After touring a site where a group of health care workers will become some of the first people in Arizona to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, Gov. Doug Ducey celebrated the “miracle of modern medicine” that is expected to tame the pandemic, while cautioning the public that the crisis is far from over.
Ten frontline health care workers, including Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ, received coronavirus vaccines at the state’s public health laboratory on Wednesday afternoon. The event came two days after Arizona’s first shipment of vaccines were administered to health care workers and others on the Navajo Nation reservation.
“This is a historic achievement, and I can’t emphasize this enough — in less than nine months, we developed a safe and effective vaccine for a virus that has upended our way of life. And within hours of approval, distribution across our nation began,” Ducey told reporters at a press event Wednesday at the state fairgrounds, where Banner Health has set up a vaccination site.
Additional vaccination sites will open in north Phoenix and Pima County on Thursday, Ducey announced. In less than a week, vaccination sites will be open in all 15 counties. By the end of the month, Ducey said vaccinations will begin at nursing homes.
In accordance with federal recommendations, frontline health care workers and residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities will be at the head of the line for the initial 380,000 vaccine doses Arizona has received.
Under U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines, other health care workers, adults in congregate settings, law enforcement personnel and teachers will come next. People over the age of 65 and other adults with high-risk medical conditions will round out the first phase of the vaccine rollout. The vaccination isn’t expected to be available to the general public until phases two and three of the guidelines.
Phase two of the vaccination plan isn’t expected to begin until the spring and will extend into the summer. Given the timeline, Ducey and Christ warned that the public shouldn’t let its guard down and needs to continue wearing face masks, social distancing, washing hands and taking other precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“We share everyone’s excitement with the COVID-19 vaccine now in the state, but we still have a long way to go before everyone is vaccinated. So, until then, it’s critical that each of us take steps that are proven to reduce the spread and protect our most vulnerable,” Christ said.
With Christmas quickly approaching, Ducey emphasized the need to limit holiday gatherings. He and Christ urged people to keep their gatherings small and to limit them to people in their households, and to connect virtually with other loved ones. Ducey repeatedly emphasized that the biggest spreader of COVID-19 right now is private gatherings.
Arizona, like much of the rest of the nation, is grappling with a new peak in its coronavirus outbreak. The number of total COVID hospitalizations in the state broke Arizona’s previous record of 3,517 on Dec. 11, and has climbed daily since then. Hospital capacity continues to dwindle, with 92% of all in-patient beds and 91% of all intensive care unit beds in the state filled on Wednesday.
Despite that, Ducey again resisted calls for more mitigation measures, such as a statewide mask mandate or limits on private gatherings.
Though he cited private gatherings as the chief culprit in Arizona’s worsening coronavirus outbreak, Ducey said restrictions to limit them would be ineffective, and instead called on Arizonans to be responsible.
“Other places cancelled Thanksgiving or used those kinds of words, or they put things out there that are toothless and unenforceable. I’m not in the business of doing that. We’re putting out measures that will be effective. We’re doing everything we can in the public square to slow the spread of the virus,” he said. “Now we’re asking people to be personally responsible, and I’m confident they will.”
Ducey reiterated his opposition to more shutdowns or closures of businesses, saying he won’t put hundreds of thousands of people out of work during the Christmas holiday season. He said the restrictions he’s imposed on capacity at restaurants, gyms, bars and other businesses have been effective. But he rejected “toothless mandates that cannot be enforced” like a statewide mask mandate that some mayors and officials have demanded, suggesting that local officials need to step up enforcement of their own mandates.
And the governor questioned the effectiveness of limits that other states have imposed on private gatherings, getting testy as reporters repeatedly questioned his decision not to enact new restrictions.
“If there was any state out there or any governor out there that was pitching a shutout, we’d just take their game plan and apply it here. Everybody everywhere, in every state and every county, is going through this. I’m doing what I believe, with the guidance and the counsel of the smartest people in the state and in the country, is the best plan for Arizona. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do,” he said.
Rather than push for new restrictions, some lawmakers are looking to undo the measures that Ducey has already taken.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican, introduced a joint resolution on Wednesday that would terminate the emergency declaration Ducey enacted in March. That would also eliminate the numerous executive orders the governor has issued under the authority of that emergency declaration.
Because it’s a joint resolution, Ugenti-Rita’s proposal doesn’t need Ducey’s signature to go into effect. It requires only a majority vote of both chambers of the legislature.
Ducey brushed off the resolution, noting that the legislative session doesn’t begin until Jan. 11.
“We’re in a state of emergency. We’re going to continue in a state of emergency until that’s no longer necessary. In terms of a letter that’s been written or something like that, my focus is on the challenges we have in front of us right now,” the governor said.