PHOENIX — The state’s top health official said Monday said she’s not concerned that nationally televised photos of Gov. Doug Ducey barefaced at a Trump campaign event undermines the state’s $3 million “mask up” campaign.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of getting the message out on the importance of mask wearing,” Cara Christ said at a press briefing. That includes Christ herself doing television commercials.
“There are circumstances where it may be safe to not do that,” Christ said in response to questions about the governor’s activities last week on the lawn of the White House. There are photos of Ducey in a crowd of others — also unmasked — waiting for the president to give a speech.
“But we would encourage everyone to wear a mask,” she said.
It isn’t just about COVID-19.
Christ several times on Monday said the same protocols about covering up are necessary to protect Arizonans as the state enters into a flu season. And the state had its worst flu season ever last year.
Even the governor, asked about his activities, acknowledged the message.
“I want people to wear a mask,” he said. “I’ve been consistent on this.”
And what about last week?
“People can exercise their First Amendment rights, whether it’s a protest or a political event, which is what I was at,” Ducey said. Anyway, he said, it “happened to be outdoors.”
The governor said, however, when he is indoors, he wears a mask. That includes grocery stores, businesses and even “when I’m in the office,” including places he cannot socially distance.
Yet Ducey was the only one at Monday’s event, including health experts, staffers from his office and other state agencies as well as the reporters and photographers, who was not wearing a mask. Even Christ kept her mask on while discussing the upcoming flu season.
But the governor said there was a good reason for that.
“I’ve heard from the deaf community that in addition to our skilled sign folks that they sometimes read lips,” Ducey said.
His weekly events are simulcast on YouTube. And there is an inset with an interpreter who is translating in real time.
“So, as a courtesy to them, while I’m answering questions I’m going to have the mask off,” he said. “Then I’ll put it on. And I’ll exit.”
Christ, however, kept her mask on during both her comments as well as to answer questions.
Ducey himself mentioned the importance of masks several times during Monday’s event to unveil the plans for this year’s effort to convince more Arizonans to get a flu shot.
That includes providing free immunization for those without insurance or with limited coverage. But Christ said while that provides the vaccine itself for free, people may still be faced with paying some sort of fee to a medical provider to administer it.
There also are plans for expanded availability.
“It’s simple: As early as next month when you stop by certain sites for a COVID-19 test you’ll be able to get a flu shot as well,” Ducey said.
The state also is trying to provide incentives for the more than 1.8 million people enrolled in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program to get vaccinated. That includes a promise of a $10 gift card.
That led to questions about whether it’s too early to get vaccinated, given that the immunity is not permanent. Christ said she doesn’t see it that way.
“Our typical flu season runs October to March, with a peak of cases around February,” she said.
“But, as we always say, influenza is predictably unpredictable,” Christ continued. “So the sooner you can get vaccinated, the better.”
One big worry for health officials is having to battle both the seasonal flu and a potential second spike of COVID-19 cases. Yet the state continues to allow more businesses to reopen, raising questions for the governor about whether things will again get worse.
“We don’t know, OK?” he said.
“But we’re going to prepare as if it is,” Ducey said. “That’s the reason we’re talking about wearing a mask and socially distancing.”
And the governor said the state is being “incremental” in the decisions being made about what businesses can reopen and under what conditions.
Christ said she agrees.
“I don’t know if we know what the future holds,” she said. “We are anticipating that we will see additional cases.”
But Christ said the “benchmarks” the state uses to determine risk — infection rates, positive test rates and visits to hospitals by those with COVID-like symptoms — provides “flexibility.”
As of Monday, eight counties were listed as having “moderate” risk of spread, with Greenlee County at minimal risk.
“So if a county goes up to a higher level for two or more weeks we’re going to start working with those establishments to bring them back into requirements for that specific benchmark,” she said. And that could mean re-closing some businesses that have just been allowed to reopen.