The legislature’s effort to prevent schools, towns and counties from requiring masks or vaccinations to reduce the spread of COVID has blown up into a statewide brawl.
The confrontation comes as the highly contagious Delta strain drives a surge in cases statewide. Gila County has seen a 101% increase in cases as a daily average of 40 per 100,000. The county has also seen a 91% increase in hospitalizations. About 48% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Fresh cases continue to rise in Payson schools, with a total of 39 students testing positive as of last Wednesday. Four staff have also tested positive. Four other students have COVID symptoms, but haven’t reported test results. Some 367 students and faculty are considered close contacts at risk of infection. Those close contacts have been advised to quarantine for 10 days, but the quarantine is voluntary according to district policy.
Rim Country Middle School accounts for 27 of the positive cases among students and three of the cases among staff. The middle school also accounts for 268 close contacts. That means close to half of the student body counts as a close contact.
A growing number of cities and school districts have defied new state laws limiting their ability to impose mask mandates or require employees to get vaccinated.
Meanwhile, a Maricopa County Superior Court has complicated the confrontation by ruling that the laws passed by the legislature in the last session don’t take effect until the end of September, making it unclear whether they can enforce the new restrictions before then.
Nonetheless, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has issued executive orders and threatened to reduce school funding for any district with a mask mandate.
Arizona in the past two weeks has seen a 48% increase in cases and a 41% increase in hospitalizations. Only 48% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. The state has seen an infection rate of 39 per 100,000 as a daily average.
The increasingly partisan political battle comes in the face of rising caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths as the highly contagious Delta variant collides with a push to return to normal life.
The Delta variant spreads far more easily and may also cause more serious illness, infect children more readily and cause more “breakthrough” infections even among the fully vaccinated. Fortunately, the vaccine still provides considerable protection – especially with serious illness and death.
The federal government last week took a series of actions to cope with the escalating spread of the Delta strain, including a plan to approve booster shots and vaccine mandates for many federal employees.
However, Arizona’s moving in the opposite direction – banning masks and vaccine mandates and even policies that would distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Most school districts – including Payson – are so far abiding by the state restrictions as they return to in-person instruction with no mask mandate and no vaccine requirement for employees.
The federal government has approved a vaccine for children 12 to 18, but not for children younger than 12. However, the vaccines are still approved on an emergency use basis – which means schools can’t require students to get vaccinated to attend class.
The state health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control now both recommend that people once again wear masks indoors when they can’t socially distance. Many businesses nationally have also required employees to get vaccinated.
However, Gov. Ducey last week said he will withhold $163 million in federal grant funding for any school district that imposes a mask mandate on students or faculty. This would cost eligible districts $1,800 per student. The governor also authorized an extra $10 million to go to vouchers for private schools if parents pull their children out of public schools that impose a mandate.
A host of schools have already required masks, with the Delta variant apparently causing a big increase in infections among children.
In Gila County, the Miami and San Carlos districts are requiring masks.
Many other districts throughout the state have also required masks. The list as of last week included Phoenix Union, Scottsdale, Litchfield, Paradise Valley, Tempe, Tempe Union, Kyrene, Madison, Alhambra, Creighton, Washington, Roosevelt, Osborn, Brophy College Preparatory, Flagstaff, Flowing Wells, Glendale, Phoenix Elementary and others. In Southern Arizona, the giant Tucson Unified, Nogales, Amphitheater and Catalina Foothills districts have also instituted mask mandates.
A similar confrontation is taking place nationally in the nine states that have banned mask mandates in schools. That includes Arizona, Florida, Vermont, South Carolina, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
Ten other states now require students to wear masks indoors when they can’t socially distance. This includes California, Washington, New Mexico, Illinois, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Virginia, Hawaii and North Carolina. In addition, Michigan and West Virginia require unvaccinated students to wear masks indoors.
The U.S. Department of Education last week announced it will deploy its civil rights division to deter states from banning mask wearing in classrooms.
The deadlock comes as the CDC scrambles to understand the impact of the Delta virus.
Some evidence suggests Delta can also more readily infect children – who have very low vaccination rates. The number of children hospitalized in the sprawling Banner Health System facilities doubled in July. Fortunately, children are still much less likely to get infected or become seriously ill. However, doctors worry clusters on campus can spread into the community.
Moreover, detailed figures drawn from seven states suggest the Delta strain may prove more adept at causing “breakthrough” infections, according to a report in the New York Times. The detailed figures from California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Virginia found that breakthrough cases accounted for somewhere between 18 and 28% of new infections. The big exception was Virginia, where vaccinated people accounted for just 6% of infections. Figures gathered before delta become dominated found that the approved vaccines were about 95% effective in preventing infection.
Even when Delta causes an infection, it drastically reduces the odds of serious illness or death.
The FDA’s considering a request to approve booster shots for people who got vaccinated eight or nine months ago – especially the elderly and people with high-risk conditions like diabetes. Studies in Israel – one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world — suggest that the vaccines might become less effective over time – especially in the face of new strains. This could also account for a fresh surge of cases in US nursing homes, where unvaccinated staff members have caused a fresh surge in cases among fully vaccinated residents.
The FDA’s analyzing dataneeded to approve a vaccine for children younger than 12 and lift the “emergency use” classification. That could ultimately put it in the same category as vaccines required for school attendance.
The federal government has moved to approve vaccine mandates – starting with the US military and employees of the Veterans Administration medical system. The federal government last week announced it will also cut off Medicare and Medicaid funding for nursing homes that don’t require employees to get vaccinated.