PHOENIX — Republican 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, Dr. Cara Christ, agrees that mandated protections, ranging from wearing masks to occupancy limits at businesses, are not appropriate at this time — even if the GOP-controlled Legislature had not just voted to remove them as options.
Instead, both Ducey and 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 Friday he is focusing on the availability of the vaccine as the method of curbing the spread.
“We will not be listening to the lockdown lobby,’’ he said. “Businesses will stay open, students will be able to attend school. There will be no mask mandate.’’
“Please get the vaccine,’’ he said, though he repeated he will never make that a mandate.
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 still unvaccinated. Figures from the state health department suggest the vast majority of these people have not even gotten a first dose.
That’s crucial because about 95% of COVID cases in May were among the unvaccinated, the health department reports. That figure was 92% last month and is 90% so far this month.
Christ said her department is working on several different ways to promote vaccination. The key, she said, is addressing “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.
But vaccine administration in the state has slowed to a crawl — fewer than 6,200 on Thursday — even as the number of virus cases is rising.
Christ said at least some of the increase is due to “community spread,’’ as more people gather in groups, many of them unvaccinated and declining to wear masks.
Yet the governor’s position goes beyond refusing to mandate the use of masks. His press aide C.J. Karamargin said Ducey remains convinced that public schools, community colleges, universities and local governments should also be barred from imposing mask requirements, regardless of local conditions.
Instead, it should remain a personal option, Karamargin said.
“Any Arizonan can wear a mask if they choose,’’ including students in schools, he said.
For Ducey, 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.
People need to do a self-assessment of their risk, whether they are vaccinated or not, she added.
“Is this an event that you should go to? Are there lots of people? Is it indoors? Do you know their vaccination status?’’ Christ asked. “And, if not, you should wear a mask whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated.’’
She said she isn’t sure 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 including Tucson and Phoenix to have their own mask requirements. Christ said she’s not convinced those local mask 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.’’
Decisions about masks and mandates have implications, says The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, based at the University of Washington.
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, it said a universal mask policy would cut that to 18,674 deaths by the same date.