was "deeply disappointed" in Ducey's decision not to implement a statewide mask policy.
Ducey suggested that a statewide mask mandate would not effectively curb the spread of the virus, and emphasized that about 90% of the state is under a localmask mandate. He also said it is nearly impossible to participate in the Arizona economy without wearing a mask.
"I take targeted measures," Ducey said. "I want to do things in a way that will actually have an effect on public health, that will slow the spread, contain the spread."
Patrick Ptak, a Ducey spokesperson, later clarified that Ducey meant that nearly 90% of the state's population was under a mask mandate.
"I’ll add that even places that do not have blanket mask mandates via a local order, there are still mask requirements from the state for face covering for most public activities, such as in schools, restaurants, gyms and other businesses," Ptak said.
Ducey did announce several enhanced mitigation measures, among them COVID-19 testing at major airports. He also said the state is working on amplified public messaging about safe practices and testing locations aimed at visitors traveling to Arizona.
"The trivial measures announced today are wholly inadequate to prevent another hospital crisis in Arizona (in December)," Arizona Public Health Association Director Will Humble wrote in a blog post following the briefing.
"The December crisis will likely be worse than our summer fiasco because there will be very few out-of-state healthcare workers to contract with, our seasonal population of at risks persons is increased now, and July represented the low-point of our normal seasonal hospital capacity," he wrote.
Mitigation measures such as a statewide, uniform, and enforceable face covering mandate and far better enforcement of mitigation measures in bars and restaurants were needed many weeks ago, Humble wrote.
Some other states have taken additional actions in response to rising cases, including lockdowns, curfews and statewide mask mandates.
Ducey defends Arizona's lack of universal mask mandate
The state is recommending that all Arizonans wear masks in every setting, including indoor and outdoor events. But it's not a requirement throughout Arizona.
Ducey defended his decision not to impose a statewide mask requirement even though he agrees Arizonans should wear masks. Leaving it to local governments is a better way, he said.
"I want people to wear masks. Masks work," he said. "What I want to do is take something that I believe works, that we have confidence does work, and make sure we have the widest and broadest compliance."
Allowing individual jurisdictions to make their own decisions on mask rules encourages participation and cooperation and is the best way to avoid the divisiveness and politics that have arisen around the issue of wearing masks, he said.
There are states with statewide mask mandates and seven-day case rates that are higher than Arizona's rate, he said.
"I don't second-guess other governors. Every governor has got to do what they think is in the best interest of their state," Ducey said. "What I want to see is the maximum amount of participation."
Arizona reported about 3,200 new COVID-19 cases and 53 new known deaths Wednesday, with new cases having eclipsed 1,000 nearly every day during the prior three weeks.
Cara Christ, the Arizona Department of Health Services director, said the state continues to see a "concerning increase" in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and the percent of positive COVID-19 tests was more than 10% in all but two Arizona counties during the week of Nov. 8.
A positivity rate of 5% is considered a good benchmark that the spread of the disease is under control.
Hospitalization levels for those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 in Arizona remain below those seen during the state's summer peak, likely because people ages 20 to 44 — who are less likely to have complications — have accounted for nearly half of new cases.
But that younger demographic could end up passing the virus onto more vulnerable populations, particularly as families get together over the holidays. Mayo Clinic’s predictive modeling suggests the possibility of near peak numbers again within the next two to three weeks.
"Importantly, we know now that masks provide more protection than previously thought," Christ said. "Arizonans should wear a mask any time they will be around other people who do not live in their household."
Ducey says he's not in either 'extreme' COVID-19 camp
There are two "extreme and distinct camps out there," when it comes to opinions on COVID-19, Ducey said. One side wants to "lock everything down," and another that "thinks it's all a hoax." Though both groups are loud and vocal, Ducey said most Arizonans aren't part of either one, and that he isn't, either.
Bars, restaurants and movie theaters in Arizona have all implemented strict COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including physical distancing requirements and masks, and those remain in place, he emphasized.
"We've been communicating with Arizonans since February about the risks of COVID and how to contain the spread," he said. "And I'd say Arizona has been a leader on this."
Ducey made several announcements of new measures to help curb the pandemic in Arizona:
- The state is working with officials at Arizona's three major airports in Mesa, Tucson and Phoenix to put in COVID-19 testing sites, which is a measure that some other airports across the U.S. have started to take.
- An additional $25 million in COVID-19 relief funds will go to Arizona hospitals to bolster staffing levels and award bonuses to staff in what is expected to be a significant surge of patients this winter.
- Amplified state public health messaging and doubling investments in public service announcements to help ensure every individual knows what steps to take to protect themselves and their loved ones, from wearing a mask to getting tested to remaining physically distant.
- Enhanced tracking of vaccinations that aim to ensure that all Arizonans who want the vaccine will receive the appropriate follow-up doses at the correct time and allow the state to identify and support vulnerable populations and underserved communities. State officials expect the first allocations of COVID-19 vaccine will be available by early January, with health care workers and first responders at the top of the list for receiving the first doses.
- New Thanksgiving guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services that recommends, among other things, that Arizonans celebrate outside when they can and wear masks if the gathering includes guests from outside their household. Many health experts have raised concerns that increased socializing over Thanksgiving could exacerbate the acceleration of Arizona's COVID-19 surge.
Ducey says kids should be attending school in person
Ducey dedicated little time in the news conference to discussing school issues. He emphasized that students should be attending school in person.
“Kids have missed out on far too much learning due to this pandemic,” he said.
On Monday, Kathy Hoffman, the state’s top education official, called for a statewide mask mandate, mandatory quarantines and testing for out-of-state visitors, a pause on school winter sports, and an expansion of outdoor dining. Those restrictions would help slow the spread of cases to keep kids in school, she said.
Ducey did not fulfill any of those requests at the news conference, though he did announce the airport testing locations.
Hoffman, in a tweet shortly after the press conference, wrote that airport testing is "welcome and needed." However, she also wrote that "more aggressive action from the state is needed."
On Oct. 29, Ducey told Arizonans that infection rates suggested a "storm was ahead of us."
On the day of his last briefing, as hospitals warned that the state could meet or exceed the number of COVID-19 patients seen during Arizona's deadly summer surge, Ducey reiterated existing measures rather than announcing new strategies.
In the weeks since, other states have implemented curfews, lockdowns and travel restrictions as case numbers climbed. Ducey came under increasing criticism for the long period between his previous public briefing and Wednesday's.
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