As the Delta variant produces a new surge, vaccine and mask mandates have become yet another political battleground.
Just 46% of Arizona’s population is fully vaccinated, which has left an opening for the now dominant Delta variant to produce a 81% increase in new cases as a daily average in the past 14 days.
Gila County’s doing slightly better than the rest of the state — with a 61% increase in cases. That works out to an infection rate of 36 per 100,000 — just above the state average of 34 per 100,000. Just 45% of the county population is fully vaccinated. Hospitalizations have climbed 46%, with 9% of tests coming back positive.
Increasingly, Republican and Democratic candidates are divided on mask mandates, vaccine requirements and even “vaccine passports” to engage in high-risk activities like foreign travel, concerts and other group activities.
State House Rep. Walt Blackman, who is running to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, put out a fundraising blast keyed to New York’s decision to require some state workers to get vaccinated and for people who want to eat indoors, work out in gyms and attend crowded performances to prove they’ve had at least one shot.
The federal government and the U.S. military have also announced plans to require employees to get the shots.
Moreover, California, with the support of the leading teachers union this week, decided to require teachers and school staff to get vaccinated, hoping to prevent renewed school shutdowns. Children, especially of elementary school age, face only a small risk of hospitalization or death if they’re infected. However, studies have shown schools can spawn clusters that infect teachers, staff and parents. In Arizona, most teachers are vaccinated — but school districts generally don’t know who is vaccinated and cannot require teachers to get the shots.
The struggle of public health experts to cope with the latest surge of cases in the face of the nearly stalled vaccination campaign has spawned a political clash.
“This is government tyranny. Plain and simple,” wrote Blackman in a fundraising appeal. “I know some of you are probably saying, who cares if some liberal city implements vaccine passports. Because it won’t stop there. It’s coming to every city, town and community as well as every aspect of American life unless patriots like you and I defend our liberties and take our country back in the next election!”
Blackman currently represents state House District 6, which includes all of Rim Country and the White Mountains. He wants to replace O’Halleran, a moderate Democrat whose district includes most of northern and eastern Arizona — including all the White Mountains and southern Gila County.
Rep. Paul Gosar, the Republican incumbent in District 4, has unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to bar any government agency or business from asking anyone about their vaccination status.
“No American should be subject to the question ‘where are your papers?’” said Gosar on Twitter in support of a bill that would prohibit use of any federal funding to implement or enforce a COVID-19 vaccine passport because it would constitute a “gross violation of rights of every American to make their own personal health care choices.”
Meanwhile, the Arizona Legislature has barred school districts from imposing mask mandates or implementing any policy that treats vaccinated students and staff differently from the unvaccinated.
Finally, some groups have picketed businesses that have required employees to get vaccinated — including Banner Health in Payson.
The clash over whether businesses or the government can require either vaccines or masks to slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant and other strains comes as cases continue to rise sharply across the U.S. The vaccines have proven 95% effective in preventing infection with minimal side effects. Some evidence suggests the vaccines are somewhat less effective against the highly contagious Delta strain, although still extremely effective in preventing hospitalization and death.
The virus has so far killed more than 620,000 Americans and 4.3 million people worldwide, although that’s likely an under-count, say disease experts. The U.S. continues to report about 118,000 new cases and 608 new deaths per day.
Epidemiologists say only “herd immunity” will stop the spread of the virus, which means getting 80% or 90% of the population vaccinated. Doctors say the virus will all but die out if we reach herd immunity, although it may require booster shots if the virus continues to evolve in the rest of the unvaccinated world. The nightmare scenario is a strain that can largely evade the vaccine, forcing the U.S. to start all over to build up immunity.
The Delta variant now accounts for most new cases in Arizona. Nearly all the hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated. Although the three approved vaccines each have a 3 or 4 in a million chance of causing a serious reaction, those risks are dwarfed by the danger posed by the virus as the nation builds toward a fourth peak in infections.
Arizona’s 81% increase as a daily average in the past two weeks has made most counties in the state “high risk” areas.
The three FDA approved vaccines are currently approved for “emergency use.” The two leading vaccines — by Moderna and Pfizer — were based on messenger RNA vaccines developed after years of research into the MERS virus, a close relative of the COVID virus. Clinical trials involving 50,000 for each vaccine proved the shots highly effective and safe. Hundreds of millions have gotten the vaccine now, with safety results confirming the findings of the clinical trials.
The FDA is expected to fully approve the vaccines in the next few months, which would remove the “emergency use” label, which has made some people leery of the vaccine. It may take longer to remove the “emergency use” label for children. At that point, schools could require the vaccine for students to attend class — as they now do for polio, measles, mumps, rubella and others.