PHOENIX – As Arizona cities and counties debate mask mandates, a leading health expert warned Wednesday that wearing masks in public is essential to prevent another wave of COVID-19 cases.
“There is still a risk of transmission in our community,” said Dr. Joshua LaBaer, the executive director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute. “And especially now that we know that this U.K. variant is predominant or becoming predominant in Arizona – so there is without a doubt a benefit to mask-wearing in public for sure.”
The recommendation comes after Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order in late March lifted remaining COVID-19 safety measures across the state, including mask rules, prompting Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and other Arizona officials to publicly contradict the governor and issue statements reinforcing existing mask mandates. Arizona’s mayors and other leaders have been at odds with the governor’s COVID-19 policies throughout the 13-month pandemic.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the continued use of masks in public, even for fully vaccinated people, and asks the public follow guidance to maintain social distancing, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. However, the recommendations are looser for fully vaccinated people to mingle without masks in small gatherings.
In a recent news release, Gallego said Phoenix will continue to enforce mask mandates despite Ducey’s executive order, noting “the governor’s authority is not without limits.”
I stand with the majority of the council who agree that @dougducey unilateral decision to order cities to abandon mask requirements is a case of significant government overreach. Protecting public health must come first. Masks are the best & fastest way to fully reopen & recover. pic.twitter.com/XxtMuEG0rk
— Mayor Kate Gallego (@MayorGallego) April 6, 2021
Pima County officials have the backing of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich in their similar pushback against Ducey’s order. The border county, which includes Tucson, will keep mask mandates in effect after Brnovich deemed that such mandates are “up to the Legislature, not the governor, to decide what authority it wants to delegate to counties.”
The conflict and confusion come as Arizona is experiencing a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, state officials reported 750 new cases and 27 deaths related to COVID-19, which is comparable to what rates were last April.
This is likely the result of new variants, such as more transmissible and deadly U.K. strain — otherwise referred to as B.1.1.7 — are showing signs of becoming the dominant strain in Arizona, LaBaer told reporters Wednesday.
Although vaccines have shown to be effective against variants old and new, he said, there is still the possibility of becoming infected or carrying the virus over to other vulnerable populations.
“There is no risk of getting a severe infection if you’ve been vaccinated, but you can be a carrier and that’s what we’re worried about here,” LaBaer said.
In Arizona, new modeling from ASU Biodesign suggests that vaccines will have saved more than 1,000 lives by May 1, and more than half the population will be immune to the virus by the end of April, LaBaer said.
Nearly 40% of adults in Maricopa County have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“If we can prevent people from getting severe COVID. To me, that’s the most important thing,” LaBaer said.