Arizona is going through “Groundhog Day” with the COVID-19 pandemic: People are getting sick, again. Arizona is once more in a COVID surge, just like a year ago — but with two notable differences. Last summer, schools reopened in the setting of slowly declining COVID rates; right now, COVID cases and hospitalization rates are continuing to dramatically rise. In addition, schools are now left without key tools for keeping students and educators safe.
Since the outbreaks we saw in July 2020 and throughout the winter months, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature passed, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed, a law taking away local control from schools that want to implement science-based safety protections such as wearing masks. As parents, physicians, and public health experts, we have one simple message for them: Get rid of this senseless law now, which endangers the lives of children, teachers, school staff and their neighbors and loved ones.
This law will prevent what we all want: for children to be able to safely and consistently remain physically present in schools, and for parents to be able to safely keep working. Children who fall ill with or who are exposed to COVID-19 will need to quarantine at home, and their parents or guardians will need to remain at home to quarantine with them, preventing them from going to work. If schools are prohibited from requiring universal masking together with other mitigation strategies, expect to see repeated outbreaks and increasing absences from both schools and other workplaces for 10 to 14 day stretches throughout the school year.
Furthermore, this law is an overreach by the state, setting a dangerous precedent in preventing public health agencies from leading us through the current and future public health crises. To keep people safe, we need credible and qualified public health professionals providing guidance based on the most up to date science during a public health crisis — not legislators, a lame duck Governor, or political appointees more concerned about partisanship than the health of their citizens.
Physicians, nurses, and all healthcare workers are exhausted from being expected to clean up the mess that results from this hostility towards evidence based public health measures, as well as attacks on our integrity from political pawns. Physicians specifically take an oath to do no harm, and are held to the highest ethical and practice standards of any profession. To deliberately undermine the work of those who have dedicated their lives to saving others during one of the worst pandemics in modern history is not just tragic, but inexcusable.
That’s why the Republican leaders’ crusade against masks is so mind-boggling. Masks are simple, safe, and they work. They significantly reduce COVID-19 transmission from person-to-person spread. In addition, there is negligible if any risks to the wearer. A simple risk versus benefit calculation should lead any reasonable parent or educator to want masks in schools, particularly when area case numbers are high.
Blocking the transmission of COVID-19 from one person to another, as masks do so well, is especially important now because the Delta variant is much more contagious than the strain from a year ago. Two months ago, the Delta variant was a miniscule 3 percent of Arizona’s COVID-19 cases. As of July 21st, the Delta variant made up at least 50% of new cases in Arizona, at least 85%of new cases in HHS’s Region Nine of states (which includes Arizona, Nevada, and California). And because people infected with the Delta variant of COVID-19 have a viral load 1,000 times greater than patients with the alpha strain a year ago, wearing a mask now is even more important to reduce airborne spread of this virus from simply speaking and breathing, in addition to coughing and sneezing.
While masks provide one layer of protection, vaccinations of course are another. The COVID-19 vaccines are effective and safe. Unfortunately in Arizona, vaccines are not getting into as many arms as they should, with only about half of Arizonans being fully vaccinated.
Plus, as we discuss school safety, we must remember that vaccines are still unavailable to children younger than 12, or around 610,000 pre-K-5th graders. In the past two weeks, Arizona has already seen a 30% increase in COVID cases in individuals aged 0-20 years, coinciding with the start of the school year in a number of districts.
That’s why masks are such an important tool for schools to have in their safety toolbox. As situations across the state change and continue to worsen, schools should be able to utilize mask requirements to keep kids and staff safe while maintaining in-person instruction.
As mothers and public health experts, we want our children, who've worn masks for a year without any adverse effects, to continue masking, and for those around them in schools to do the same. Masking is the most effective when every member of a community uses them consistently. Arizona’s public health department encourages universal mask wearing in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that people wear masks indoors, even vaccinated people, applies to nearly all of Arizona. And Arizona’s school Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is calling on Ducey and Arizona legislators to allow schools to require masks.
Arizona families agree, with more than 6800 parents signing an open letter through a #right2safeAZschools campaign urging legislators to support science-based safety measures in our schools. Parents and physicians are voicing our opposition to this top-down, one-size-fits-all law that ignores local families and COVID-19 risks in our communities.
Gov. Ducey and Arizona’s Republican lawmakers are risking the health of our children, educators, and their families by taking away local control over COVID-19 safety measures. We have already seen the devastating effects of this harmful policy in Ash Fork and Vail Unified School Districts, where classrooms were shut down as a result of infections among students this past week. It was the first week of classes. This was very predictable, and health experts have been warning the public and state leadership of this very dire scenario for months now.
Our governor and Legislature must stop making the same mistakes of putting political points over our children's health if we want them to be able to keep learning in person safely. Our children’s lives, educations, and well-being are on the line.
Cadey Harrel, MD - Family Physician & State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care
Elizabeth Jacobs, PhD - Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Arizona
Christina Bergin, MD - Internal Medicine Physician