Dr. Cara Christ

Gov. Doug Ducey and state health director Dr. Cara Christ last week discussed the surge in COVID-19 cases in Arizona.

Gov. Doug Ducey refused last week to impose new restrictions or mandates on individuals even as his own health chief warned of an increasing number of Arizonans becoming infected with COVID-19.

The governor dismissed the idea of a statewide mask mandate, calling it unnecessary given various local ordinances. Nor will he clamp down on existing occupancy limits at bars, restaurants, gyms or movie theaters or seek to curb their hours of operation.

The one key announcement he made was to provide $25 million to hospitals. But that is designed to allow them to hire more staff to care for those who become ill and give bonuses to existing employees.

New data released Nov. 19 by the county health department show that for the week of Nov. 8, cases per 100,000 people were in the substantial spread category for both the city of Scottsdale, at 168, and Scottsdale Unified School District, at 182. 

The other two benchmarks used for measuring virus spread also are now in the moderate spread category, rising from the minimal level over the last few weeks both citywide and SUSD-wide. They are at close to 8 percent for positive new test results and at 5 percent for hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms.

The data released Thursday mornings by the county are 12 days old.

State health director Dr. Cara Christ said more than 10 percent of the tests conducted last week in 13 of the state’s 15 counties have come back positive for the virus, with only Pima and La Paz below that figure. The rate of infection is above 100 per 100,000 residents throughout the state.

Christ said the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive-care units also is on the rise.

“These metrics are heading in the wrong direction,’’ she said.

Christ put in a plug for masks based on new research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know now that masks provide more protection than previously thought,’’ she said.

But Ducey said he has no intention of imposing a statewide mandate for people to wear masks when they are outside, even following pleas from state schools chief Kathy Hoffman and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego.

“I want people to wear a mask,’’ the governor said, “Masks work.’’

He said, though, a statewide mandate is unnecessary because local mandates already cover about 90 percent of the population. And Ducey said that the efforts by his administration to convince people to mask up “has got the maximum amount of compliance.’’

Then there’s the issue of enforcement of a statewide mandate given the kickback from some communities and counties that have either rescinded their mask requirements or never implement them at all amid public opposition.

“What I want to avoid is some of the division and politics that have happened around this issue,’’ the governor said, saying he prefers “participation and cooperation.’’

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation says just two thirds of Arizonans are masking up in situations where they are exposed to other.

The institute predicts that doing nothing will result in about 118 deaths a day by the end of January. By contrast, the researchers say that could be cut in half with a statewide mask mandate.

Ducey said he wants Christ and her department to work with officials at the state’s three main airports – Sky Harbor, Mesa Gateway and Tucson International – on what he called “inbound messaging’’ for passengers arriving from elsewhere “around the importance of wearing masks and information on where travelers can get tested.’’ 

He also wants the airports to set up on-premises testing sites available to travelers when they land.

But here, too, there are no testing mandates for visitors or protocols for happens if a test comes back positive. Instead, the governor said he anticipates that people will do the right thing on their own.

“I have a lot of faith in Americans that if they realize that if they were positive or exposed to the virus in a significant way that they would quarantine,’’ he said. 

Ducey agreed with Christ’s assessment about things not getting better in Arizona any time soon.

“That’s not on the horizon,’’ he said, saying the state and the nation remain in a public health emergency. “And getting back to normal isn’t in the cards right now.’’

Yet Ducey made another push for getting kids back into the classroom.

“I think children should be in school,’’ the governor said. “I want parents to have options and one of those options should be in-person learning.’’

Ducey said he believes that is in the best interests of children, even as schools have wrestled with how to provide instruction and keep the youngsters and staffers – and, by extension, their families – safe.

“No one can argue: Kids have already missed out on far too much learning due to this pandemic,’’ he said.

The governor said that having schools open for learning does not mean compromising safety.

“They’re already required to have mask policies,’’ he said. And Ducey said that Christ will be issuing an emergency directive designed to ensure those policies are followed not just in the classroom but also on school grounds and buses.

Christ also addressed the news on the national level about progress in developing a vaccine, saying she is anticipating having some available by the beginning of next year. But that, she said, will require navigating some logistical hurdles.

One is that this is going to be a two-dose series. That means whatever version someone gets the first time has to be the exact same version for a second shot anywhere from 21 to 28 days later.

And that, she said, will require the ability for her agency to call people back to remind them of the need for that second dose.