As students prepare to return to Kyrene campuses tomorrow for the start of the 2021-22 school year and Tempe Union students prepare to do the same next Monday, the state’s former top health official has issued a warning about COVID-19.
“It’s now crystal clear… Arizona is back in a COVID-19 exponential growth curve,” Humble wrote, citing a 48 percent increase in positive test results last week.
“By and large, it is a surge among the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, in a media briefing Wednesday.
“The important take-home message is that the vaccines do work against this delta variant.” LaBaer said, “Things are definitely accelerating, and if we stay on this trend, we could definitely see a new surge.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Doug Ducey is doubling down on his refusal to reimpose mitigation measures to help slow the increasing spread of COVID-19.
And the state’s top health official agrees that mandated protections, ranging from wearing masks to occupancy limits at businesses are not appropriate at this time – even if the Republican-controlled Legislature had not just voted to remove them as options.
Instead, both the governor and Dr. Cara Christ said Friday they are relying on people getting the vaccine as the primary way to address the fact that new infections are now back to where they were in the middle of February.
And while daily deaths generally remain in the single-digit range, there has been an upswing in the number of Arizonans hospitalized with the virus.
Ducey said he is focusing on the availability of the vaccine as the method of curbing the spread of the virus.
“We will not be listening to the lockdown lobby,’’ said Ducey.
“There will be no mask mandate,’’ he added.
As of Friday, just 3.3 million Arizonans – 46 percent of the population – are fully vaccinated. Even factoring out those younger than 12, for whom the vaccine has not yet been approved, that number only approaches 53 percent of the eligible population.
County health department data released last week shows higher fully vaccinated rates for Ahwatukee ranging between 58 percent in 85044 to 62 percent and 68 percent in 85048 and 85045, respectively.
The state health department reported that about 95 percent of COVID cases in May involved unvaccinated people. That figure was 92 percent last month and is 90 percent so far this month.
Christ said her agency is addressing “misinformation’’ about getting inoculated.
“There’s also a lot of fear about the vaccines,’’ Christ said.
Press aide C.J. Karamargin said Ducey remains convinced that public schools, community colleges, universities and local governments should also be barred from imposing their own mask requirements, regardless of local conditions.
Instead, he said, it should remain a personal option.
“Any Arizonan can wear a mask if they choose,’’ Karamargin said, including students in schools.
Christ said her two youngest children, both younger than 12 and unable to be vaccinated, are back in school but under her directive to wear masks while they are there.
“If you are unvaccinated, we recommend you wear a mask whenever you are with people that you don’t live with,’’ she said.
The surge in COVID-19 cases is likely attributable to a combination of factors, including the July 4 holiday, the highly-infectious Delta variant, a lack of statewide mitigation measures and a decrease in personal mitigation efforts, according to Dr. Joe Gerald, a researcher at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.
Gerald wrote that the current vaccination rates – combined with the large population of individuals infected and recovered from COVID-19 – will likely prevent a surge similar to last summer, but he emphasized the need to prioritize increasing vaccination rates among working-age adults and eligible adolescents.
Ducey has also pushed back against school districts that plan to quarantine unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19.
In a letter to Peoria and Catalina Foothills school districts, his office said that violated another measure passed by the Legislature that bans districts from requiring students be vaccinated for in-person education. Those districts disagree and are not changing their position.
Quarantines have been left as an option by both Kyrene and Tempe Union officials.
Ducey’s position also conflicts with advice from the CDC, which states that “contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.”
The governor’s position drew criticism from the Arizona School Boards Association and Kathy Hoffman, the state’s school superintendent, who said the decision puts students – many of whom are not eligible for the vaccine – at risk.
“A quarantine period for exposed, unvaccinated individuals is one of the only tools left to maintain a safe in-person learning environment,” Hoffman said.
The ASBA argued the governor’s office’s recent position is in conflict with its own health department’s guidance.
Last year, the state health department advised, “Close contacts are quarantined for 14 days after their last exposure with the COVID-19 case.”
The county’s guidance to school districts currently includes a quarantine recommendation for unvaccinated students and staff exposed to a positive case.
Humble argued the governor and the state do not have the authority to dictate quarantine rules, citing a state law and other rules giving that power to county health departments.
That law, ARS 36-624, states that in cases of infectious disease, “the county health department or public health services district may adopt quarantine and sanitary measures consistent with department rules to prevent the spread of the disease.”
Attorneys for Catalina Foothills and Peoria school districts say Ducey is misreading a new law and that quarantine is “the appropriate course of action except for students who can demonstrate that they have been fully vaccinated.”
But, so far, the governor is not backing down.
“We expect Arizona’s public schools to comply with state law and we’re not going to allow anyone to deny Arizona kids an education,’’ Karamargin said.
Christ told Capitol Media Services she still believes that the best place for children is in school. And that may entail having students who are not vaccinated wear masks.
But Christ said that separating out some unvaccinated students – and maybe even some who are vaccinated but have underlying health conditions – may be appropriate when there is a confirmed case in a school.
“Isolation and quarantine does remain a tool that’s available to local public health (agencies) when they are working with school districts,” she said.
“One of the things that we’re talking about here at the department is, with how transmissible it is, that all close contacts should be quarantined potentially,” she said.
AFN, Cronkite News and Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.