PHOENIX - More than 150 Arizona doctors on August 5 urged Gov. Doug Ducey to mandate masks in public schools, dialing up pressure as coronavirus cases rise and a growing number of school districts require their staff and students to mask up in defiance of a new state law.
Scientists don’t yet know the long-term effects of the coronavirus on developing brains, the doctors wrote in a letter delivered to Ducey’s office. Ducey this summer signed legislation that bans schools from requiring children to wear masks.
"Your prohibition on mask requirements means no Arizona school can provide a safe learning environment," the doctors wrote. "Each and every one of our students and their educators deserve better."
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is also calling on the governor to repeal his ban on mask mandates in schools.
Children generally have milder cases of the disease, but youngsters and teens have been hospitalized. About 2,300 of the nearly 68,000 people who have been admitted to an Arizona hospital with COVID-19 were under the age of 20, according to state data.
Coronavirus infections have increased markedly in Arizona as the highly contagious delta variant spreads. On Thursday, the state reported just under 2,300 new confirmed cases and 11 more deaths. Hospitalizations for the virus increased slightly to 1,266, according to the state’s data dashboard. The last time they were in that range was in late February.
Valleywise Health, a major hospital system serving Maricopa County, announced it had opened a second COVID-19 unit to accommodate all the new cases. Dr. Michael White, the chief clinical officer, said the 25 patients they are treating are primarily unvaccinated and under the age of 50. Between 1% to 2% of them are pediatric patients.
Wearing masks indoors is crucial because it doesn’t just protect "you, but others from you if you’re asymptomatically having this virus even though you may have been vaccinated," White said at a virtual briefing.
At least six school districts in Phoenix and Tucson have defied Ducey and the Republican-controlled Legislature’s ban on mask mandates. The ban doesn’t take effect until late September, but lawmakers declared it retroactive to July 1. A Phoenix Union High School District biology teacher has filed a lawsuit challenging the district’s mask mandate under the new law.
"It is a simple, easy, cheap way to protect everybody in our community," said Dr. Jacqueline Carter, a pediatrician and internist who signed the letter. "We just need to stand up and say this is what we need to do."
The ban on school mask requirements ties the hands of school districts and local governments, but Ducey still has the power to require them.
Students and teachers who want to wear masks are free to do so, said C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Ducey.
"Arizona is not anti-mask," Karamargin said. "There is no mask prohibition in Arizona. The legislation passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor is clear: Arizona is anti-mask-mandate."
Catherine Mejia, a spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, more than 6.9 million vaccine doses have been administered in Arizona to date. Over 3.8 million people — or 52.9% of the eligible population — have received at least one dose, and more than 3.3 million people are fully vaccinated. The vaccine is only available to those 12 and older.
Associated Press writer Terry Tang contributed.
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