By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- 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, in prepared statements, 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.
And if that message isn't clear, the governor spelled it out.
"Businesses will stay home, students will be able to attend school,'' Ducey continued. And he said "there will be no mask mandate.''
So what is his solution to rising numbers of infected people?
"Please get the vaccine,'' he said, though Ducey repeated he will never make that a mandate.
Only thing is, as of Friday just 3.3 million Arizonans -- 46% 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%.
That leaves 47% of those who are eligible. And figures from the health department suggest that the vast majority of these people have not even bothered to get a first dose.
What makes that critical is the health department reports that about 95% of COVID cases in May were among the unvaccinated. That figure was 92% last month and is 90% so far this month.
Christ said her agency is working on several different ways to promote the vaccines. The key, she said, is addressing what she said has been "misinformation'' about getting inoculated.
"There's also a lot of fear about the vaccines,'' Christ said, which is why the department is trying to get people who are trusted, like health care providers and community leaders, to encourage people to get vaccinated.
Then there's the fact that, strictly speaking, none of the vaccines are fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration but instead are being administered under an "emergency use authorization.''
In the meantime, though, vaccine administration has slowed to a crawl -- fewer than 6,200 on Thursday -- even as the number of cases is rising. And Christ said at least some of that is because of "community spread,'' with more people gathering in groups, many of those unvaccinated and many declining to wear masks.
Yet the governor's position goes beyond refusing to mandate the use of masks. 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.
For the governor, Exhibit No. 1 is Christ. She 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.
Christ said she gives the same advice to others.
"If you are unvaccinated, we recommend you wear a mask whenever you are with people that you don't live with,'' she said. And she said people need to do a self-assessment of their risk, whether they are vaccinated or not.
"Is this an event that you should go to?'' she said.
"Are there lots of people? Is it indoors? Do you know their vaccination status?'' Christ continued. "And, if not, you should wear a mask whether you're vaccinated or unvaccinated.''
Anyway, Christ said she isn't sure that mandates really make a difference.
"You watch what happens in other states,'' she said. "A lot of the states are experiencing the same thing that we are, whether they have mask mandates or not.''
Arizona never had a full-blown mask mandate. Instead there were requirements for the use of masks in places like restaurants, all of which were lifted in March.
What Ducey also did at that time is rescind the ability of cities like Tucson and Phoenix to have their own mask requirements. Christ said she's not convinced those local ordinances did much good at all.
"The people that were going to wear masks wore masks, and the people that weren't didn't wear masks,'' she said. "It wasn't necessarily enforced.''
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, based at the University of Washington, is saying decisions about masks -- and mandates -- have implications.
Its researchers say the number of deaths in Arizona, at 18,144 as of Friday, will hit 20,770 by Nov. 1 using current projections and no change in policies. By contrast, IHME said a universal mask policy would cut that to 18,674 by the same date.