With the arrival of the new COVID variant Omicron in Pima County, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 last week to enact a new mandate requiring people to mask up while indoors in public spaces when they cannot maintain a physical distance of six feet from people outside their household.
Pima County Supervisors Matt Heinz, Sharon Bronson and Adelita Grijalva voted in favor of the mask mandate at the board’s Dec. 21 meeting, while Democrat Rex Scott and Republican Steve Christy voted against it.
Heinz, who put the proposal on the board’s agenda, said it was important to bring back the mask mandate because area hospitals are stretched to the limit with unvaccinated COVID patients and Omicron is a more contagious coronavirus variant.
“Due to the increase of COVID cases and as you have heard from TMC healthcare, and the Banner system, the hospitals are really to the point of bursting,” said Heinz, who wanted the mandate to be reinstituted ahead of the holiday season.
Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher sent a memo to the Pima County Board of Supervisors ahead of their Dec. 21 meeting recommending a mask mandate.
“Given the global surge of the exceptionally more transmissible omicron variant, it is appropriate to reconsider the tools that are available to mitigate its impact on Pima County particularly during this winter holiday season,” she wrote.
The Centers for Disease Control released new data showing the Omicron variant surpassed the Delta variant in national COVID cases. According to their estimates, the Omicron variant already made up 73% of COVID cases in the United States last week.
There is speculation the Omicron variant causes less severe symptoms than the original virus and the Delta variant, but more research is needed to accurately determine the variant’s severity.
High transmissibility gives Omicron more opportunities to infect people, leading health officials to expect an increased need for community health care. Lesher expressed concern for available hospital resources in the memo.
“We are now experiencing the highest COVID-19 ICU occupancy since last winter. On December 19, hospitals reported 117 COVID-19 positive individuals occupying 39 percent of ICU beds,” Lesher wrote.
Lesher noted extremely low intensive care unit capacity in Pima County. For the past two months, Pima County had only 13 staffed ICU beds.
Hospital resources are strained all over the state of Arizona, as well. President Biden’s administration announced on Dec. 21 they would send COVID emergency response teams to six states, including Arizona. Response teams include clinical personnel and paramedics.
According to Lesher’s memo, Pima County reported 15,851 cases in November 2021 compared to 13,933 in Nov. 2020.
Supervisor Steve Christy raised concerns over the enforcement of the mask mandate. A new law passed earlier this year allows businesses to ignore enforcement of mask mandates passed by the state, city, county or any other jurisdiction of Arizona.
Lesher conceded that the county has little ability to require residents to wear masks.
“While admittedly there is no practical enforcement option, it has been shown in this community and elsewhere in the country that the mere existance of a mask mandate increases the likelihood of mask use by the public,” Lesher wrote in a memo to the the board. “A county-imposed mask mandate would be a call-to-arms for everyone in the county to step up and do their part to help prevent the spread of a deadly virus, especially during the holidays.”
Supervisor Rex Scott was unsure that Pima County residents would follow the mandate.
“Unfortunately, ever since the pandemic began, there has been an ugly bevy of falsehoods, fears, and resentments about masks fed to our citizens by some in leadership positions who should be forever ashamed of their ignorance and selfishness. As a result, although I firmly believed each of us should be wearing masks when we are in group settings, I’m certain that a sizable number of Pima County residents will defy or ignore any mandate we may enact today,” Scott said.
Scott added to his argument that enforcement of the previous mask mandate fell onto workers in the public space. Scott worried misinformation around masks had increased since the last mandate and workers would be subject to abuse by the public.
Wearing masks traps respiratory droplets that travel from one person to another. Respiratory droplets can carry viral loads which can infect people that inhale them. The most effective masks on the market are N95 masks.
The CDC released a study co-authored with Pima County in early Oct. showing that K-12 schools without mask requirements were 3.5 times more likely to experience a COVID outbreak. The study used data from 999 public schools in Pima and Maricopa County.
“I voted in favor of the mandate because of the recommendation of county administration and the recommendation of TMC and Banner Health,” Supervisor Sharon Bronson said.