Leaders of hospitals across Arizona are voicing disapproval with Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to roll back local mask mandates and business restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the state’s public health chief said Friday the governor did not consult hospitals before ending restrictions.
During a Friday press conference, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said the only conversations about the decision to roll back local mask mandates and statewide requirements that businesses enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing were between the Governor’s Office and ADHS.
“As we make public health recommendations, a lot of times we’ll work (with hospitals), but we did not consult with them on this specific recommendation,” Christ said.
Following Ducey’s actions Thursday, Arizona’s two largest health care and hospital networks said it was too soon for Arizonans to abandon simple mitigation techniques, including wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.
“To date, less than 20% of Arizonans are fully vaccinated against the virus,” Banner Hospitals, which operates 30 hospitals in Arizona, said on Twitter. “This number needs to be much higher before we ease mitigation measures like masking.”
Hours after Ducey’s announcement, Phoenix-area bars were packed with maskless partygoers, with some bars promoting that masks were not required and they would be at “full capacity.”
Old Town Scottsdale was packed the night after Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order rolling back COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. pic.twitter.com/NfoIP8Ya0G
— Jessica Suerth (@suerthjessica) March 26, 2021
Ducey’s latest COVID-19 executive order comes as cases in Arizona continue to decline and vaccinations continue to rise. In announcing the changes to how the state is attempting to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, Ducey noted that more than 3 million individual doses of COVID vaccine have been administered in the state and there have been 10 weeks of declining cases.
In all, the Arizona Department of Health Services reports that 26.8% of Arizonans — about 1.9 million people — have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Only 16.8% of people are fully vaccinated. Public health experts say herd immunity requires at least 70% of a population to be vaccinated.
Banner was not alone in commenting on its unease with the Governor’s decision.
The Health System Alliance of Arizona, an advocacy organization that represents integrated healthcare organizations such as Banner, Dignity Health, HonorHealth, Tenet Healthcare and Northern Arizona Healthcare, released a statement warning about walking back COVID mitigation measures.
“A downward trend is not synonymous with the elimination of the virus,” the statement from the organization said. “Now is not the time to become complacent and declare victory when the virus is still prominent throughout our community.”
The CEOs of HonorHealth, Banner, Dignity Health, Tenet Healthcare and Northern Arizona Healthcare also wrote an op-ed for the Phoenix Business Journal in which they echoed the sentiments made by the Health System Alliance of Arizona, saying that mitigation measures work and Arizona needs to “stay the course.”
“Arizona would not be in the position it is in right now without the combination of reduced business capacity, mask mandates, and social distancing requirements,” they wrote. “Although we have made great progress to date, we are far from reaching herd immunity through immunization. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to slow down the spread of the virus as we increase vaccination distribution.”
Christ on Friday said the state recognizes that Arizonans are likely to contract and spread COVID following Ducey’s orders, but the decision is sound because widespread vaccinations among the elderly and health care workers means any surge in new cases is unlikely to strain Arizona’s hospital system.
Arizonans older than 55 have made up nearly 65% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations, despite being only 25% of cases.
Arizonans between the ages of 20-44 make up nearly 44% of all COVID cases and only 19% of total hospitalizations, and a recent study has shown that those in the 20 to 49 age group are the likely drivers for continual surges.
“Hopefully, there weren’t a lot of our older Arizonans at those bars,” Christ said Friday when asked about the bars, saying that they would prefer that the establishments follow CDC and ADHS guidelines.
As of March 26, there have been over 838,000 cases of COVID in Arizona and 16,000 deaths. On Thursday, Arizona reported 571 new cases and 24 deaths.