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Tim Steller's opinion: Quarantine overreach shows governor playing politics with pandemic
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Tim Steller's opinion: Quarantine overreach shows governor playing politics with pandemic

A factually inaccurate letter sent to Catalina Foothills School District by an adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey contended its policies dictating quarantines for unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 go against state law. That's causing confusion and consternation for local public health and education officials. A classroom at Canyon View Elementary in that district is shown here in a March 2021 file photo. 

Back in 2013, a whooping cough outbreak hit the Vail School District.

As cases popped up in various schools, the Pima County Health Department issued an order: Students who were not vaccinated against pertussis — the medical name for whooping cough — could not go to school or school activities for two weeks. If they declined to get vaccinated in that time, the period would be at least three weeks, depending on the presence of cases in their schools.

Back in the pre-pandemic years, politicians didn’t try to stop public health officials from taking basic measures like this. But that was then.

Now, the governor’s office is claiming that officials can’t use the same standard public-health measure used during that relatively small pertussis outbreak — quarantine — against the global COVID-19 pandemic.

An education policy adviser named Kaitlin Harrier sent a letter to the Catalina Foothills and Peoria school districts Wednesday telling them that their policies dictating quarantines for unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 go against state law.

Both districts established quarantine periods — 10 days in Peoria’s case, 14 days in Foothills’ case — for students who are not vaccinated and have a close contact with an infected person. This is more or less the same as what the Arizona Department of Health Services advises: “A person who had known close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case should quarantine for 14 days from their last exposure to the case.”

As an adviser to the governor, Harrier has no authority over the school districts. Worse: She appears to be factually wrong about the law. Worse yet: She seems to be extending an anti-public-health campaign by the governor that could help him politically.

The new state law, which followed executive orders by the governor along the same lines in June, says: “A school district or charter school may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.”

It does not say anything about quarantines. In fact, under state law, quarantines are strictly the purview of the county health departments.

“What I want to make sure schools know is that what the governor’s policy adviser says in that letter is patently incorrect,” said Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County’s deputy administrator and chief medical officer.

“At this time, we have the authority, as counties, to protect people from infectious diseases,” he added. “This is the province of public health. These are the basic tools public health has in order to keep people safe.”

It was Garcia, when he was county health director back in 2013, who ordered students not vaccinated against pertussis to stay home from Vail schools experiencing an outbreak.

At that time, Natalie Luna Rose was spokeswoman for the Vail district, and I interviewed her about the situation. Now she’s on the Tucson Unified School District board.

She wondered, when we talked Friday, “If TUSD has an outbreak of whooping cough, are we not allowed to ask those children to be quarantined for 21 days?”

Ducey’s increasing accommodation of anti-vax, COVID-questioning conservatism is causing this confusion.

There was a time, a long two years ago, when Ducey was perfectly clear in his stance on vaccinations. In 2019, legislators introduced bills that would have eroded vaccinations among children by, among other things, making it easier for parents to get their kids exempted from the shots.

“I’m not going to sign any law that doesn’t promote or extend vaccinations in the state of Arizona,” Ducey said in February 2019.

“Because this involves public health, I think it’s important for people to know that we are pro-vaccination in the state of Arizona,” he went on. “We want to see more of our kids being vaccinated rather than fewer.”

That was then, at a time when vaccination skepticism was an outlier position among Republicans. Now, paradoxically, the pandemic has super-charged vaccine and virus denialism in the party. It’s the nightly fare on Fox News and other channels.

So, even as the delta variant is causing COVID-19 cases to spread faster again, Ducey has used his emergency public-health powers to work against public-health measures.

That’s what he did in June, when he signed an executive order preventing universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccines or documentation of them, even while the universities continue to require other vaccines. He also signed an executive order preventing schools from requiring masks, before each of those measures became laws.

In the most recent case, Harrier noted in her letter that children under age 12 can’t get the vaccine and that potentially an exposure in a classroom could empty it for two weeks under the districts’ quarantine rules. But that’s prejudging and misunderstanding how public health officials handle possible quarantines, Garcia said.

The Pima County Health Department works closely with schools and can be more specific than to quarantine a whole classroom just because one student was exposed, Garcia said. For example, a group of friends who spend more time together, rather than a whole class, might be considered exposed if one gets sick or has close contact with a COVID-19-positive person.

The whole situation has left people like Tonya Strozier in a state of confusion and worry. Strozier is principal of Holladay Magnet Elementary School in Tucson — and also the parent of a first-grader there.

“I definitely was caught off guard with the letter that was sent,” Strozier told me Friday. “We have people who are trained in the medical field telling us one thing and the governor telling us another thing.”

At summer school, masks were required, she noted, and the students at her pre-K- to 5th-grade school could by and large handle the requirement. Now she’s worried that students who are directly exposed to COVID-19, required to be allowed in school, will pose a risk to her whole school community — including her own child.

“It’s scary. It’s concerning,” she said.

She’s waiting for further guidance from the TUSD board at its next meeting. In the meantime, it would not be surprising to see Ducey and his administration change the rules to fit his politics.

The state health department guidelines on when you should quarantine could change. And Ducey could issue executive orders seeking to overturn the powers of the county health departments as they pertain to COVID-19 quarantines. He’s shown time and again he’ll take the side of the virus if that’s what politics dictates.

But it’s not what public-health officials say they need.

“It’s critical for us to use every single tool in our toolbox,” Garcia said.

Garcia has used the quarantine tool successfully before, but that was for smaller outbreaks that didn’t have big implications for political careers.

Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions. Contact him at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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