Pediatricians speak at a Capitol press conference on Aug. 5, 2021, after delivering a message to Gov. Doug Ducey urging him to push for a repeal of a state law he signed last month that bans schools from requiring mask use. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
Arizona schools are grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks in the opening days of the fall semester, and more than 150 doctors have signed onto a letter praising schools that have defied a state law banning mask mandates and are urging Gov. Doug Ducey to change his mind on the law.
“I honestly can’t believe we are here all over again,” Dr. Susan Hughes, a Scottsdale-based family practice physician, said at a Capitol press conference after attempting to deliver the letter to Ducey.
Hughes hand-delivered the letter along with Dr. Jacqueline Carter, an internist and pediatrician in Tempe. She delivered a similar letter in June 2020 urging Ducey to allow cities, towns and counties to institute their own mask mandates; that letter was signed by more than 3,000 doctors.
The day after that letter was delivered, Ducey allowed cities and counties to institute mask mandates.
“This is not the first time we are here asking the governor to do the right thing,” Hughes told the Arizona Mirror.
The signatures for the new letter were gathered in 72 hours, and Hughes said that is part of the reason why there are less people signed on than last time — that, and they are busy with more and more patients filling up Arizona hospital beds every day.
Arizona is currently averaging 2,209 cases of COVID-19 a day, up 81% from two weeks ago.
Hughes and Carter handed the letter to a Ducey staffer. Ducey’s office did not respond to questions about whether he plans to meet with the doctors.
While the doctors waited in the Capitol lobby to deliver the letter, an unmasked Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, walked by.
“Hi Dr. Christ!” Hughes and Carter said enthusiastically. Christ waved back as she entered the elevator of the executive tower and waved back with a smile.
The letter comes as schools are reopening for in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic began and the Arizona legislature passed new legislation banning schools from mandating mask usage.
Several schools and school districts have already defied the law, which will not go into effect until September of this year. Some schools in the state have already cancelled classes or sent students home due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Data on how COVID-19 is impacting children in the state is not entirely clear, but estimates by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that Arizona ranks high in the number of pediatric deaths, hospitalizations and cases.
Many states, including Arizona, separate their case data into about six age brackets: 0 to 19, 20 to 44, 45 to 54, 55 to 64, 65 and older and unknown.
“For us pediatricians, it would be helpful to know how many two-year-olds or school-age kids are getting COVID, especially with the Delta variant coming in,” Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza with the Arizona chapter of the AAP said to the Mirror.
Arizona ranked first in the number of hospitalizations in the 0-19 category for the country, eighth in total hospitalizations and second for the highest number of deaths.
More than 157,000 Arizonans between the ages of 0-19 have come down with the virus and there have been 34 deaths in the same age range. Of those 157,000, more than 2,300 have required hospitalization. Approximately 16% of all COVID cases in the state are in this age bracket.
“We are now seeing more kids requiring hospitalizations,” Rimsza said, adding that children currently make up a small percentage of hospitalizations, but pediatricians worry that with the Delta variant that could change.
One study by a group of British scientists found that the Delta variant is 225% more transmissible than the original SARS-COV-2 strain that kicked off the global pandemic in early 2020. Another recent study by Chinese researchers at the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that people infected with the Delta variant had 1,000 times more copies of the infection in their lungs than those with the original virus.
Transmission of the new variant only takes mere seconds if a person is not careful.
Carter and Hughes are also concerned about the long-term impacts the Delta variant could have on children who do get the virus. While younger children appear to not be at risk for the “long-haul” symptoms, Carter said older teens seem to be experiencing COVID-19 in a similar fashion to adults.
That has the doctors worried about school districts being barred from requiring mask use by students, teachers, staff and visitors. That ban on mask mandates was inserted into the annual budget to secure the votes of anti-mask Republicans who said they would not vote for the spending package — including landmark tax cuts that Ducey championed — unless the state prohibited schools from requiring masks.
“Our children are safer in the classroom with mitigation measures,” Carter said during Thursday’s press conference. “(The) prohibition on masking means no school can provide a safe learning environment.”
Carter, Hughes and Rimsza all gave similar advice to parents: Send your students to school wearing a mask and, if they are over the age of 12, get them vaccinated.
“Children have tolerated the vaccine to date, we just need to get more of them vaccinated,” Rimsza said. “We all want the goal of them to stay in school, but stay in school safely.”
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