Coronavirus Arizona: Medical community asks Ducey for mask mandate

Arizona medical community implores Gov. Ducey to mandate face masks

Stephanie Innes and Maria Polletta
Arizona Republic
Published 11:06 PM EDT Jun 16, 2020
Mary Snyder holds a mask while talking to a real estate agent in a space at Regency Towers that she’s interested in moving into in Phoenix on April 24, 2020. Snyder held a mask to wear as a precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic

Nearly 1,000 members of Arizona’s medical community have signed on to letters pressing the state to require face masks in public, citing a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and record numbers of hospitalizations.

“By wearing masks, we can curtail a huge surge of COVID-19 cases in Arizona and reduce unnecessary mortality in our community,” said the most recent of the three letters, signed by 688 medical professionals.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office offered in response perhaps its most straightforward endorsement of masks to date, saying Tuesday that all Arizonans “should wear a face-covering in public.”

But a spokesman gave no indication the governor had plans to move from recommendations to mandates. 

Two weeks ago, there were 10,427 confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases reported in Maricopa County; on Tuesday, 20,670 cases had been reported.

Statewide, Arizona reported a record-high 2,392 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, with hospitals also reporting record numbers of patients.

“Since the reopening of Arizona’s economy, our health risk has drastically increased … many Arizonans believe something has changed, and it is somehow now safe to resume normal life,” health professionals wrote in Monday’s letter. 

“Sadly, this is far from the truth.”

What the letters said

The push for a mandate took off Friday when the president of the Maricopa County Medical Society wrote the first of the three letters.

Dr. Lee Ann Kelley addressed her letter directly to Ducey, saying her organization was “alarmed about the significant rise in COVID-19 cases and encourages greater public education and policies focused on disease mitigation.”

She called for the state to enforce limits on large gatherings, require the wearing of masks in public, encourage greater use of remote work, and increase testing and contact tracing.

More than 150 female physicians signed a second letter, sent Sunday, that called more broadly on community and state leaders.

It expressed concern about a “rapid surge” in COVID-19 cases in Arizona, arguing that “​life as we once knew it has to change indefinitely to ensure the safety of fellow community members, to protect the most fragile of our population, and to reduce the strain on our healthcare system.”

It called for a statewide mask mandate for individuals over the age of 2 in public places, including offices, stores, schools and gyms. The letter urges those who can’t wear masks due to asthma or other health conditions to stay home.

Medical professionals sent the third letter to Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ exactly one month after Arizona’s stay-at-home order expired.

“There is no vaccine and no treatment for COVID-19, and it is just as contagious now as it was last month or the month before,” they wrote.

They said there were “so many reasons this simple act of wearing a mask can help the greater good.”

What the governor’s spokesman said

Asked about the letters Tuesday, Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak encouraged Arizonans to wear masks when out in public. But he sidestepped questions about requiring them — a strategy already implemented in Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.

Ducey, along with the state’s health director, is rarely seen wearing a mask himself.

Rather than roll out a statewide policy, Ptak said the Governor’s Office would be stepping up its efforts to educate the public on COVID-19 precautions, continuing to ramp up testing for the disease, expanding contact tracing throughout the state and working to ensure sufficient hospital capacity. 

An executive order the governor issued in May prevents cities and counties from imposing their own mandates.

The need for additional interventions has been growing since around Memorial Day weekend when Arizonans appeared to begin resuming normal behaviors, said Dr. Christine Severance, a family physician in Phoenix, who authored the Sunday letter and signed the Monday one. 

“No social distancing, going to bars and happy hour, not wearing masks — it seemed like the general public assumed the threat was over when it was really only just beginning,” Severance said. “In addition to the governor giving an executive order about the masks, I think we need to get support from other leaders … We need a widespread effort.”

If Arizonans wore masks while in public settings, it would make a big difference in slowing the spread of the disease here, she said. The virus can be spread not just with coughing and sneezing, but also by conversation, yelling and singing, she said.

“Our concern was not just for the citizens. There’s not enough focus on the effect this has on our health care system, and specifically on our providers,” she said. “There have been at last count 600 deaths of health care workers in the United States alone … It’s incredibly strenuous, it’s heartbreaking, I hear gut-wrenching accounts from multiple providers on the front lines.”

While Arizona hospitals may be able to stretch into emergency capacity, people don’t always understand that having enough ventilators is not the same as having enough skilled staff to handle them, she said.

“Every hospital has its capacity of critical care physicians, respiratory therapists, ICU nurses. If we reach emergency capacity we have to start pulling staff from other departments in order to care for these patients, which means the quality of care will suffer,” she said.

“We’re hoping the state will mandate face masks. We’re hoping the general public will start to accept the science behind the face masks and see it as a necessity,” she said. “The science shows that this disease is dangerous … We need to step up and do what’s right for our community to protect those around us.”

Dr. Susan Hughes, a retired Scottsdale physician, said she personally delivered the third letter to Christ and to Ducey’s office Tuesday morning. When she arrived at Christ’s office, Christ and her assistant were wearing masks, she said.

Hughes said she did not see Ducey when she delivered the letter to his office.

While the letter had 688 signatures when it was delivered, the number had grown to 750 by Tuesday afternoon, Hughes said.

Reach health care reporter Stephanie Innes at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes

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