PHOENIX — Arizona health experts today criticized the Legislature for banning schools and colleges from requiring masks that can help reduce the spread of COVID-19, prevent outbreaks and protect people’s health. The Legislature’s decision comes as Arizona sees a 16-percent jump in COVID-19 cases in the past 14 days as of Tuesday. Additionally vaccines against COVID-19 have not yet been authorized for use in people younger than 12 years old, equivalent to about 610,000 students in the pre-K- to 6th-grade age range.
“Lifting simple, effective and scientifically proven measures that can reduce the spread of COVID-19 so children, teachers and school staff stay safe against a deadly disease is one of the most dangerous things the Arizona state Legislature and Governor Ducey can do right now,” said Dr. Cadey Harrel, family physician in Tucson and the Arizona State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care. “Instead of blackmailing schools into embracing their anti-science ideas, Arizona legislators should be doing more to support our state-subsidized schools so they can keep students, teachers, and school staff safe.”
Public health experts recommend continued mask use in schools. Recent research shows that COVID-19 spreads less in schools where teachers and staff wear masks, and concludes that mask use can help make in-person learning safer for students. Students are being linked to community outbreaks, including in Arizona: Students accounted for 72 percent of all school-related cases in Maricopa County at one point in spring.
An analysis of mask requirements implemented in 15 states plus Washington D.C. concluded that requirements for people to wear masks in public significantly reduced COVID-19 transmissions and helped avoid an estimated 200,000 infections. More than 170 studies across 16 nations and six continents show that interventions such as mask wearing lower the risk of COVID-19 infections.
“As health experts and as parents, we are deeply concerned that when children and teens return to school buildings, the larger class sizes could put at risk the kids who are unvaccinated or too young to get the shots, and all this will be happening as more transmissible variants circulate throughout Arizona and the nation,” said Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, Professor of Epidemiology in Tucson. “Arizona’s legislators and policymakers have an opportunity to use science and evidence to help us stop outbreaks and truly beat the pandemic before it can sicken and kill more people. If policymakers listened to science and evidence, they would require masks in schools and anywhere people gather, and do their best to get as many people vaccinated as possible because we are in a race against time. When politicians ignore science and evidence, they’re only giving COVID-19 time to mutate, regroup, spread and sicken people. As health professionals, we call on Arizona’s policymakers to make decisions that can save lives, instead of rolling over and letting COVID-19 come back with a vengeance when school starts.”
In addition to banning mask use, Arizona also has a low vaccination rate. Only 38.5 percent of Arizonans have been vaccinated, putting the state 15th from the bottom. Only 23.5 percent of Arizona youth ages 12-17 have been vaccinated, lagging neighboring states like New Mexico and California, both at 36.9 percent, and Colorado, at 36.4 percent, as of June. Utah and Texas, which ban masks in schools, have vaccination rates of 24.8 percent and 23.6 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds.
Public health experts are raising the alarm at rising cases of teens hospitalized with COVID-19. Adolescents with COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized compared with youth who have the flu and one-third of those with COVID-19 require intensive care.
“Arizona’s legislators should be more concerned about protecting public health and safety, not scoring political points and appeasing their base by making bad decisions,” said Dr. Ricardo Correa, an endocrinologist in Phoenix. “COVID-19 can infect children, young people can get seriously sick with this disease and they can spread it to other people. We know what steps we can take to reduce COVID-19 from spreading, and they include wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Pretending these facts don’t exist only puts lives at risk, and politicians who ignore basic safety measures that can protect people must be held accountable.”