PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey said Tuesday he's not interested in revisiting the ban on mask mandates despite new data showing schools that don't require face coverings are twice as likely to have an outbreak of COVID as those who have defied his edict.
Instead, he said, his advice is that everyone get vaccinated.
"That's our tool, that's our solution,'' Ducey said.
Yet the governor brushed aside the fact that this is not an option for many children in school. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control has not yet approved the vaccine for children younger than 12.
"That's up to the CDC,'' Ducey said. "They're in a review process.''
But even among those who are eligible, the rate of vaccination has slowed. And only 55.9% of all Arizonans have gotten at least one dose, a figure that is 5 points below the national average.
The governor's statements come a day after Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director for the Maricopa County Department of Health, told the board of supervisors that her agency tracked nearly three times the number of COVID outbreaks in schools in August as it did in February, when overall viral infections hit their peak. That rate, she said, is rising "exponentially.''
"The likelihood is that schools that do not have a mask requirement are twice as likely to have an outbreak as schools that do have a mask requirement,'' Sunenshine said.
Maricopa County has reported 204 active COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, with 161 of these in elementary and middle schools where most students are ineligible to be inoculated.
Pima County has reported 54 outbreaks since July 20, with a total of 1,292 cases. It does not have a breakdown based on which districts have implemented mask mandates despite insistence by Ducey that a law approved in late June that prohibits such requirements is in effect.
Sunenshine said that currently one out of every four cases of the virus in Maricopa County is among children, something she described as a rate "never seen before.''
She noted that, at least early on, the virus did not seem to affect young people as much. All that changed, Sunenshine said, with the delta variant.
The issue of masks has been contentious.
Last month Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner swatted down a bid by a teacher in the Phoenix Union High School District to void its policy requiring students and staff to wear masks while on campus. Warner said that, at least for the moment, no one is doing anything illegal.
"Under Arizona law, new laws are effective 90 days after the legislative session ends, which is Sept. 29 this year,'' he wrote.
Only measures enacted with a two-thirds vote can be labeled as "emergencies'' and take effect on the governor's signature. This bill did not pass by that margin.
Warner said a clause in the measure making it retroactive to July 1 is legally meaningless.
"A retroactivity clause is not an emergency clause and cannot be used to avoid the two-thirds vote requirement needed to make a statute immediately effective,'' the judge said.
Since that time, more than two dozen school districts have imposed mask mandates out of more than 200 districts statewide.
But Ducey remains insistent that they are acting illegally.
"We're going to follow the law,'' he said, saying he does not see masks as the answer to the increasing incidence of COVID in children.
The governor, however, has done more than sign the legislation banning schools from requiring mask use.
He also announced last month that he will financially penalize schools that impose mask mandates. Only schools that do not have mask mandate will be able to share in $163 million he is dividing up in federal American Rescue Plan funding.
As of Tuesday, the health department reported 29% of all beds in intensive-care units occupied by COVID patients. The last time it was that high was Feb. 20.
There's a similar pattern in the use of in-patient beds.
Ducey said that, as far as he is concerned, there really is only one answer.
"We are going to get our state vaccinated,'' he said, leaving aside that is not a possibility among those younger than 12.
"This is the solution,'' Ducey continued. "This is the tool.''
The governor acknowledged the below-average vaccination rate in the state, despite an extensive state-funded multi-media campaign to convince people to roll up their sleeves.
Ducey, who just hired former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona to help boost vaccine rates, said the state has more to do.
"We can make it easier, we can make it more convenient,'' the governor said.
"We can't make it any more effective or any more free,'' he said "But we can make it more accessible.''