As more and more of America gets vaccinated, proof of vaccination could be the ticket to the new normalcy. It could be a requirement to work, play, and travel. That proof should be portable, reliable, and easy to use. It should not be a luxury. It will likely be a necessity.
With that in mind Scottsdale-based BuddyCheque, in cooperation with the Bob Ramsey Social Justice Foundation, has created a cutting edge mobile app, ConfirmD, in response to the growing need for proof of Covid vaccination in America and abroad. It’s an effective tool for America to progress beyond the pandemic. The loss of life and the shared hardships associated with Covid should never be forgotten. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better and move forward.
There are no easy answers for businesses that want to keep their workers and customers safe as Covid vaccinations are underway. But we think requiring proof of vaccinations is a good start for those business that wish to do so.
I am used to responding to emergencies. In 1980, I founded Southwest Ambulance. I learned the importance of having the right technology to respond to emergencies.
Years later, I formed the Bob Ramsey Social Justice Foundation because I believe technology and innovation can do the most good when they are available to all.
BuddyCheque is supported by this charitable organization that sponsors healthcare projects benefitting underserved communities.
ConfirmD allows users to voluntarily share Covid status, as well as other medical records. The app enables users to display a QR code that provides medically verified Covid status. It represents next level technology that’s needed if we are ever to get beyond Covid.
For businesses that want to open quickly while protecting patrons and customers, this is the right technology to respond to the current emergency. For consumers, this app is currently free to download and there is a nominal subscription fee. We made it affordable because I believe that’s the best way to do the most good.
Currently, there is constant talk of proof of vaccination may be required for international travel or to visit loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals. Movie theaters and gyms are considering requiring proof of vaccination. Israel, the most vaccinated country in the world, is already down this path too.
It’s not my wish to argue for or against any mandates. But I do believe there should be options for businesses eager to open while preventing the spread of Covid. Consumers need options that are easy to use and easy to verify. A mobile app that’s practically free to use certainly makes sense. And if we ever have to face another pandemic, this technology could help contain the crisis because the best way to handle an emergency is to be prepared before it happens.
People are eager to get back to work, and to travel. It’s safe to say most of us are eager to get out of the house. The new normal seems to be changing month to month. It’s my hope that a simple mobile app will help usher in a post Covid normalcy now and in the future.
Bob Ramsey has been an active community and business leader for over 40 years, founding companies in a variety of fields: ambulance services in Arizona and throughout the Southwest, medical supplies, air freight transportation in western US, information technologies and management systems, real estate and avionics.
With students now back in school, it’s time for Arizona to focus on the educational challenges the Covid pandemic created for educators, students and families.
While the full impact of the pandemic on student learning is still being determined, we do know that the impact has been significant, affecting nearly every student and school in the state.
When the pandemic struck, educators faced an unprecedented challenge to transition overnight to remote learning. As hard as educators worked, several factors — such as limited technology and student and teacher anxiety — restricted student learning. Ultimately, the educational needs of parents and students were not met.
The return to classroom learning was a step in the right direction. Now that students are deeply engaged in classroom learning, it is clear that lost in-person instruction time will take several years to recuperate.
Arizona needs a comprehensive response that addresses the specific learning needs of students. The task is too large for educators to solve the problems on their own. They will need the support and help of business leaders, philanthropists and volunteers across the state.
From what we’ve learned so far, much of which is explained in “Increased Disruption, Decreased Progress,” which Helios Education Foundation produced in collaboration with Arizona Department of Education and Arizona State Board of Education, here are the key issues to address:
Mathematics: At every grade level, mathematics scores have declined faster than in English Language Arts.
Early Literacy: English Language Arts scores fell the most in the elementary school grades. If children aren’t proficient readers by third grade, they are unlikely to succeed in the upper grades.
English Learners: During the pandemic, the existing achievement gap between English Learners and their English-proficient peers widened. Just as worrisome, enrollment of the English Learner population fell by 10% over two years. These vulnerable students will never be able to catch up if they don’t return to school.
Vulnerable Students: Other students who were already behind before the pandemic — those who are low-income, Latino, Black, or Native American — now have additional gaps to overcome to catch up to grade-level learning.
These lingering effects on student learning have severe consequences for our students and our state, and we all need to focus on helping to address them.
Arizona will need to sustain a multi-year recovery effort structured around intentional strategies to address incomplete learning, accelerate student progress and provide targeted support to students and educators. It is essential that entities throughout the state prioritize sustained, collaborative studies of the pandemic’s impact on student learning and outcomes. We need to understand how students have struggled over the past two years and use proven methods to help them catch up.
Those solutions include intensive tutoring, additional instructional time in math and early literacy, as well as extensive outreach and support for vulnerable populations, which fell further behind during the pandemic.
The task is enormous. But there is some good news – researchers are starting to detect a rebound in student achievement during the 2021-22 school year. But Arizona cannot rest on those laurels. Students lost too much and fell too far behind during the pandemic.
This work is essential — and we all must participate. We can’t afford to lose a generation of Arizona learners.
Paul Luna is president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation.
Arizona legislative Republicans who have resisted increasing the state’s second-lowest-in-the-nation unemployment benefits since 2004 are now spearheading bipartisan efforts to hike the rate.
On February 24, the House voted 50-9 to approve a bill that would increase the maximum weekly unemployment benefit to $300 from $240, starting in 2022. Meanwhile, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, this week introduced her own bill to increase the maximum benefit to $320, starting on the general effective date – usually in August – which is 91 days after this year’s legislative session ends.
At the start of the session, Fann said any talks about increasing unemployment benefits would have to wait until at least next year. For this year, the state needed to focus on replenishing the unemployment fund, which plummeted to roughly $90 million from a high of $1.1 billion over the course of 2020.
Fann said February 24 that uncertainty about when and how Congress will act and a growing bipartisan desire to act pushed her to introduce her late bill. Along with increasing benefits, her bill would reduce the number of weeks per year that a worker can receive benefits to 20 from 26, unless the unemployment rate is higher than 6% or a governor-declared state of emergency that could close businesses, like the one for the ongoing Covid pandemic, is in effect.
“If the federal government monies do expire in August like we believe now, it could still put some people in a bad situation until we can get all the other businesses open, so I decided to go ahead and move forward with it this year and try to get it in place to help everybody out,” she said.
She landed on $320 by adjusting the current $240 based on inflation in the 17 years since it took effect. Once the state has replenished its unemployment fund and qualifies for an interest-free federal loan to cover benefits, Fann’s plan would further increase that amount to $400 per week.
Under the most recent Covid legislation, unemployed Arizonans are eligible for an extra $300 per week in federal assistance, bringing the total to $540 at least until March 31. Congress has not yet reached an agreement on subsequent aid packages.
Both Fann’s proposal and the House bill, sponsored by Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, would increase the income disregard amount – the amount an underemployed worker can make per week without seeing their unemployment benefits drop – to $160 from $30. That’s about 13 hours of work at the state’s current $12.15 minimum wage.
Fann described that component as enabling employees and employers to stay connected in tough economic times, so the workers can eventually transition back to full-time work at the same company if they choose or move on to a new job without significant gaps in their work history.
“If you drop out of school, it’s very hard to get those kids back to school,” she said. “Same thing happens in the workforce.”
Both bills would also increase unemployment taxes paid by businesses, which now pay taxes on the first $7,000 of each worker’s salary. Fann’s bill would increase that to the first $8,000 beginning in 2022 and the first $9,000 in 2023. Cook’s bill leaves it at $8,000.
Fann acknowledged that employers won’t like the increase, but they’ve been paying based on $7,000 for almost four decades. As the owner of a construction business founded in 1984, she has only ever paid unemployment taxes on the first $7,000 of her employees’ salaries.
“Yes, it’s going to be a little bit more for them, but they also have to realize that they’ve been paid on that $7,000 base wage rate for 36 years. “The day I started my business, it was at $7,000, so obviously we have not kept up with the times.”
Both bills have their skeptics – nine conservative Republicans voted against Cook’s version, and Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, voted against Fann’s measure in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senate Democrats, who have long pushed to increase unemployment benefits, aren’t happy with Fann’s proposed reduction in the number of eligible weeks. But they’re willing to support the measure anyway.
Cook said after the February 24 vote that his bill won’t be the last word and he expects the Senate to change it. He said to the nine Republicans who voted against it that, if they think his proposal isn’t conservative enough, they really won’t like the Senate’s proposal.
“This is common sense,” Cook said. “It pays for itself. It’s just something that needs to be done for the people and small businesses.”
Over the past year, the Covid pandemic has claimed many American lives. Millions are still out of work. This is the public toll of the virus. However, the disruption caused by the pandemic now runs deeper — and threatens the safety of America’s daily drug needs.
The coronavirus has made Americans more aware of the pitfalls of heavy dependence on imports. When the coronavirus first emerged, many countries banned exports of essential generic drugs and key components. That left U.S. hospitals scrambling to address shortages of basic medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Members of Congress subsequently introduced legislation to boost PPE supplies, and U.S. manufacturers retooled their factories in order to produce needed equipment. That has helped hospitals to get the resources they need. But there’s still another problem — the United States continues to depend on countries like China for critical inputs and ingredients in the generic medicines that Americans take each day.
Over the past 30 years, much of America’s drug manufacturing has moved offshore, including the production of generic medications that comprise 90% of America’s daily needs. As a result, thousands of drugs are made with ingredients produced only in China, including medications currently used to help patients recover from the coronavirus.
The situation is dire. The United States no longer manufactures penicillin and has virtually no capacity to produce antibiotics like the ones that treat pediatric ear infections, pneumonia, and even anthrax exposure. The U.S. also imports 95% of its ibuprofen and 70% of its acetaminophen from China.
Compounding these problems is that, at the onset of the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was forced to recall all of its overseas inspectors. Since then, generic drugs have been entering the U.S. from overseas factories without proper inspection.
Poorly inspected drug shipments pose serious risks. In 2007 and 2008, for example, hundreds of Americans died from tainted supplies of Chinese-made heparin. More recently, millions of Americans were sold blood pressure medicine from a Chinese company that contained more than 200 times the acceptable limit per pill of a known carcinogen.
The United States must move swiftly to start manufacturing these drugs at home. In order to accomplish this, a key first step would be for Medicare and Medicaid to require that hospitals prioritize the use of American-made essential generic drugs.
Adding American-made requirements to Medicare and Medicaid would create the incentives and market conditions needed to rebuild America’s generic pharmaceutical manufacturing. That could ensure Americans have safer access to key drugs. It could also help to make the United States more self-sufficient in the production of medicines and their critical components.
It’s time for Washington to make sure that millions of Americans have reliable access to safe, quality, generic drugs. As the nation continues to grapple with the Covid pandemic, there’s little time to waste in protecting the nation’s health care, now and in the future.
Rosemary Gibson chairs the health care committee of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. She is the author of “China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine.”
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said Thursday he plans to sue to block the Biden administration’s new mandate that large employers require their workers to either be vaccinated for Covid or undergo weekly testing starting in January.
The Republican said the suit challenging the new Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations targeting employers with 100 or more workers would be filed Friday.
“When faceless government bureaucrats dictate what you must inject into your body, that’s the furthest thing in the world from a safe workplace,” Brnovich said in a statement. “The government doesn’t get to be your nanny, and it’s certainly not your doctor.”
In a background briefing on the new rules Wednesday evening, a senior Biden administration official said they were needed to ensure worker safety.
“A virus that has killed more than 745,000 Americans, with more than 70,000 new cases per day currently, is clearly a health hazard that poses a grave danger to workers,” the official said.
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents parts of southern Arizona, called the regulations “welcome news” that will save lives and prevent losses by businesses that experience Covid outbreaks among their workforces.
“With COVID-19 as the new leading cause of death in Arizona, I applaud this effort to mitigate transmission of the virus in the workplace,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Right now, people are uncomfortable risking themselves or their families to be in unsafe working conditions – and that must change.”
The lawsuit is the second filed by Brnovich, who is seeking his party’s 2022 U.S. Senate nomination, over federal vaccine or testing mandates. A suit he filed in September alleged the government was violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause because it is treating citizens differently than people caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Those people are offered vaccines but not required to be inoculated.
A hearing on Brnovich’s request for a preliminary injunction in that case is set for next week.
In other developments:
— The Arizona Department of Health Services on Thursday reported an additional 3,352 new confirmed Covid cases and 17 more deaths, increasing the state’s totals to 1,179,072 cases and 21,290 deaths since the pandemic began.
Covid-related hospitalizations dropped slightly, with 1,828 virus patients occupying hospital inpatient beds as of Wednesday, the department’s coronavirus dashboard reported.
According to Johns Hopkins University data, Arizona’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen over the past two weeks from 2,131 per day on Oct. 19 to 2,684 new cases on Nov. 2.
The rolling average of daily deaths has risen over the past two weeks from 39 per day on Oct. 19 to 40 per day on Nov. 2.
— The Pinal County Board of Supervisors reversed itself and narrowly voted to accept a $3.3 million federal grant to help provide Covid vaccines to underserved populations in the semi-rural county in south-central Arizona, the Casa Grande Dispatch reported.
The board voted 3-2 on Wednesday to accept the grant, with Supervisor Jeffrey McClure reversing his earlier vote on Sept. 1 against accepting the grant. A request by McClure for reconsideration prompted the re-vote on Wednesday.
Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh again voted against accepting the grant, saying “it’s a waste of money to hire a vaccine equity coordinator … when we could do this much better on a local level.”
Coming out of the Covid pandemic, Arizona has a special opportunity to position itself as a premiere choice for corporate relocations and new business attraction. Recently, we’ve celebrated several big wins with company expansions that will bring many new jobs to our state.
Specialized tax treatment, such as Foreign Trade Zones, which dramatically lower property taxes for businesses within the designated area, helped make these major investments possible. However, these benefits are not available to all businesses. They are restricted to specific geographic areas.
Opportunities exist for many more job creators, both large and small businesses, to make our state home if we can address one area of our tax system where Arizona is currently not competitive with other markets – commercial property taxes.
NAIOP members include real estate developers and brokers who scour the U.S. and beyond seeking tenants for their office buildings and industrial facilities. Time and time again we hear that high commercial property taxes factor negatively into site selection decisions.
To better understand the full scope of this problem, NAIOP commissioned Rounds Consulting Group to conduct an economic impact analysis. That report revealed several important insights.
Arizona’s commercial property taxes are currently not competitive, despite progress being made over the past 15 years. Property in Arizona is valued by the Department of Revenue and county assessors.
Currently, commercial properties are taxed based on 18% of their assessed value. This is often referred to as the assessment ratio. For comparison, residential properties are taxed using a 10% assessment ratio.
Effective tax rates are the actual amount owed based on the assessment ratio and the relevant jurisdictions’ tax rates. When we look at the effective tax rates on a national basis, Arizona ranks the 20th highest for office properties and the 10th highest for industrial properties.
When we dig deeper, the situation becomes more dire. Our key competitors are regional markets such as Houston, Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise, Los Angeles and Las Vegas that site selectors evaluate for companies looking to expand in the Western U.S.
When analyzing these key competitors, Phoenix has the third highest effective tax rate for office properties and the second highest for industrial properties. Although Houston tops the list, it is important to note that the state of Texas has no income tax and offers bountiful incentives to companies looking to relocate to the Lone Star State.
Job growth is particularly important following a recession. The world has fundamentally changed, and some markets will come out ahead while others will fall behind. Getting the economic fundamentals right will position Arizona to be among those markets poised for growth.
Arizona’s strong revenue position makes it possible to take decisive action this year that will improve our ability to compete for new jobs. SB1108, sponsored by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, includes a provision to lower the assessment ratio on commercial properties by 1% over a two-year period.
This proposal would bring the assessment ratio down to 17%, which would move Arizona’s national ranking on office property from the 20th highest to the 27th and on industrial property from the 10th highest to the 19th. The proposal is structured in a way that it would not shift the tax burden to other types of taxpayers nor would it decrease funding for public schools.
As lawmakers debate a tax package to aid in Arizona’s continued economic recovery from the pandemic and to position our state for increased growth, lowering the assessment ratio on commercial property is a policy change that would meaningfully enhance our ability to attract private investment and job creators.
Suzanne Kinney is president and CEO of NAIOP Arizona.
Arizona appears to be on the verge of having as many people working as there were before the economy tanked last year due to Covid.
The latest figures from the Office of Economic Opportunity, which reflect the employment situation in July, show the state has recovered 94% of the 331,500 jobs shed since April 2020.
That was good enough to be the third largest recovery among all states.
And the situation is even brighter among private sector employers, with the state at 98% of the number of people working prior to the pandemic.
Doug Walls, the labor market analyst for the agency, said he can’t make predictions of what the figures for August will show and whether the state will get out of the red in terms of employment. Those numbers will be released in mid-September.
But he said the signs are promising.
“We have had some good employment momentum really over the last 12 months after the initial declines in employment,” Walls said. “We have seen a steady increase in hiring across all 11 industry sectors across all seven metro areas around the state that the data’s available for.”
Still, he cautioned, trend lines go only so far.
“It’s not uncommon to see month-to-month fluctuations,” Walls said.
But, at least on an annual basis, the needle is in positive territory.
Total non-farm employment increased 183,200 jobs, a 6.7% increase.
Even when statewide employment is back to pre-pandemic levels, however, not all areas of the state will fare equally well.
For example, Cochise County shed 2,300 jobs during the downturn. But there now are 2,900 more people working than before.
Mohave and Yavapai counties also already have exceeded their pre-pandemic employment levels. And it’s close to breaking even in Maricopa and Pinal counties.
Yuma County, by contrast, is at just 84% of the 5,700 jobs lost.
In Pima County, Walls said the 75% recovery level of the 44,000 lost jobs is due largely to the fact that so many people are employed with the university system which has not fully recovered.
That is reflected statewide in the fact that government employment, including colleges and universities, remains 40% below where it was.
Coconino County has a different situation.
Walls pointed out that much of the area economy is built on tourism, meaning jobs at bars, restaurants and hotels. And that hard-hit sector still has a way to go to getting back to where it was.
Among industry segments there also are some stark differences.
The biggest recovery has been in the category of trade, transportation and utilities.
Walls said some of that is related to stronger employment at “brick and mortar” retailers.
Many saw traffic slow to a crawl both due to a stay-at-home order issued last year by Gov. Doug Ducey and, even after that was rescinded, by a reticence of some people to go into crowded stores. Now that is beginning to recover.
But the big winner in all this, he said, have been online retailers. Employment has jumped not only at the warehouses and “fulfillment centers” but also among trucking companies that deliver all of these items.
And now that people have gotten used to shopping online, don’t expect that trend to shift.
The U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that consumers will spend $933.3 billion in ecommerce sales this year, up 17.9%. That totals 15.3% of total sales.
Agency officials also say that ecommerce should reach 23.6% of total sales by 2025, versus 11.0% in 2019.
At the other extreme in Arizona is the state’s information sector.
What’s been dragging that down, said Walls, is the fact that it includes employment at movie theaters.
“While we have seen some theaters open back up, there’s still some ways to go in order for that industry to fully recover,” he said.
That presumes that Covid has not forever changed viewing habits.
During the pandemic, some major producers made their releases available online as pay-per-view. And even with theaters now reopening, that trend is continuing.
Consider the new production of “Dune,” a remake of what first hit theater screens in 1984.
It is scheduled for release to theaters on Oct. 22. But it also is being made available at the same time on HBO Max.
The number of new jobs aside, there are other signs of an improving economy.
One is the “quit rate,” the percentage of people who voluntarily leave their jobs, presumably because they believe they can find better work elsewhere.
It dropped to just 1.6% nationally at the beginning of the pandemic. Since then it hit a historic high of 2.8% in April, though the latest figures have it at 2.7%.
And then there’s the question of compensation. With increasing competition for workers, companies are being forced to pay more.
Walls said the latest figures show an average hourly wage in Arizona of $28.45. That’s a 3.4% increase over the same time last year.
Still, the state remains below the national figure of $30.39 which went up 4.0% over the same period.
A program announced by Arizona’s Republican governor last month to give private school vouchers to parents who object to campus mask requirements has seen applications surge, with twice as many either started or completed than can be funded with the $10 million in federal coronavirus relief earmarked for the plan.
And Republican lawmakers who back expansion of the state’s existing voucher program doubt any students who receive the grants will be forced back into public schools when the federal cash is exhausted. Opponents of the school voucher program suspect that is highly likely.
The program Gov. Doug Ducey created will give $7,000 per school year to each student who enrolled in a public school with either mask requirements or that requires unvaccinated children exposed to the virus to quarantine or isolate differently than vaccinated children. Applicants can earn up to 350% of the federal poverty level, which equals $92,750 for a family of four. They can use the money for private school tuition, tutoring or other costs.
The governor’s education policy adviser said last week that applications for 454 children had been completed and another 2,255 started in the first 13 days the application window was open and 69 approved.
If all the current applications are completed and funded, the governor would need to pump another $10 million into the program, and would consider doing so, said Kaitlin Harrier, the education policy adviser.
“It’s important that we, at every step, no matter what’s happening, no matter what stage of the pandemic we’re in, we give parents options,” Harrier said.
The program uses some of the federal pandemic school funding directly controlled by Ducey, who signed legislation banning masks or vaccine mandates in schools in June that takes effect on Sept. 29.
Opponents of mandated vaccines and masks, including several Republicans vying to replace Ducey in 2022 when he must leave office, called for a new voucher program after some schools kept mask mandates in place despite the new law amid a statewide surge in Covid cases. They were inspired by a similar push by GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to give vouchers to students whose parents oppose school mask mandates.
Ducey is a major supporter of “school choice” — a blanket term for allowing parents to use money that would normally go to their public school for private school tuition or other education costs. He has continued supporting voucher expansions despite voters soundly rejecting a 2017 universal school voucher law by a 2 to 1 vote the following year. Arizona voters can temporarily block laws enacted by the Legislature by gathering signatures, and if voters ultimately oppose the measure it is repealed.
Ducey and Republicans who back school vouchers have continued to expand the voucher program, although another major expansion this year was sharply scaled backed amid opposition from a handful of Arizona House Republicans.
Sharon Kirsch, spokeswoman for the grassroots group of educators and parents that organized the referendum, Save Our Schools Arizona, said she is curious what kind of outreach the governor has done to promote the programs and just who is applying.
“Of course we have concerns, of course we know that this will be a permanent expansion,” Kirsch said Friday. “They continue to try to find ways to expand — they’re relentless about that.”
The governor’s office was unable to immediately provide any breakdown on the applicants, either their demographics or where they live.
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, who chairs the House appropriations committee and like many in his caucus backs school vouchers, said he hopes those awarded grants will never be forced back into a public school.
“I would hope that we would use state money and that we could let them remain in the schools that they’ve migrated to,” Kavanagh said. “I don’t think people would be upset if we don’t rip kids out of the new schools that they’ve been attending.”
Before this year’s scaled-back expansion, the Arizona Department of Education says about 250,000 students were eligible, but only about 10,000 students are getting vouchers, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. They cost the state about $145 million a year. More than half goes to disabled students, the original group intended to benefit from the program when it was created in 2011.
The governor’s office said the new program will help parents who object to Covid restrictions imposed by schools, during and after the pandemic.
“It’s certainly my hope that parents will have options, no matter where their home school is and regardless of this program,” Harrier said. “And that we would have a school choice environment that would transcend above all of this, and provide maximum choice.”
Arizona has a long history of innovation and entrepreneurship that has helped us grow from a Western outpost into a robust and thriving economy. While Covid has obviously had an impact, we are well-positioned for a strong recovery, in part because of the strength of Arizona’s clean energy, technology and innovation sectors. As we focus on our economic recovery efforts, it is essential that we identify and implement opportunities to support these sectors, which continue to diversify our state’s overall economy.
With that in mind, last fall The Western Way partnered with the Arizona Technology Council to convene a group of stakeholders working at the forefront of technology and innovation here. Together, the group identified key policy priorities that, if implemented, can supercharge Arizona’s economic recovery and cement our state as a national leader in clean and renewable energy technology and innovation. Our joint report released in December 2020 gives policymakers a roadmap for incorporating the technology and energy innovation sector into Arizona’s economic recovery plan. We are so pleased to see two of our recommendations mirrored in bills currently before the state Legislature.
HB2153 sponsored by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, goes a long way toward further incentivizing the adoption of clean and renewable energy technology in Arizona by providing an exemption from state and municipal taxes for machinery and equipment used directly for energy storage. Existing state law levies a tax on tangible personal property while providing an exemption for certain categories, including the retail sale of solar energy equipment and installation of solar energy devices. Dunn’s bill adds energy storage equipment to the list of exemptions. Further development and deployment of energy storage technology—and the jobs and economic development opportunities that come with it—is a critical component of our clean and renewable energy future. If passed, HB2153 would offer an important signal that Arizona is focusing on the future.
Our report also recommended policies that support advanced manufacturing, including funding programs that enhance the talent pipeline from Arizona’s community college and state university systems into the clean energy and advanced manufacturing sectors. HB2017 sponsored by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, provides an appropriation from the general fund to the Arizona Commerce Authority to administer a grant program intended to cultivate STEM workforce development opportunities.
Arizona’s clean energy and advanced manufacturing sectors are critical parts of our economy. They create jobs, support existing businesses and attract new ones to the state, and help ensure air quality and the environment are healthy for our communities. Investing in the advanced manufacturing and clean energy sectors by building a larger talent pipeline to support the growth of the advanced manufacturing and energy innovation sectors, as well as encourage new businesses to locate here, are essential if we are to continue to grow and innovate as a state.
As we look ahead to the future, we must find new and innovative ways to produce the energy we need to support our growing economy and the businesses and communities that call Arizona home. Fortunately, we have legislators prioritizing the clean energy, technology and innovation sectors by focusing on policy solutions that will have a real and positive impact on Arizona’s economy, both in the short-term as our economy recovers and for years into the future.
Doran Arik Miller is Arizona director of The Western Way and Steven Zylstra is president and CEO of Arizona Technology Council.
Arizona is opening coronavirus vaccine appointments to everyone 16 and older.
Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday that appointments will be available at state-run mass vaccination sites in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma beginning at 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Ducey said the decision was made based on an anticipated increase in vaccine supply.
Arizona is among the first states to allow anyone to sign up for vaccine appointments. President Biden has said he wants states to take that step by May 1 and seek to vaccinate everyone who wants a shot by the end of May.
About 2.9 million vaccine doses have been given to about 1.1 million people so far in Arizona, according to state officials.
The change applies only to state-run vaccination sites, which have distributed the bulk of the vaccines in Arizona but are in urban areas.
Counties and some pharmacies have their own vaccine supplies and eligibility criteria, such as a health condition or a job in an essential industry.
Health officials on Monday reported 484 new confirmed Covid cases but no deaths, marking another day of downward trends in the coronavirus outbreak.
Arizona’s pandemic totals have now risen to 836,737 cases and 16,745 known deaths since the pandemic began.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
State health officials said the number of confirmed or suspected coronavirus hospitalized patients around Arizona decreased to 647 on Sunday.
In addition, the number of ICU beds used by Covid patients fell to 180.
Arizona’s weekly percent positivity for Covid diagnostic testing, an indicator of how much the virus is spreading in the community, is at a five-month low.
Arizona on Friday surpassed the milestone of 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases after the state reported 3,707 new infections amid continued wrangling over vaccinations and mask requirements.
The state is now the 13th in the U.S. to hit that mark after starting with its first confirmed case at Arizona State University in January 2020 and then going on to be labeled “the hot spot of the world” amid last winter’s surge.
The state Department of Health Services noted the milestone in a tweet that urged people to get vaccinated.
The additional cases reported Friday increased Arizona’s pandemic total to 1,001,871.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data as of Friday ranked the state 13th in total number of cases and cases per 100,000 of population.
Arizona on Friday also reported 63 more virus deaths, raising the state’s pandemic total to 18,724.
The approximately 2,000 Covid patients occupying the state’s hospital beds during the current surge — the state’s third — is far short of the record of 5,082 set on Jan. 11.
But the recent surge of cases in Arizona means that “the trend is ominous,” the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association said in a statement Monday, adding that hospitals lack enough nurses and intensive care beds.
The association and public health officials urged people to wear masks and be vaccinated to combat the virus’ spread.
But there is raging debate in the state and court fights over efforts to require the shots and over mask requirements.
My parents arrived in Arizona from India in the early 1990s, settling in an economy disrupted by a national recession in 1991. Despite this, Arizona’s rugged desert landscape and dry heat quickly became home for my family. Throughout the last decade of the 20th century my family grew slowly, first with the addition of a loving American Eskimo and later with my own birth, and as my family grew so did the state in which we lived. Now 30 years later, Arizona is a different place, one offering broad new levels of opportunity and ways to thrive.
From the moment I entered the world, my parents consistently instilled in me the importance of education — after all, their educational persistence was what led them to be able to live a prosperous life in the United States in the first place.
As I grew older, supported by my parents, my local community in Ahwatukee and the broader community across the Valley, my passion for education grew as well. During my senior year of high school, I was fortunate to be awarded the Flinn Scholarship, giving me my first glimpse into Arizona’s university system. As a high school student, I was struck by the higher education opportunities present in Arizona across our three great public universities, each with its own unique strengths. Now, as a student within this system of three public universities, I have gotten to experience first-hand the doors that have opened for me as a result of my Arizona education.
As a state that has progressed and diversified both socially and economically from where it was when my parents first immigrated here, we face a new set of challenges vastly different from those present in the early ‘90s. With a flourishing economy and a resounding inbound population, Arizona’s economic competitiveness and workforce demand is poised to continue escalating. The businesses that are leading this expansion are creating jobs and need the talent to fill them.
Looking to the future of our state, it is clear to me that Arizona’s success and agency to capitalize on these positive trends lies on one critical pillar — higher education. With strategic investment in the diverse strengths of our three public universities, the New Economy Initiative proposed this year by the Arizona Board of Regents will position them to provide more Arizona students with the educational tools necessary to contribute to our growing workforce and economy, writing their own personal story of impact on our state. However, at this critical point in Arizona’s history, investment in higher education goes well beyond economic impact.
Arizona’s higher education institutions have clearly demonstrated their positive influence on the state during the Covid pandemic. As a student in the Luminosity Lab at Arizona State University, I have had the chance to take part in a few of the several initiatives in which our three public universities have responded to public health challenges from the pandemic. From leading a student team that played a role in delivering more than 4,000 units of 3D-printed personal protective equipment to medical clinics experiencing shortages, to developing patent-pending sterilization technologies to aid in the shortage of N95 masks, to finally designing a face mask that eliminates some of the most common pain points with wearing masks, which won the $1M XPRIZE Next-Gen Mask Challenge, the three public universities have paved a path for me as a student to aid my state in times of desperate need. Beyond these examples, the universities have responded to several other challenges brought on by Covid, scaling up massive testing and vaccination centers and conducting life-saving research while still providing a world-class education to the 180,000 students that matriculate through the university system in any given year.
So, our state universities do a lot more than just confer degrees and when we invest in them, the return comes on many different fronts. These examples allude to the critical role that our universities will continue to play in Arizona’s recovery from Covid and to the opportunities they create for their students, even in times of national crisis. Investment in Arizona’s higher education institutions through the New Economy Initiative is an investment in Arizona’s students and an investment in the future of our state as a whole.
Student Regent Nik Dave is an ASU junior, majoring in Neuroscience, Innovation in Society. He is also pursuing a 1-year MS Biology next year.
Arizona won’t heed new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control that most residents and all K-12 student and teachers resume wearing masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, Gov. Doug Ducey said late Tuesday afternoon.
The CDC on Tuesday recommended that vaccinated people in areas with high Covid spread should wear masks indoors. That includes seven of Arizona’s 15 counties: Apache, Gila, Maricopa, Mohave, Navajo, Pinal and Yavapai.
And the CDC said anyone in K-12 schools should wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status – but Arizona schools can’t require them because of a provision in the state budget.
Ducey, who has vehemently objected to talk of renewed restrictions as Arizona and other states began seeing the virus spread rapidly, said the CDC’s new guidelines will diminish public confidence in the vaccine.
“Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports or discrimination in schools based on who is or isn’t vaccinated,” he said in a prepared statement. “We’ve passed all of this into law, and it will not change.”
Ducey and the state legislature worked together to prevent local Covid restrictions during the 2021 session, and a series of new laws prevent counties, cities and school boards from passing their own regulations.
Freshman Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, succeeded in passing a law that would allow businesses to flout mask mandates. Businesses would still be allowed to require masks on their own premises, as some did prior to city mask mandates.
Ducey rescinded an executive order that allowed cities and counties to institute their own mask requirements in March of this year, but Phoenix, Tucson and Pima County kept their mask mandates in effect for all residents for another month, until the CDC said in May that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear them.
Phoenix’s May declaration states that the city would continue to follow CDC guidance and the document would be automatically updated to comply with new CDC recommendations, without needing an additional council vote.
Spokesmen for Phoenix and Tucson didn’t yet have answers for what the cities planned to do on Tuesday afternoon. While a March opinion from the Attorney General’s office said city and county mask mandates could still be enforced, the Legislature included language in the state budget declaring that Covid is a matter of statewide concern. Cities and towns are allowed to require masks inside their facilities, but can’t pass any regulations that would affect schools or businesses.
An earlier draft of the state budget allowed school districts to set mask policies, but a group of Republicans balked at that language and forced it out.
In a statement Tuesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman called on Ducey to restore the ability for local school districts to set their own Covid policies, including requiring masks.
Barring action by Ducey, Hoffman said families, administrators and teachers should take the initiative to wear masks in schools.
“Students, teachers, and parents are ready to get back to in-person learning, but it takes all of us,” she said.
Ducey argued that the best way to combat Covid is to urge Arizonans to – voluntarily – get vaccinated. So far, roughly 51 percent of Arizonans have received at least one does and 45 percent are fully vaccinated, leaving the state squarely in the bottom half of the country.
Arizona was once the deadliest Covid hotspot in the country. Now, with close to two-thirds of all residents having received at least one Covid vaccine dose, cases are sharply declining. Businesses are reopening, and vaccinated friends and family can gather without fretting over masks. The good news comes thanks to the relentless effort and ingenuity of American scientists.
Vaccine development is usually a long and arduous process. The fact that Moderna and Pfizer developed their Covid vaccines in less than a year is astonishing. Previously, the record for fastest development belonged to the mumps vaccine, which still took four years.
The speedy arrival of relief has proven especially critical for our vulnerable populations. Communities of color across the country have been disproportionately affected by Covid – and Arizona is no exception. We have the second-highest Hispanic mortality rate in the nation.
The more Arizonans who get these life-saving vaccines, the more protection we’ll afford not only to ourselves – but to the most at-risk among us.
Covid vaccines also hold the key to unlocking therapies for a range of debilitating diseases. The breakthrough messenger ribonucleic acid or “mRNA” technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines is especially promising. Moderna is already working on personalized cancer vaccines using mRNA. Other companies are exploring applications for multiple sclerosis, HIV and Alzheimer’s.
Think of what it would mean to have a cure or effective prevention method for Alzheimer’s, one of the leading causes of death in our state. Opening this vista on medical innovation, however, depends on whether Congress can avoid enacting legislation that would undermine what makes it possible. Lawmakers are looking to lower the cost of new medications – a worthy goal, to be sure. But the effort that’s attracting the most support could have ruinous consequences.
House Democrats recently revived H.R. 3 – a bill that could effectively introduce price controls in the United States. Costs here would be tied to the lower prices paid in other developed countries with government-run health systems, like Canada and the UK.
Here’s the problem: developing new treatments and vaccines requires an average investment of nearly $3 billion to take a drug from a lab to the pharmacy. Price controls on medications could make it all but impossible for investors to recoup such large sums. Inevitably, investment will dry up. Indeed, if legislation along these lines passes, one prominent health care consultancy group estimated that 56 fewer new medications would make their way to patients in the next decade. Those could include cutting-edge treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, MS, and HIV.
America’s innovative ecosystem put our scientists in a great position to cope with the present pandemic. If it falls to ruin, we will be in no condition to respond to the next public health crisis.
There are better ways to bring costs down, like encouraging the kind of competition that has brought down prices in almost every other technological industry.Or – perhaps even more effectual – taking aim at middlemen in the drug supply chain. As the system stands, insurers task pharmacy benefit managers – known as PBMs – with hammering out the specifics of their plans. PBMs engage in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to secure significant discounts and rebates on medicines.
While the savings are substantial, patients rarely see a dime reduction in their pharmacy bills. Insurers and PBMs aren’t obligated to account for them when calculating patients’ out-of-pocket cost-sharing responsibilities – like copays – for medicines. A new rule, however, could change that. It would require these middlemen to share negotiated savings directly with patients at the point of sale. That could help remove financial barriers to medication access, without throwing a wrench in the pursuit of biomedical breakthroughs.
When push comes to shove on price controls, our Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema would do well to remember how medical innovation rescued Arizona in its time of need.
Dr. Kendrick Johnson, DO, is a family doctor who founded Ark Family Health, the first direct primary care practice in the Phoenix area.
The attorney for the firm conducting the audit of the 2020 election for the Senate told a judge on Monday he has no right to order the firm to cough up the records of the audit in its possession.
“Cyber Ninjas Inc. is not a public officer of a public body,” Jack Wilenchik argued to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah. “That is the only person who is subject to a public records request under the law.”
In fact, he said, the fact that most of the money for the audit is coming from sources outside the Senate from private donations “is even more an indication that my client is not subject to the public records law.”
And Wilenchik warned Hannah that there would be far-reaching implications if he concludes his client’s contract with the Senate somehow makes its records public.
“It may sound a little hokey to say it, but it very much opens the floodgates,” he said. “Who’s next?”
For example, Wilenchik suggested, such a ruling could make the records of Dominion Voting Systems subject to public disclosure because that firms, under contract with Maricopa County, provides the equipment to perform a governmental function, specifically the counting of ballots. Ditto, he said, of Runbeck Election Services which prints the ballots.
But David Bodney, representing the Arizona Republic, told Hannah there is a risk in agreeing with Cyber Ninjas — and with the Senate which also contends that those records are not subject to disclosure.
“I can say that if their view of the law is correct, that a public body could launder public funds through a private entity for ill purposes and the public would have no way of knowing about it.”
This is actually the second lawsuit seeking access to the records held by Cyber Ninjas about its activities in conducting the audit.
The state Court of Appeals already has ordered the Senate to surrender all records related to the audit. And the appellate judges have said that includes records held by Cyber Ninjas which they said is the custodian of the Senate’s public records.
But Cyber Ninjas is not a party to that case. And that raises the question of whether the Supreme Court will — or can — order the Senate to take possession of those records and then release them publicly.
“We have not had a request from the Senate for these records,” Wilenchik acknowledged to Hannah on Monday.
In this case, however, Cyber Ninjas is a defendant. And that gives Hannah the option to directly order the firm to surrender those documents itself to the public rather than relying on Senate production.
Bodney said there are reasons for him to do that.
“First, to end the shell game, to stop the runaround, and to hold the Senate and its authorized agent Cyber Ninjas accountable to the public for how it spends public dollars,” he said, noting the $150,000 contract. “The public has a right to this basic information about the performance, the funding and the staffing of this audit.”
And, apparently, there’s a lot that may interest the public. Attorney Kory Langhofer told the court there are about 60,000 records that may fit within the definition of what is being sought.
That issue of what Cyber Ninjas has been up to, how it conducted the audit and even with whom the company and its subcontractors had contact could be crucial for the public to determine the weight to give the final report when it is finally released.
The process has been questioned even before a contract was issued, with Logan previously having made statements questioning the election returns. Then there were issues about exactly how the 2.1 million ballots were being reviewed and the election equipment from Maricopa County were being examined.
And it only became more complicated when it was revealed that Cyber Ninjas had taken $5.6 million from outside sources — above and beyond the $150,000 paid by the Senate — much of this linked to individuals or organizations that have publicly said the election results declaring Joe Biden the winner were fraudulent.
Bodney contends the records of Cyber Ninjas, including all internal and external communications, are as public as if they were sent or received by senators themselves. And that, he told Hannah, should end the discussion.
“The Senate defendants have admitted the legislature’s a public body under the public records law,” Bodney said.
“The Senate defendants have admitted that Cyber Ninjas, a Florida corporation, is its authorized agent,” he continued. “And they’ve also admitted that the Senate has paid, or committed to pay, $150,000 in public funds to Cyber Ninjas to oversee a full and complete election audit to ‘ensure the integrity of the vote.’ ”
Senate President Karen Fann said she got a “portion” of the draft report Monday from Cyber Ninjas. She said delivery of the balance has been delayed because CEO Doug Logan and two other members of the audit team have tested positive for COVID-19 “and are quite sick.” One of the unnamed members is in the hospital.
Fann also said that the Senate did not get images from Maricopa County of the envelopes used to send in early ballots until Aug. 19 and wants to analyze them.
The Senate president said she and her team, including staff and Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, will meet Wednesday to start reviewing the draft behind closed doors.
“When the remainder of the draft is submitted, the Senate team will hold another meeting to continue checking for accuracy, clarity, and proof of documentation of findings,” Fann said. Only then will it be presented to the full Senate Judiciary Committee and made public.
The Arizona Senate received only a portion of the report on its review of Maricopa County’s 2020 general election today because Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan and two others on his five-person team tested positive for Covid and are “quite sick,” according to Senate President Karen Fann.
Fann, R-Prescott, said that one team member, not Logan, was in the hospital with pneumonia.
She said the Senate legal team would meet Wednesday to review the partial report and that Logan would be present via Zoom at that meeting. When the rest of the draft report is submitted, the Senate team plans to hold another meeting to review it. Then the final report will be shared with the Senate Judiciary Committee and the findings will be released to the public.
It’s possible some information from the report will be made public sooner than that, perhaps even after the meeting on Wednesday, Fann said.
“We don’t want to just put out just arbitrarily information, but if there’s something that the team is comfortable with that is hard solid facts — we know that everybody’s anxious to see these reports and would like some information — so I would love to have the ability to share it as soon as we know that it’s confirmed,” Fann said.
Besides Covid, Fann blamed the county for the delay, saying that the Senate received requested images of ballot envelopes on Aug. 19 and that they still need to be analyzed.
But the county maintains that it already gave images of the ballot envelopes to the Senate on April 22, according to Megan Gilbertson, Maricopa County Elections Department spokeswoman. The county also said as much in an Aug. 2 letter in response to the Senate’s July 26 subpoena.
“Maricopa County already provided digital images of ballot envelopes used in the November 3, 2020 General Election,” the Aug. 2 letter stated, directing Cyber Ninjas to where it said the files could be found. “…If Cyber Ninjas are unable to find them there, the County can produce them again.”
Gilbertson said the county gave the images to the Senate a second time Aug. 19.
Fann said that wasn’t true and that the auditors received the images for the first time on that day.
“I had three separate IT experts look, and it was not there,” Fann said. “I think they thought that they had sent it to us, but I don’t know. I’m not the IT tech, but I can guarantee you it was not there.”
Fann’s plans for the audit release have changed several times over the past few months. In June, the Legislature included language in its budget saying the Senate Government Committee, led by Secretary of State candidate and audit skeptic Michelle Ugenti-Rita, would receive and review the report. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee later insisted they would have jurisdiction over it instead. And in recent weeks, Fann has instead referred to a “Senate team,” though she has yet to identify the people on that team.
In the last year, Arizonans have seen more than 16,000 of our family members, loved ones, and neighbors die as a result of Covid. This fact cannot be separated from the reality that throughout the pandemic, our state has consistently ranked as one of the worst areas in the nation, with no meaningful action by state leaders to stop the spread. The pandemic became so dire for Arizona’s tribal neighbors that Doctors Without Borders were deployed to assist last summer.
Despite the dire situation in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican leaders have done little to mitigate the spread of Covid. They have ignored the advice of public health experts urging the mandate of statewide mask usage in public and other high-risk situations. They have ignored requests for financial support from cash-strapped local communities. They have put politics ahead of Arizona’s safety, failed to support those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and recklessly reopened the state, without regard to Arizonans’ safety, which led to a precipitous spike in cases and deaths last summer.
We are grateful to U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly for wasting no time and working in Washington D.C. to address the serious concerns of Arizonans who have struggled throughout this pandemic.
Kelly made the economic rescue of Arizona’s families and small businesses a top priority, fighting for $50 billion in grants and loans for small businesses to stay afloat and keep people employed. Additionally, we thank the Biden administration and the members of the Arizona congressional delegation who are working to ensure that Arizonans can recover from this crisis as quickly as possible. But this rescue plan can only be the beginning.
We are joining Honest Arizona to hold our elected leaders accountable. Arizonans have endured far too much this past year, and we continue to face serious problems. If we’re going to get past this pandemic and get Arizona working families the opportunities they need, our leaders must be honest and transparent, follow the advice of public health experts, and respond to the needs of their constituents.
This commentary is signed by Honest Arizona advisory board members U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Ruben Gallego, former Attorney General Grant Woods, State Sens. Tony Navarrette, Jamescita Peshlakai, State Reps. Reginald Bolding, Cesar Chavez, Director of Arizona Public Health Association Will Humble, Cadey Lawless Harrell, M.D., Hunter Henderson – veteran living with a pre-existing condition, Marcos Castillo – living with two pre-existing conditions, Marked by Covid co-founder Kristin Urquiza
A top doctor at the state’s largest hospital network said the facilities could begin to impose capacity restrictions at the rate Covid is multiplying in Arizona.
In a wide-ranging news conference Tuesday, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer at Banner Health, said the 71 children admitted with the virus last month is double the figure from a month before.
The good news, she said, is most pediatric cases the hospitals have seen so far do not require treatment in an intensive-care unit. But Bessel said that may be only a temporary situation.
“This does not mean that the virus cannot have a serious impact on children,” she said, pointing out the experience in states like Louisiana, Florida and Texas where the number of children in ICUs has spiked. In New Orleans, all the pediatric ICU beds were full late last week.
Bessell also stressed that any child getting in-person instruction should definitely be masked but repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether schools should mandate their use.
“The way that we get to that is something that I will leave to others,” she said.
But Gov. Doug Ducey has no interest in allowing school boards to make that decision, saying the best solution to the problem is people getting vaccinated.
Spokesman C.J. Karamargin acknowledged Tuesday the vaccine is not available for anyone younger than 12. But he said his boss remains convinced that this decision should be made not by schools but by parents.
It isn’t just Banner dealing with a new spike of cases.
The state Department of Health Services on Tuesday reported 1,470 in-patient beds statewide occupied by Covid patients, the highest since Feb. 25, before the vaccine was available to most Arizonans.
There is a similar spike in Covid patients in intensive-care units.
What makes that significant is that Bessel said the typical Covid ICU patient ends up staying in the unit for more than a week. And that’s just part of the problem.
“They will be in our hospitals for quite a bit of time as they both receive intensive care as well as then recover before they go and be discharged,” she said.
The health department also reported another 2,582 cases on Tuesday, making it a full week of new illnesses over the 2,000 threshold. In fact, the agency, filling in data as reports come in, said the figure actually hit 3,117 last week.
There also were an additional 12 deaths reported Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 18,400.
All that goes to concerns about what the future looks like.
“At this time we are operating without capacity constraints,” Bessel said. “But I will say with the surge that we’re beginning to experience and we’re reporting out here through the media we are concerned if that trajectory continues.”
Last year, as cases first spiked, the governor issued an executive order to limit elective surgeries to ensure there is sufficient space for not just Covid patients but others who need more immediate care.
That, in turn, created some financial problems for hospitals who depend on those procedures, like knee and hip replacements. In fact, the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association reported losses of 30% to 40% a month.
“At this time we are managing taking care of those who have Covid as well as those who have non-Covid,” Bessel said. “We would like to continue to do that for as long as possible and, hopefully, throughout this surge.”
Complicating matters is staffing.
Bessel said Banner is raising salaries in a bid to recruit and retain not just nurses but other support staff, including imposing a $15 an hour minimum wage. That compares with the $12.15 set in state law.
The system currently has 1,057 bedside vacancies for registered nurses and 347 of what Bessel called nursing support role vacancies.
There also are plans to bring in about 1,500 “traveling nurses” to fill needs.
On one hand, she said, that is not unusual. Bessel said extra nurses are brought in every winter season to deal with seasonal respiratory diseases.
“But the magnitude of what we’re likely going to need due to the Covid surge, of course, is significant and concerning at this time,” she said.
On top of that is the possibility of resignations or firings as Banner staffers refuse to comply with a company mandate that they be vaccinated by Nov. 1. Bessel did not say how many or what percentage of staff have yet to meet the requirement but said “we still have a ways to go.”
Still, Bessel said, that doesn’t mean a bunch of workers will be gone at the end of October.
“We still have a large number of individuals that either are in the process of getting vaccinated or submitting their vaccine card to us,” she said.
President Biden on Wednesday directed the nation’s top education official to take action “against governors that are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators” by prohibiting them from requiring the use of masks.
The direction to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona comes on the heels of an expanding number of states, including Arizona, making mask mandates illegal despite the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. And it comes just a day after Gov. Doug Ducey moved to financially penalize school districts that impose such a requirement.
Biden said he expects Cardona to use “all of his oversight authority and legal action if appropriate” to bring errant states into line.
“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators who protect our children,” the president said in an announcement from the White House. And Biden charged that some politicians are seeking to turn measures to protect public safety into “political disputes for their own political gain.”
The speech comes just hours after Cardona sent a letter to Ducey warning that the Arizona law and his decision to withhold Covid relief dollars from schools that impose mask requirements may violate federal law. And Cardona also warned he may take action against the state.
In his letter, obtained by Capitol Media Services, the education secretary said it is a “shared priority” that students be able to return to in-person instruction safely.
“Arizona’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts these goals at risk,” Cardona said. The education secretary also said the policies and laws barring school districts from requiring those on campus to wear masks may conflict with their authority to protect students and staff — something they are required to do by federal law.
And Cardona, in a separate blog post, left no doubt that this warning is more than a hollow threat, saying his agency’s Office of Civil Rights may initiate a directed investigation “if facts indicate a potential violation of the rights of students as a result of state policies and actions.”
What makes that important is that Cardona is enlarging the scope of what fits under those rules of how schools must act to protect the civil rights of students and teachers.
“We’re expanding that to violations of safety,” Vanessa Harmoush a spokeswoman for the agency, told Capitol Media Services.
“So if a parent or teacher or student feels like they aren’t able to be safe in schools because of certain laws put in place, they can file a complaint,” she said. “We can pursue the investigation and kind of go from there.”
And a finding against the state could result in legal action to forbid the state from enforcing the newly approved law banning mask mandates.
“Let me be clear,” Cardona said in his blog post. “This department will continue to use every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators and to maximize in-person learning as the new school year begins.”
Biden, in his announcement, said he shares that goal.
“As I’ve said before, if you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who’s trying,” the president said.
Neither the president nor Cardona specifically addressed Ducey’s latest actions where he announced he is distributing $163 million in federal Covid relief dollars — but only to schools that do not have mask mandates. The governor also announced he would use federal dollars to provide $7,000 vouchers to parents of children in schools with mask requirements so they could instead send them to private or parochial schools.
But the education secretary strongly suggested that is not the intended use of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Cardona said districts that get the funds are to “adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services.”
“Actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the CDC may infringe on a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law,” he said.
Those guidelines, issued in the wake of the spread of the Delta variant, recommend “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” And the CDC says children should return to full-time, in-person instruction “with layered prevention strategies in place.”
Ducey brushed aside the president’s comments.
“What is it about families they don’t trust?” asked press aide C.J. Karamargin.
The governor has repeatedly emphasized that nothing in state law or any of his directives prevents parents from putting masks on their children. But that could still leave them at least partially exposed to the potential of being infected by unmasked students and adults who may be contagious.
Karamargin was similarly dismissive of Cardona’s letter and any criticism of the law banning mask mandates that the governor signed and is trying now to enforce.
“The last thing we need is a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. telling Arizona parents what’s best for them,” he said.
Nor does the governor believe he is breaking any law by denying a share of those Covid relief dollars to schools that require faculty and students to wear marks.
“We are confident the program used to distribute these funds aligns with federal guidance,” Karamargin said.
My wife Deb and I missed the birth of our granddaughter this year. We also missed our grandson’s first steps. We used to see our family twice a day, five days a week before the Covid pandemic hit. We did the best we could to keep in touch through Zoom and our home’s glass doors. But touching hands through a glass door is nothing like hugging your grandchildren. Meeting your granddaughter over a webcam is nothing like holding her for the first time.
President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan on March 11, which will go a long way to helping defeat the pandemic once and for all.
The bill increases testing and tracing, addresses shortages of PPE, and invests in high-quality treatment. It will also scale up distribution of the vaccine by opening community vaccination sites nationwide.
The Biden Administration has promised 100 million COVID vaccinations would be administered in the U.S. within the first 100 days. In Biden’s first five weeks of office, over 78 million doses have been administered in the U.S. The fact that the number is growing every day is incredibly reassuring.
The sooner most Americans get vaccinated, and have access to tests, the sooner seniors like us will be able to see our family again.
We’ll be that much closer to all the things we haven’t been able to do for months: Having the grandkids over for breakfast before school. Biking to get ice cream. Cheering them on at their soccer games. Building toy boats. Swimming in the pool at the end of our block.
We cannot ignore what was lost. Like many grandparents, Covid cut us off from our usual contacts with our kids and grandkids. Deb has severe asthma and gets pneumonia every couple of years. If she got really sick she might not make it to the hospital. I’m 75, she’s 69. So protecting ourselves meant we lost a year of intergenerational conversations and jokes: the glue of family identity.
We now know what a year without enough federal and state aid looks like in a pandemic. We woke up most days without much hope. For an entire year, President Trump had no national plan, resources, or interest in saving dying Americans. It was like being trapped inside your home, watching a forest fire spread outside, and no one was coming to stop it.
The past year has seen a needless loss of life, and experience. We read in the newspaper that psychologists call this “ambiguous loss” — a grief that comes from losing parts of our lives, normalcy, and predictability. Our grandchildren missed out on classroom memories in elementary school. One day they were able to see their friends two houses down, and the next day they had to say goodbye to them for a year. For the first time in 10 years, we did not celebrate Christmas with a family brunch. Almost every area of our life was impacted.
We care a lot about this state. Deb’s a native of Arizona: She was born and raised in Globe, a little mining town in the Pinal Mountains. We were both teachers when we met. She was teaching home economics at South Mountain High School, and I was teaching computer science to all different ages at Carl Hayden high School. Deb went on to teach high school math at Central High School, and I built robots, engineers and life-long friends.
Over 16,000 Arizonans have died from Covid. We count ourselves lucky not to be among them. We decided to quarantine early on, and watched Arizona’s numbers surge several times throughout the year. Not once, but twice, we had the highest number of Covid cases in the entire world. It means so much that our senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema have helped to shape and move the American Rescue Plan. I hope they can inspire their fellow Senators to support it, too.
President Biden has done wonders so far. But we cannot forget what we have lost, because it will help us remember what’s so necessary going forward. Soon, grandparents like us can be with our families again.
Deb and Allan Cameron are retired teachers who live in Phoenix, Arizona.
Few Arizona industries suffered more during the COVID-19 pandemic than bars, which faced severe operating restrictions, drastically reduced business and a backlash from public officials.
In addition, bars faced closures at the instruction of an executive order from the state. Since those first devastating days in March through the fall, bars and many businesses around the state struggled to stay afloat.
With Covid on its way to eradication thanks to a flurry of approved vaccines, bars now face another existential threat. Proposed legislation gives the thousands of restaurants in the state some of the same privileges to sell alcohol to go that bars maintain.
I’ve operated Kactus Kate’s in cottonwood for 25 years. Pre-coronavirus, many of the bars across the state prospered despite some uncertain economic times. Bars have long been a place of refuge after a long day’s work or a relaxing gathering spot for friends and family.
Covid began hurting bars almost immediately. When the state shut down the economy, bars were ordered closed to help stop the spread. As spring turned to summer, Arizona began to open up and employ commonsense measures to slow the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks and staying six feet apart. At bars, we planned to reduced capacity, expand outdoor seating and encouraged social distancing among our patrons.
However, bars faced additional hurdles that other retailers and restaurants avoided. The state forced many of us to remain closed to patrons who wanted to drink and socialize. After suing the state to overturn the closure order, bars won the right to again serve patrons in a responsible way.
However, just as bars start to recover, the state is proposing to give restaurants a competitive and economic advantage.
Restaurants had been given authority during the pandemic to package alcoholic beverages to go. The theory was that in a time of economic distress with no ability to serve patrons in their dining rooms, restaurants would be able to sell alcohol along with a burger or spaghetti to go. While the law did not allow this, most people looked the other way because of the temporary nature of the pandemic.
Restaurants weathered the COVID storm and the industry remains vibrant and growing. New eateries pop up weekly to accommodate a public desirous of new options.
Some in the Legislature want to give restaurants the permanent authority to sell liquor to go, a right that exclusively belong to bars and retail establishments like convenience stores and grocery stores. In some parts of the state, bars earn a substantial amount of revenue selling package liquor.
To be sure, bars pay a premium for this right. A license to open a bar costs at least $100,000 from the state, whereas a restaurant pays just a few thousand dollars to serve liquor onsite. HB2773 proposes to give restaurants a significant competitive advantage, paying just $1500 for rights that a bar must shell out at least $100,000.
It’s obviously neither fair nor right to create a permanent solution to this temporary problem. Covid will be a thing of the past as the vaccines become more available. To change state law and provide a significant competitive advantage to an industry that is now flourishing is just wrong. The bar owners around the state hope the Legislature rejects this unfair competitive advantage in HB2773.
A recall of House Speaker Rusty Bowers won’t make the ballot because the right-wing group behind it didn’t fill out the forms correctly.
The Patriot Party of Arizona had been trying to recall the Mesa Republican, citing his failure to convene a special session to deal with Covid or to support efforts to overturn President Biden’s narrow win in Arizona. The signature deadline was Thursday, and they filed 2,040 petition sheets with about 24,500 signatures, a little more than the 22,331 valid signatures that would have been needed to trigger the recall.
However, none of the petition sheets had a date-stamped application for a serial number attached to them, which is required under law. An attempt to recall Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski failed to make the ballot in 2018 for the same reasons, a denial upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court.
“No sheets were eligible for signature review by the Secretary of State’s Office,” State Elections Director Sambo “Bo” Dul wrote in a letter to the applicants Thursday. “Therefore, there are zero signatures eligible for verification by the County Recorder.”
Since the petitions were rejected, the Secretary of State’s office didn’t review the signatures to determine if they are valid – it is normal for some signatures to be thrown out on grounds such as the signer doesn’t live in the district or isn’t a registered voter.
Bowers said he thought the group would be able to get the signatures and that he would face a recall election.
“These are very cruel, mean, angry, disrespectful, deceitful people,” Bowers said. “What they said to get the signatures – I had all kinds of, I would say literally, well I didn’t take 100 calls (but) there were dozens and dozens and dozens of people who said they ran into them. It was all intimidation, saying I was a pedophile, I wanted boys to have sex with boys. And when they came to my house, the III Percenters were there with them. This guy had a gun jammed in his pants, screaming out to my neighbors that I’m an effing pedophile. So, if you’re asking that I would rather avoid them, yes, I’m glad it happened.”
Bowers said the criteria for getting a recall on the ballot were tightened by the Legislature after Sen. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican best-known for crafting the controversial anti-illegal immigration bill SB1070, which passed in 2010, was successfully recalled the next year. To date the Pearce recall is the only successful recall of a legislator in Arizona history.
“After the last recall that was of note in my area, that particular group of people really wanted to tighten up the recall statutes, which was done, and this was the result, and I find an irony in that I can tell you,” Bowers said. “It’s delicious.”
Bowers said he is still tempted to take some action against some people who “said horrible, horrible things about me and members of my family,” but added “we’ll wait till I’m ready.”
The state’s campaign finance data, which is only current through the end of April, shows $36,609.22 in independent expenditures this year opposing Bowers. The Patriot Party said in a statement after turning in the signatures that their recall effort had received “crucial help” from Tomi Collins, executive director of the pro-Trump group America Restored.
Collins, the statement said, in turn enlisted the aid of former Trump lawyer of “release the Kraken” fame Sidney Powell and My Pillow founder and CEO Mike Lindell, both of whom have been active in spreading conspiracy theories about the results of the 2020 election and supporting attempts to overturn it. Lindell declared support for it in a phone call that was publicly released in mid-May, and Powell promoted the recall on her Telegram channel.
“Rep. Bowers is responsible for not protecting Arizona from Election Fraud, allowing Governor Ducey to act as a tyrant, and his desire to lessen the punishment for sexual predators,” the statement said. “The Patriot Party of Arizona is calling for Rep. Bowers to do the honorable thing, and resign, thus allowing his Legislative District to choose his replacement, and not risk allowing a Democrat to steal the seat.”
After receiving the news that the recall won’t make the ballot, the Patriot Party tweeted “the matter has been turned over to our attorneys, no further comment will be provided at this time.”
Attorney General Mark Brnovich is opening a new front in his legal battle with the Biden administration over mandates for some people to get vaccinated, raising questions about whether they have been properly tested for safety.
In fact, he contends that what Arizonans are being offered has not even gotten final approval despite publicity to the contrary.
The latest version of a lawsuit filed in federal court says that the process used by the Food and Drug Administration for full approval of the COVID vaccine “has been significantly accelerated.”
In legal filings, the attorney general cites the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control which says that vaccine licensing “is a lengthy process that can take 10 years or longer.”
“It also involves three phases of clinical trials with humans before they can be licensed,” Brnovich quotes the CDC, with the Phase 3 trials on a large group of human subjects typically lasting several years. That time compares recipients with those who have not been inoculated and allows for discovery of potential side effects.
In the case of the Pfizer vaccine, however, he said the Phase 3 trials were conducted of those who had been enrolled from July 27, 2020 and followed through up through mid-March of this year.
“The FDA thus required less than eight months of Phase 3 trial data, rather than the period of several years normally used to observe side effects and adverse effects,” Brnovich told U.S. District Court Judge Michael Liburdi.
But the situation, according to Brnovich, is even worse.
He claims that what the FDA gave final approval to was Pfizer’s Comirnaty version of the COVID-19 vaccine. Only thing is, Brnovich says, that’s not the one being distributed here.
“The only Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine actually available in the United States is the prior Pfizer BionNTech COVID 19 version,” he said. And that, Brnovich said is “only available pursuant to an emergency use authorization,” just like the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
That distinction is important.
It starts with what Brnovich said is the fact that drugs authorized under an emergency use authorization are approved by the FDA through a procedure “that is less rigorous than the full approval process.”
More to the point, the attorney general said federal law spells out that recipients of vaccines available only under emergency use authorizations have the right “to accept or refuse administration” of those drugs. And that, he said, protects all the people that the Biden administration contends have to get vaccinated.
How accurate is that claim is in dispute.
In an Oct. 20 letter from the FDA to Pfizer, the federal agency says that the Comirnaty vaccine “is the same formulation as the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.”
Brnovich press aide Katie Conner does not dispute that the formula is the same. But she argues there is something different in the way Comirnaty is manufactured that adds something.
And all that, Conner said, is important – and backs up Brnovich’s claim that what the president wants to order some Arizonans to take is not a fully approved drug “and is governed by different laws.”
Conner said her boss is not claiming the vaccines are unsafe. But she suggested that perhaps Arizona consumers weren’t getting all the information they need.
“Vaccines must be a choice and Americans deserve all information and transparency from public officials and pharmaceutical companies to make the best decision for themselves and their families,” Conner said.
As to whether Brnovich himself has been inoculated, Conner said it would be “inappropriate” for her to answer that question.
All this is part of Brnovich’s attempt to get Liburdi to issue an order blocking the Biden administration from enforcing its policies requiring certain people to be vaccinated. Liburdi has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 10.
Hanging in the balance are three specific actions the Biden administration is taking.
First are the proposed new regulations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require vaccines of all employees of companies with more than 100 workers. That rule, yet to be formally enacted, has a work-around, allowing instead for testing at least weekly.
Brnovich had previously sued over the last provision. But he never actually pursued that claim given that the rules do not exist.
The new version keeps that claim and adds two more.
One is the requirement that all federal employees be vaccinated or face loss of their jobs. The only exceptions are for those who qualify for medical or religious exemptions.
Brnovich himself has no legal standing in that fight. But to get around that, he has associated with a private attorney who has a client who is a federal employee who does not want to get vaccinated and says he fears he will lose his job.
The other is a closely related provision imposing the same mandates on anyone who works for a company or entity that has contracts with the federal governments. That can include the three state universities, all of which get federal dollars.
Brnovich said the state is harmed because the mandate will cause “large-scale resignations of unvaccinated employees of federal contractors.”
But Brnovich, who is running for U.S. Senate largely on criticism of the Biden administration’s border enforcement policies, is hanging much of his legal claim not on whether the federal government has the power to impose such mandates but instead on the fact that it is not requiring vaccines of people as they cross into the country illegally or are allowed to remain. That, he contends “constitutes discrimination on the basis of national origin and alienage in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”
“Defendants failure to articulate any justification for their differential, favorable treatment of unauthorized aliens demonstrates discriminatory intent,” Brnovich is arguing. And he said that statements by the president, like his “patience is wearing thin” with Americans who choose not to get vaccinated “further indicate discriminatory intent.”
“At the same time, driven by President Biden’s campaign promises of lax immigration enforcement and loose border security, defendants have created a crisis at the southern border leading to an unprecedented wave of unlawful immigration into the U.S.” Brnovich said.
He cited figures from a Fox News report that 18% of migrant families who recently crossed the border tested positive for COVID. But Brnovich said the administration is allowing these people to refuse vaccination, “thus protecting aliens’ freedom and bodily autonomy more than for American citizens.”
Attorney General Mark Brnovich wants to defend a Trump-era rule that was designed to deny “green cards” to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
The move comes as the Biden administration has decided not to fight a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which found the policies of the former president illegal. That potentially returns the situation to the way it was during the Clinton administration, when the economic tests for admission — and getting what is formally known as a Permanent Resident Card — were much more lax.
“Invalidation of the Public Charge Rule will impose injury on the states,” Brnovich said in asking the appeals court to let him intervene in the case. He estimated the cost of abolishing the 2019 rule at $1 billion a year nationally.
Brnovich, in explaining his move, said there needs to be some review of expanded public assistance benefits at both the state and federal level.
“Our system has been very taxed because of Covid and everything else that’s been going on,” he told Capitol Media Services.
“I think that now is not the right time to increase the amount of people that are getting Medicaid, public assistance benefits,” he said.
“I think that we need to take care of people that are here legally before we start giving benefits to people who just recently arrived here and don’t have legal status,” Brnovich said. “I’m trying to protect Arizona taxpayers.”
The ability of immigrants to support themselves has always been a part of the consideration when determining if someone who enters this country legally should be granted permanent status.
The Trump rule was designed to deny that status to people already here legally if it was determined they are likely to use government programs like food stamps and subsidized housing.
That would be determined on a variety of factors ranging from income to the ability to speak English. And the rule would apply on the basis of the chance of needing benefits at some point in the future, to whether anyone actually is receiving them.
One way of accomplishing that was to use income as a much stronger indicator of whether the applicant is likely to become a burden and, therefore, ineligible.
One section says that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “will generally consider 250% of the federal poverty guidelines to be a heavily weighted positive factor in the totality of the circumstances.” In essence, that suggests anyone above that level — $66,250 for a family of four — would have little problem qualifying.
At the other end, it says the absolute minimum for even being considered will be in the neighborhood of half that much.
“More specifically, if the alien has an income below that level, it will generally be a heavily weighted negative factor in the totality of the circumstances,” the measure reads.
In a December ruling, the 9th Circuit called the Trump rule “inconsistent with any reasonable interpretation” of the law on immigration.
The judges said the law has always been interpreted to mean long-term dependence on government support and not to encompass the temporary need for non-cash benefits. They also said the change failed to consider the effect on public safety, health and nutrition as well as the burden placed on hospitals and the vaccination rates in the general public.
Then there’s the fact the Trump rule sought to introduce a lack of English proficiency into the decisions “despite the common American experience of children learning English in the public schools and teaching their elders in our urban immigrant communities.”
Finally, the court said the Trump administration “failed to explain its abrupt change in policy” from the 1999 guidelines.
That sent the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, as other appellate courts have issued contrary rulings.
But here’s the thing: The Biden administration has decided not to defend the rule and, as of last week, effectively rescinded it. So Brnovich wants to intervene “to offer a defense of the rule so that its validity can be resolved on the merits, rather than through strategic surrender.”
The attorney general said he sees it from a strictly financial perspective.
He noted the appellate court, in its ruling, acknowledged that the Trump rule predicted a 2.5% decrease in enrollment in federal programs and a corresponding reduction of Medicaid payment nationwide of more than $1 billion.
Then there are other programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps, both of which require the state to pay at least the administrative costs.
The maneuver puts him at odds with Gov. Doug Ducey.
He criticized the Trump administration in 2019 when it proposed the rule, saying the federal government should focus more on criminal activity, drug cartels and human traffickers.
More to the point, in discussing the issue of who would be able to get permanent resident status under the new rules, the governor said this country needs more than those who already are financially sound.
“It’s not only people at the graduate level and the Ph.D level who we need,” Ducey said. “We also need entry-level workers and people who can work in the service economy.”
The governor said it’s about opportunity.
“I want to see people who will climb the economic ladder,” he said. “I think many of us have a family story similar to that.”
And that, said Ducey at the time, goes back to his preference for a more balanced approach to immigration than what Trump proposed.
“We have the ‘haves’ and the ‘soon-to-haves,’ ” he said. “And both of them a part of proper immigration reform.
The court has not set a date to decide on whether to let Brnovich intercede.
He is not alone, with Republican attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia also signing on to his legal brief.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich is filing suit in a bid to block the Biden administration from imposing a vaccine mandate on workers.
In an announcement Tuesday, Brnovich contends that the move is illegal. He said questions of health, safety and welfare are left to the state.
“The president has no authority under the constitution to even attempt to issue any rules that would require a vaccine,” he said.
But while Brnovich lashes out at the president, he also appears to be setting the stage to challenge the power that Congress has given the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure that employees nationwide have safe places to work.
It is not Biden who is issuing an edict that workers of companies of 100 or more either be vaccinated or be tested at least weekly for Covid. Instead, the president is directing OSHA to promulgate rules to protect workers against infection.
Attorneys interviewed by Capitol Media Services all said that vaccination requirements appear to be within OSHA’s powers. But Brnovich appears unconvinced.
“Stay tuned for the next lawsuit,” he said. “I do think there are some serious questions as it relates to … the ability of OSHA to promulgate certain rules.”
But Brnovich sidestepped the question of whether, based on his arguments of the rights of states, he believes Arizona employers are free to ignore other OSHA regulations like helmets for worksites and masks to protect against hazardous fumes.
“When you talk about OSHA rules, you’re talking about congressional statutes and how those are implemented,” he said. “That’s a little bit of a different constitutional question.”
The attorney general, who is running for U.S. Senate, also is attempting to link this issue with his ongoing spat with the Biden administration over what he claims is the refusal to enforce immigration laws.
“Specifically, the Biden administration has disclaimed any Covid-19 vaccination requirements for unauthorized aliens, even those being released directly into the United States,” his lawsuit states. “Instead, the Biden administration has announced multiple, unprecedented federal mandates requiring U.S. citizens to be vaccinated against Covid-19, upon pain of losing their jobs or their livelihood.”
That, he contends, violates equal protection provisions of the Constitution.
The fact that this is about immigration is underlined by Brnovich naming not just the president as a defendant in his lawsuit but also various officials of the Department of Homeland Security, none of whom have anything to do with vaccine requirements.
More to the point, it does not name OSHA or its officials, with Brnovich acknowledging there is nothing to challenge as no actual rule has yet been proposed.
This isn’t Brnovich’s first fight over immigration with the Democratic president. But various other lawsuits he has filed over everything from rules about who can be admitted to enforcing regulations about prompt deportation of those not here legally have been thrown out by federal judges.
In announcing the litigation, Brnovich said this is all about constitutional principles.
“This is a heavy-handed attempt by the federal government that shows government at its worst, not its best,” he said. Brnovich said that Biden is attempting to impose something on the American people that is not within the rights he is granted under the Constitution.
“His administration is undermining federalism and undermining the 50 laboratories of democracy,” he continued. “It’s a power grab that has never been attempted by any administration in the history of our republic.”
There is a 1905 U.S. Supreme court case which upheld the power of states to enforce vaccine requirements on citizens. In that case, the justices concluded that the view of individual liberty is not absolute and is subject to the police power of the state.
Brnovich said that buttresses his argument that concept of questions of health and welfare being left to the individual power of the states.
Federalism aside, he said, the penalty for refusal amounted to a $5 fine, the equivalent of $150 today.
“And so I would submit to you the notion that the federal government is going to force people to lose their jobs, fine businesses $14,000 and destroy someone’s livelihood is a lot different than paying a $5 fine.
The White House has defended the mandate, and not only based on the power of OSHA to issue rules to protect employees from being infected by coworkers who may not be vaccinated. The president has lashed out at those who refuse to get inoculated, saying they are endangering the health of others, including those who cannot get vaccinated like children younger than 12.
Brnovich, in not waiting until OSHA actually proposed a rule, may have been in a rush to be the first to get into federal court. Republican governors and attorneys generals of other states already have made statements that they intend to sue.
The announcement comes on the heels of Brnovich concluding that a Tucson ordinance requiring its workers to be vaccinated or suspended without pay is illegal. He contends that it violates a law approved earlier this year by the legislature even though that provision actually has yet to take effect.
Arizonans are only days away from being able to place legal bets at a sportsbook or on a mobile device, but the raging Covid pandemic coupled with the low-vaccination rate of the Arizona Cardinals could complicate matters for bettors.
The 2021-22 National Football League kicks off on the same day legal off-reservation betting in the state will begin – on September 9. Three days later the Arizona Cardinals will begin its season, which for the first time in history will consist of 17 games rather than the usual 16. And for the second consecutive season, the pandemic will be a factor.
The NFL already announced it has no plans to postpone any games due to players testing positive for the virus. In fact, it’s the opposite. Teams will be forced to forfeit if not enough players are healthy to perform on gameday.
The Cardinals are one of the worst teams when it comes to the Covid vaccination rate, which means they are at a disadvantage to teams that have reached the suggested 85% threshold and even more so for away games.
Players who receive the vaccine can go about their business as if it’s a regular season. Those who do not are required to take tests every day and practically cannot leave their hotel rooms while traveling. Unvaccinated players also will be required to wear masks, social distance, and can’t participate in full team activities with teammates.
Cardinals’ star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins publicly announced his intention not to receive the vaccine and even left open the possibility to retire at the peak of his career if the league forced him to get his shots.
“Never thought I would say this, but being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the NFL,” Hopkins said in a now-deleted tweet.
There’s some irony to the Cardinals being one of the worst teams in the league for receiving the vaccine, given that Arizona’s widely recognized state-run facility operated at the team’s home venue State Farm Stadium for several months this year.
In terms of proposition bets (picking an over or under for stat projections) Hopkins’ decision could be a bad look for Arizonans who want to cash in on one of the best NFL players.
Johnny Avello, director of race and sports operations with DraftKings, one of the most prominent fantasy sports betting companies, talked to Arizona Capitol Times about what new and amateur bettors should know about placing bets during a pandemic.
Avello said the 2020-21 NFL season had a couple of workaround games where teams played a few days after they were supposed to or some had to move around to different weeks altogether, which became challenging. However, he said DraftKings is user-friendly and will work with the gamblers to help them maximize on winnings when circumstances are out of their control.
“Our rules state that [professional athletes] have to play a specific amount of games for you to have action on that bet. They have to play them all. But here’s the way we handle it. Let’s say that the Cardinals win total is nine, and the Cardinals had 10 wins [as the prediction] and there’s two weeks to go and because of COVID the last two weeks get cancelled … we would go ahead and pay that bet off,” Avello said, as an example.
In that scenario if the team won six games the bettor would lose because it would be impossible to win 10 games even without the cancellations, he said. And if there was seven or eight with cancellations, the bettor would receive a refund, Avello added.
“That’s gonna’ be a refund because you never had a chance to get there,” he said.
A spokesman for DraftKings would not provide how much the company refunded during 2020 because it would put them “at a competitive disadvantage.”
“We always try to do what’s right for the customer,” communications director Stephen Miraglia said.
For betting on player stats, it’s a little more complicated, but Avello said they take everything into account. So, if Hopkins would miss multiple games for Covid-related reasons he may not hit the over on his projected 1,350.5 receiving yards or 7.5 touchdowns, as DraftKings currently has projected.
Avello said it’s all on a case-by-case basis, but if they think the bettor “is not getting a fair shake” then they would likely refund the bet.
His advice for those looking to get their feet wet with sports gambling is to make sure the rules are being followed. That’s the top issue that comes up from patrons causing the most confusion, Avello said.
“If the rules state that a team has to play all their games for you to have action, know that, and use that when you’re making your wager,” he said.
For baseball, Avello said, know how many innings need to be completed for a game to count. Four and a half innings (or 15 outs completed with the home team leading) must be completed for a game to be official.
“If you’re a new bettor you might not realize that there even is a set of rules out there that we have to follow that is authorized by the state’s gaming board,” Avello said.
His final piece of advice for new bettors: “Start off slow,” he said. “Crawl before you walk and walk before you run.”
Nearly a month after vaccines have become available here a quarter of Arizonans remain unwilling to get inoculated against Covid.
And there is a political component to all of this.
A new survey by OH Predictive Insights finds that those who identify as Democrats are more likely to roll up their sleeves for a vaccine approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration than Republicans. Just 17% of Democrats told pollster Mike Noble they have no intention of getting inoculated versus 29% of Republicans.
Still, the numbers in the survey conducted earlier this month show some progress. When Noble last ran the poll in September, before there was an approved vaccine, 38% of Arizonans said they wouldn’t take it, even if offered for free.
But the director of the Arizona Public Health Association said the 25% overall refusal rate that remains among Arizonans, even after inoculations have started, could delay the state reaching “herd immunity.” That’s the point at which sufficient people have either been vaccinated or already have contracted the virus to prevent wholesale spread among those who have not.
And Will Humble said this could become even more crucial now that new more contagious strains of the virus are now beginning to pop up in the United States.
Noble’s poll shows much of the attitude about getting inoculated is linked to how much risk anyone believes the virus poses.
He found that 68% of those who are extremely or moderately concerned about contracting Covid are willing to get vaccinated. By contrast, 44% of those who express only slight or no concern will agree to inoculation.
And that, Noble found, has a high correlation with politics – fewer than half of Republicans say they’re concerned, versus 82% of Democrats.
“Probably, a lot of that’s tied back to the former president,” Humble said.
“He has made many statements suggesting that this was not a serious thing in terms of public health,” Humble continued. “And there are so many people who see him as an oracle of knowledge that they adopted what he has said.”
There have been efforts to convince people about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
“Governor Ducey wants Arizonans to get vaccinated,” said C.J. Karamargin, press aide to the Republican governor. “When it’s his turn, the governor will be getting the vaccine.”
Ducey has in some ways staked his reputation in fighting the virus on people getting vaccinated.
He has refused to implement new mitigation measures and restrictions on individual and business activities even as the state entered a second wave of infection, relying on the virus being tamped down by Arizonans getting inoculated.
Through January 27, the state Department of Health Services reported there were 459,399 individuals who had received just their first of two doses. Another 85,533 had gotten both shots.
“It is, as the governor has said many times, the light at the end of the tunnel,” Karamargin said.
Steve Elliott, spokesman for the health department, said one thing that may build confidence is that, as more people get inoculated, they share their stories.
“Arizona will have large numbers of influencers sharing that the vaccines are safe and effective,” he said. And Elliott said his agency will have its own campaign explaining the benefits, both broadly and with messages targeted to specific groups and those disproportionately impacted by the virus.
But Humble said none of that may matter among people who, vaccine safety or not, don’t see Covid as a risk.
“For people of a certain age that have established their opinion about this, I don’t think there’s much that can shift them short of perhaps former President Trump sounding the alarm,” he said. “That might change the minds of some of them.”
Noble agrees, suggesting that much of the change has to start at the national level, but that it goes all the way down the chain.
“It hinges very much on Republican leadership talking about the virus and the issues in order to ultimately mitigate or change perceptions of Covid among the GOP,” Noble said.
All that still leaves the question of whether Arizona can reach herd immunity given the number of nay-sayers to vaccines.
The good news, Humble said, is that Covid is not as communicable as measles.
That particular disease, he said, requires a 95% vaccination rate to keep it from spreading like wildfire. And while there are families that decide not to vaccinate their children – and Arizona has among the broadest exceptions parents can claim – “the families that do vaccinate their kids carry the load.”
The same is true, Humble said, of what will happen with the coronavirus.
“Those of us who do get the vaccine are going to carry the load and those who have been infected,” he said. “That’s going to take us halfway to herd immunity.”
Still unclear, though is at what point the state and the country get there.
“What we had believed is that we needed to get to 65% to 70%,” Humble said. But that was before the virus started mutating into new, more contagious strains, with the UK variant believed to be 40% more transmissible.
“That might move our herd immunity up to 80%,” he said.
Humble said one other problem of getting to that point goes beyond personal desires.
He said it appears that many of the people who have so far managed to get appointments are those who may be more educated and affluent – and capable of navigating what has often been confusing websites and getting the slots as they have opened up.
“Well, if you’re a working person or if you don’t have good WiFi or a new computer or any of the above, you missed your opportunity to get that February appointment,” Humble said.
“And even if you did get an appointment, these are mostly drive-up pods,” he continued, further exacerbating the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
The online opt-in survey of 1,022 individuals was conducted from January 11 to January 18 from a statewide voter registration sample and was weighted to reflect gender, region, age, party affiliation and ethnicity. It has a margin of error of 3.1%.
Gov. Doug Ducey is doubling down in his fight with public schools over their virus policies, offering cash to parents to send their kids to private or parochial schools if a school – or even a classroom – has to shut down for even one day due to an outbreak of Covid.
In what his office describes as “preemptive action,” Ducey announced Tuesday his Open for Learning Recovery Benefit program to provide up to $7,000 for parents who face “financial and educational barriers due to unexpected school closures.” It can be used for things like child care and online tutoring.
But the cash, taken from federal COVID-relief programs, also can be used for tuition so parents can send their youngster to a private school, covering what gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said are “any charges from the school: tuition, books, uniforms if required.”
The new $10 million program is a variant of one announced by Ducey last year to give what amounted to $7,000 vouchers for private schools to parents who want to pull their child out of a school solely because it has a mask mandate. Ducey also divided up $163 million in federal aid that is under his control to schools — but only to districts that do not require students and staff to wear face coverings.
Both of those already have drawn threats from the U.S. Treasury to take back the money which federal officials said were designed to finance “evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.” But so far there has been no action against the state.
Karamargin said the idea of this new program is not necessarily to give out more money.
“It’s that parents have options,” he said. But there is a message there. “That the closing of schools should not be an option,” he said.
And Karamargin acknowledged that the audience for the new order is not just parents but school districts who get state aid based on the number of students enrolled.
The move comes as the state and the nation continue to see a spike in Covid infections, driven in part by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. An additional 7,212 cases and 154 deaths were reported Tuesday; the death toll is now 24,509.
Data from The New York Times shows that, in the past seven days, only four states have a higher COVID death rate on a per-capita basis: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said his association agrees with Ducey’s basic premise.
“We want to keep schools open,” he said. “But the governor keeps on playing both side of the fence.”
On one hand, Kotterman said, there’s the message to keep schools open. But then the governor tells schools that they can’t do the things designed to protect the health of students and teachers like mask mandates.
“In our opinion, it’s to placate a political base,” he said.
“It doesn’t do anything to help the problem,” Kotterman continued. “But it does further politicize the issue.”
Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said there will definitely be classroom or school closures periodically early in the spring semester, mostly because of teachers being out with breakthrough cases.
“And, of course, there are not enough substitutes to handles what’s coming in terms of teacher absences,” Humble said. “So this might help some families.”
But the former state health director said that this really doesn’t address the problem.
“This order fits perfectly with Ducey’s modus operandi: focus on a cosmetic response while being actively hostile to core proven measures to prevent classroom or school closures,” Humble said. He also agreed with Kotterman that this is more about politics. Humble said that Ducey — who actually ordered face coverings for those in school in 2020 — won’t impose things like that now to keep kids safe in school “because it would hurt his chances of still being somebody in 362 days” when his term as governor is up.
Karamargin said the state will post an online application form this coming week for parents to use when a school is shuttered due to COVID.
Eligibility, like Ducey’s earlier program for grants due to mask mandates, is limited to families making no more than 350% of the federal poverty level. That is $76,860 for a family of three and $92,750 for a family of four, with progressively higher amounts for larger families.
Karamargin said that applications will be processed promptly to ensure that families spending money on anything from child care to private school tuition get reimbursed in a timely manner. But they will need to spend the money up front, as parents will need to provide receipts.
The governor appears to be angling to avoid a similar threat of loss of federal funds for his latest action, saying he is in step even with President Biden.
As recently as Tuesday, Biden said he is committed to keeping schools open even despite the latest surge in virus cases.
“We know that our kids can be safe when in school,” the president said. “That’s why I believe that schools should remain open.”
Biden pointed out that Congress has previously approved funding “to keep our students safe and schools open.”
“That money went to states,” he said. “I encourage the states and school districts to use the funding you still have to protect your children and keep the schools open.”
But some of the dollars that Arizona was given were in that $163 million Ducey divided up last year — and withheld from schools with mask mandates.
Karamargin said the other part of Ducey’s last plan — the one to give $7,000 vouchers to parents of kids hit with mask mandates in public schools — generated interest from 85 families, with the state giving out $595,000 so the youngsters could transfer, at public expense, to private or parochial schools.
He said that program, which also was funded at $10 million, remains available to parents as several Arizona schools announced plans to impose new mask mandates due to the Omicron outbreak.
Shortly after the Arizona Supreme Court created a task force on countering disinformation in 2019, its members realized their approach was a losing battle.
They thought they could simply counter misinformation with information.
The task force appears to be the first of its kind, and according to task force chair and court spokesman Aaron Nash “it seems like eye rolling would be a way to characterize how a lot of people thought of it” when it initially formed in response to concerns about Russian disinformation campaigns.
Then came the pandemic, protests following the death of George Floyd and the 2020 election – and the rush of disinformation that followed.
“It just became more and more apparent the misinformation and disinformation that was out there, everywhere,” Nash said. “It was good timing.”
Now, in its second year, the task force is focusing on helping the public recognize misinformation and disinformation and trying to re-establish or foster trust in the judiciary as a better approach than trying to counter every inaccurate statement or campaign individually.
“There is some degree of sort of opaqueness to the whole system, and that opaqueness makes for a very easy target for disinformation,” said task force member and research professor Scott Ruston, who also directs ASU’s Center on Narrative, Disinformation and Strategic Influence.
Ruston felt the task force’s recommendation to increase civic engagement is especially important. He said if credible information doesn’t come from institutions, the vacuum created is filled with rumors, hearsay and disinformation.
“If the courts aren’t saying what’s happening and explaining why judges make rulings in particular ways, then that’s fertile ground for people to basically lie about it and make claims that are untrue,” Ruston said. “And not only are they untrue, but they are malicious.”
One of the conclusions Ruston and other scholars have drawn in studying disinformation is that disinformation actors seek out social wedge issues around which they can erode the public’s faith in political institutions, whether that’s the judiciary, the legislature, the education system, the press or the executive branch.
To start filling the vacuum, the task force plans to give a makeover to the Our Courts Arizona program, which, up until now, has sent out retired and current judges to provide refresher sessions for adult groups on everything from how Arizona judges decide cases to the Bill of Rights.
The task force hopes to get that type of information to younger people and is looking to create age-appropriate presentations for kindergarten through PhD levels, “from the real basic ‘three branches of government’ stuff to more philosophical policy type issues and where policy ends and rules and procedures begin,” Nash said.
The task force also wants to promote other existing civics education programs to more teachers and school officials.
Along with its educational efforts and other recommendations, the task force is working with courts across Arizona on accessible websites and branding and on a playbook of how to respond to common misinformation or disinformation attacks quickly.
The National Center for State Courts laid the groundwork for that kind of playbook to help state courts develop rapid response plans before “any attack landed on the front steps of the courthouse,” the center’s spokesman Jesse Rutledge said.
“The big lesson that the courts need to take away and can learn from the work the Supreme Court of Arizona has undertaken here is that being prepared does take some work,” Rutledge said.
As elections controversies landed in the courts during election disputes before, during and after the election, it underscored the need for courts to move toward real-time responses, Rutledge said.
“The days of writing a letter to the editor are well behind us,” Rutledge said. “No matter who you’re dealing with, in the world of communication, you have to be ready to respond almost instantaneously.”
The Covid pandemic continues to negatively impact students’ success in math and English, and education leaders say it’s imperative to address these unprecedented declines in proficiency quickly.
“We have to recognize that like in any situation where you’re trying to catch up, the work is harder,” Helios Education Foundation President and CEO Paul Luna said. “There’s also a sense of urgency, right? We don’t – we don’t have time. The students will continue to progress from grade to grade, and so you don’t have a lot of time in order to help students catch up to grade level.”
The Helios Education Foundation has collaborated with the Arizona State Board of Education, the Arizona Department of Education, The Center for Assessment, Abt Associates, and the ASU Helios Decision Center for Educational Excellence to analyze data regarding Covid’s effects. A recent brief outlines the decline in the 2020-21 school year.
Representatives of these groups discussed the brief and Covid’s effect on learning during an Arizona Capitol Times“Morning Scoop” on July 27.
Luna said that part of why it is essential to improve students’ proficiencies that have suffered as a result of pandemic disruptions is because education affects the future of the state.
“At the core of why that’s important is that as we know, and as we’ve learned through other research, the future of our state and our economy will be driven by our ability to educate our students to be able to move into the type of jobs and careers that are going to be available to them, but which significantly require some type of post-secondary education success,” Luna said.
Across the board, proficiency in mathematics was at 31% and 38% in English Language Arts, compared to 42% in English Language Arts and 42% in Mathematics in 2018-2019. Native American, African American and Hispanic students saw greater decreases.
Arizona State Board of Education Deputy Director Catcher Baden said before the pandemic, proficiency levels were trending upward a few percentage points per year. The large changes in percent proficient during the pandemic are highly unusual.
“These are really unprecedented changes in proficiency that are obviously going in the wrong direction,” Baden said. “I want to make clear when I say proficiency, those students were still learning during Covid, during the learning disruptions that the state experienced – they were just not learning it anywhere near the rates that we had been experiencing pre-pandemic.”
So far, the groups’ analysis has shown that younger grades’ academics were more impacted than older grades, particularly in English Language Arts, according to a brief released in April. That’s significant because early literacy is tied to students’ success later in life, Baden said.
“There’s voluminous research that suggests that for students who are unable to read at grade level by third grade, their chances of succeeding in school and life dropped precipitously,” he said.
Overall, mathematics has taken the hardest hit across age groups.
Last year’s figures also showed that the pre-pandemic trend of English learners falling behind more than their English language proficient classmates continued into the pandemic. The percentage of English learners who achieved proficiency in English Language Arts dropped six points, and the percentage of those who were proficient in mathematics fell seven points. Native American, African American and Hispanic students have also experienced greater drops in proficiency than their peers.
“Those students who were already experiencing gaps in opportunity and achievement – for years that we have been trying to work collaboratively to try to address – those students got hit the hardest, and it’s really unfortunate,” Baden said.
Student mobility also played a role in pandemic disruption, something evident by the fact that fewer students enrolled in 2020-21, despite “more students than ever” moving to the state. Helios plans to release a report on chronic absenteeism soon and is meeting with school leaders and superintendents next week to discuss the issue.
While Helios stated that it was essential to compare data from 2020-21 and beyond to pre-pandemic data, it noted that pandemic disruptions also impacted participation rates in testing in spring of 2021, which affects comparative analyses and necessitates caution when interpreting the information.
Driving by the elementary school to pick up my nephew, I noticed how few kids had their masks on. No child under the age of 12 is eligible to receive a vaccination. So why are parents not protecting their kids from others, and others from their kids? What if the teachers (who some refuse to be vaccinated), do not wear their masks? Some say it is frustrating to continue to see this when the media influences us on how important masking is, jabbed or not. President Biden is trying to shut down the virus, as he promised, but unmasked elementary school kids are refusing to comply.
Now that the virus is in fact not “shut down,” our frustrated president cannot be liable for the actions of the unmasked, unvaxxed lunatics running around the playground. Trump was responsible for allowing each individual state to proceed on their own on how to manage the virus. Allowing the republic to act independently of the federal government, unlike what Biden is doing with mandates, allowed too much freedom in the eyes of some media elites (and California).
So why the push to mask kids now? First, we must ignore Trump’s quick federal testing program which tested over a billion people this time last year, his “warp speed” vaccine rollout that had two reliable vaccines within nine months, and the fact he was injecting one million people a day when he left office, he left Biden with close to nothing.
“We didn’t have a vaccine when we came into office”, says Biden from his February 16 Town Hall. Trump is to blame. Leaving Biden at the top with no room to go up, Biden had no choice but to go down. Which leads us with other people’s unmasked kids and the Left’s push to mask them. It is a distraction of current events to shame blame unvaxxed individuals with Biden’s failed policies.
The Right continue to throw statistics around to support their decisions. The kryptonite to media fear mongers. A closer look at the CDC website can shed some light on the stats. At the height of the pandemic, children 0-4 years old were dropping dead at a rate of 0.02 per 100,000 individuals due to Covid (5-11 years old 0.00/100,000). Child masking data, derived from CNN media anchor’s analysis, says that masking those kids may have potentially reduced that rate of death. Unfortunately, there is no scientific research data of mask efficacy on children. Data on masks we do have based in a lab setting show that N-95 can filter some particles if worn as designed (like a brain surgeon in surgery). However, Covid droplets can stay in the air for three hours. So, if the mask is ever removed the purpose of a mask has been defeated.
So how do we reduce the 0.02 per 100,000 deaths if parents refuse to mask their kids? Based on CDC data from 2019, kids 1-9 years old are 10 times more likely to die of an anemia, 15 times more likely to die from septicemia, 40 times more likely from regular influenza, 90 times more likely from homicide, and 365 times more likely from general accidents. In other words, Covid deaths among kids is negligible data.
It can be hard to see why conservatives continue to push no mask mandates for schools because it is so contradictory to Joy Reid’s analysis of “science.” However, it is easy to understand their push for no mandates based on real statistical analysis of data. My patience, like the president’s, is running thin. My nephew’s classmates do not wear N-95 surgical masks like surgeons. Theirs are soggy cloth masks draped under their nose. Sadly, continuing the fear of Covid and need for masks must be maintained by the political Left to obscure the disasters internationally and at our border. It has never been about science.
Andrew Rogitz is a high school teacher in the Peoria Unified School District with a master’s degree in developmental biology.
Getting vaccinated against Covid may soon be as simple as a flu shot.
Dr. Cara Christ, the state health director, said Friday she is looking at allowing walk-ins, at least at state-run inoculation sites.
That would allow people to avoid the issues of trying to get an appointment online or through a phone line. And those portals provide access only to state-operated sites.
Getting an appointment elsewhere, including pharmacies and grocery chains, requires individuals to go to each facility’s specific web site to set up a time.
All this comes as the latest figures show that just a quarter of Arizonans are fully immunized, though 37% have gotten at least one dose of a two-shot routine.
Christ said those figures are a bit misleading as they are is based on the total number of Arizonans. But the vaccines now available are approved only for those either 16 or 18 years and old, depending on the manufacturer.
“It’s actually a little bit better when you look at the eligible population,” she said. And Christ said she is counting on many of those folks who have gotten their first dose coming back as scheduled in three weeks.
Still, the health chief acknowledged that still leaves Arizona far below where she said the state needs to be to have “herd immunity,” the point at which enough people are inoculated to prevent wholesale spread. Christ has previously put that at 70%.
While some of that may be based on “vaccine hesitancy,” there’s also that question of convenience.
The concept of walk-up Covid vaccination is not new.
Philadelphia found a sharp increase in inoculations after some groups there reserved vaccines for those who can just stop by. That also helped close the gap on racial disparities as the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium found it was reaching people who were computer illiterate or had other issues.
There also were positive results in reaching minorities at sites run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Arizona, said Christ, will be following suit.
“You’ll start to see that happening,” she said, particularly as the demand for appointments goes down at the state-run sites. Christ said that’s already happening, with a “significant decrease” in requests at both the University of Arizona and the Yuma Civic Center.
“They are going to start looking at taking in walk-ins, just letting people come in and get the vaccine whenever they are available, not based on an appointment,” Christ said. And she said that also is going to happen elsewhere at state-run sites as demand for appointments tapers off.
But that’s not all. Christ said she anticipates that also will start to happen at community “pop-up” locations, short-term sites at specific locations.
There’s something else at play, albeit a bit longer term that also will allow for more on-demand immunization.
“As they get more vaccine, the federal partners will open up that ordering so that health care providers will just be able to order it just like they do all the other vaccines,” Christ said. And that will make the vaccine available in doctors’ offices.
“We do know that our medical providers play a large role in people trusting and getting vaccinated,” she continued.
“So they can say, ‘I’ve got the vaccine, I recommend it, here’s the reasons it’s safe, and we can just get it to you today,’ ” Christ explained. “That reduces barriers and gives our health care community more opportunities to vaccinate.”
The ease of getting inoculated could become more important now that Pfizer, one of the three companies authorized to manufacture vaccine for use in the United States, is saying it is “likely” that people will need a third dose within 12 months of getting fully vaccinated. And Albert Bourla, the company’s CEO, also said it is possible there will need to be an annual vaccination.
Christ said there are ongoing evaluations of how long the vaccine’s effects will last.
She said it is known it does provide protection for at least six months. That, the health director said, means there may need to be a booster. And that presents its own logistical issues, especially if the state has to once again set up inoculation sites.
“What we hope is by the time people would need a potential booster that we would have enough vaccine to where it’s in health care providers’ offices, that it’s in all of the pharmacies across the state,” she said. “And it would just become a normal thing just like your annual flu shot.”
All this is occurring against the backdrop of both Christ’s agency and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control urging providers to pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That followed reports of six cases in the United States — none in Arizona — where those who got the single-dose vaccine developed blood clots.
Christ said that was done out of an abundance of caution as federal officials said they want to “take a pause, see if any more cases occur to see if they can get more data to make clearer recommendations.”
But she also said this amounts to one case out of every million doses administered. And she noted that there are a certain number of these blood clots that occur even in non-vaccinated people.
Earlier this month, a veteran Border Patrol agent who worked at the agency’s Ajo Station in southern Arizona died of Covid.
In honor of the man, Anibal “Tony” Perez, Gov. Doug Ducey put out a statement and ordered flags around the state to fly at half-mast on November 13.
Perez’s family will also likely receive significant financial compensation for his death.That’s all because the Border Patrol classified Perez’s passing as a “line of duty” death. It’s a designation that the agency has used more frequently of late, potentially indicating the toll that the pandemic continues to take on its ranks.
But without additional details, “line of duty” doesn’t tell the public much about how a uniformed federal officer died. And the recent use of “line of duty” to describe Covid deaths is coming at a time that vaccines are widely available, but vaccine mandates face resistance from some law enforcement officers, including pushback from the union representing Border Patrol agents.
Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said that the flag-lowering was about honoring Perez’s service to the country, not worrying about exactly what led to his death.
“If the Border Patrol requested it (the flag-lowering), it’s not our place to question this particular aspect of it,” he said.
The Border Patrol didn’t publicly state Perez’s cause of death and didn’t respond to questions about its policy for deciding when Covid deaths are considered duty-related.
The Arizona Capitol Times confirmed the cause of death with multiple sources with knowledge of the matter. The federal agency also didn’t tell the Governor’s Office that Perez died of Covid before Ducey’s statement came out. Karamargin didn’t directly answer questions about whether he thought the Border Patrol should have disclosed the cause of death.
A federal law, passed in August 2020, may be relevant to the agency’s description of Covid as a duty-related illness. An official summary of the Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act states: “For purposes of death benefits, this bill creates a general presumption that a public safety officer who dies from COVID-19 or related complications sustained a personal injury in the line of duty.”
Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said that the availability of an effective Covid vaccine has changed the context of that presumption.
“It makes sense from August (2020) through March (2021), but it doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said. “Everyone has the responsibility to do what they can to protect themselves and their family, and they can do that now with the vaccine.” Humble said. “Before, it was just distancing and masks and that kind of stuff.”
A Border Patrol spokesman didn’t respond to questions about Perez’s vaccination status.
The 2020 Act was sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and a spokesman for Grassley didn’t respond to questions about whether the law still made sense with vaccines widely available, or whether an officer’s vaccination status was relevant.
But the senator has spoken recently about a new bill, currently awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature, that would extend the protections from the 2020 law.
“My bill extends a presumption in the law that ensures that first responders who contract COVID-19 on duty don’t have to jump through hoops to prove it,” Grassley said in a statement posted on his website earlier this week.
At least in some cases, it apparently means they don’t have to do anything at all.
Humble said tracing the precise source of an infection is possible with some diseases, but not practical with Covid. In other words, an officer who got Covid wouldn’t be able to medically prove whether they contracted it from someone at their workplace or from, say, their spouse.
But the blanket presumption that an illness is work-related contrasts with other workplace-safety laws, according to James Hodges, a law professor at Arizona State University. In most workers’ compensation cases, he said, there’s a presumption that an infectious disease was not contracted in the workplace – it’s up to the employee or their family to prove that they got sick in the course of the work.
Hodges added that injury and death claims can be rejected or only partially paid out when employee negligence played a role in their injury or death. He said that might be part of the debate over benefits for unvaccinated workers.
“You would see some debate over how much of this claim is going to be paid out when the specific employee could have taken very clear and basic measures to limit its impact,” Hodges said.
As a Border Patrol agent, the beneficiaries of any payouts related to Perez’s death will get their money from the federal government, but local and state law enforcement officers in Arizona have also died of Covid, potentially setting up questions about their compensation.
The Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System provides ongoing benefits to the families of officers who die while employed by a law enforcement agency. If the death is duty-related, the family received full pension benefits, compared to a partial pension provided when the death isn’t related to work.
It’s supposed to be “the people’s house,” or at least that’s what legislators call it in their impassioned speeches.
But this session, between an ongoing pandemic, security concerns that led to multiple layers of fences and a hodgepodge of committee rules, the people — and even the paid lobbyists who represent interest groups — are having a harder time than ever making their voices heard.
Even as the Capitol has remained largely locked down because of twin threats of Covid and political violence, any Arizonans who haven’t previously used the Legislature’s “Request to Speak” system must come in person to the Capitol or to a state office in Tucson to register and have a chance to weigh in on bills.
For a couple hundred newly politically engaged Arizonans, getting a chance to comment on legislation took the efforts of retired teacher Judith Simons. She volunteers with Civic Engagement Beyond Voting – a branch of the grassroots progressive advocacy group Indivisible that focuses on the Arizona Legislature – and she comes to the Capitol regularly to activate Request to Speak accounts for people who can’t make it in themselves.
Since the House and Senate began limiting access to their buildings after Covid struck last spring, Simons has had to set up appointments with House staff to come in with her list of names. Increased security around the Capitol complex added more steps to her trip on January 8.
“I had to have the appointment set up ahead of time,” she said. “I texted back and forth with my contact person, and then he told me where to park. He had to communicate with the guard at the parking lot. They had to have somebody buzz me into the building, they took my temperature, so yes, it was a process.”
In other cases, constituents have been able to register by contacting their legislators’ assistants or calling the House or Senate directly, setting up appointments to come in or passing their information on to an employee who can enter their name, email and password.
Advocacy groups, including several disability organizations, say the pandemic proves it’s time to rethink the requirement that people trek to the Capitol to register for what often amounts to armchair advocacy – simply clicking a “for” or “against” button on various bills.
Jason Snead, a project specialist at the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, said his experience trying to register to testify on a bill before the House Judiciary Committee shows how difficult the program could be to use even in pre-pandemic times.
Snead uses a wheelchair and a voice-activated computer because of mobility restrictions caused by cerebral palsy. He was only able to register with the Request to Speak system because his wife accompanied him and could type into the kiosk for him.
Other people with disabilities have a harder time physically getting to the Capitol, as do Arizonans who live in far-flung areas like Flagstaff or Lake Havasu City.
“The system needs to be updated so that we can move more independently and be part of the democratic process,” Snead said.
After they register to speak, Arizonans still face new obstacles this year in testifying, depending on which chamber and which committee has control over the bill they want to address.
A uniform set of rules in the Senate allow anyone to testify remotely, provided they email the designated email address for each committee with 24 hours notice. The Senate will not allow in-person testimony for the foreseeable future, until Republican and Democratic leaders agree that it’s safe to allow more people into the building.
In the House, rules differ by committee. The House Education Committee, chaired by moderate Republican Michelle Udall of Mesa, accepts remote testimony.
House Criminal Justice Reform Committee chair Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, said January 20 he will let people testify remotely if they are worried about Covid, “but I would like for the testimony to come into the building based on the precautions that we’ve already taken. That is the priority, for folks to come in.”
In a series of Facebook live videos on January 20, Blackman complained about his Democratic colleagues who opted not to come to the House floor despite new plexiglass barriers on the sides of each desk.
“Even though we’ve got all these protective measures, we’ve got Democrats who still don’t want to show up to work,” he said.
In other House committees, like Rep. John Kavanagh’s Government and Elections Committee, people must testify in person.
“We’ve made no changes in testimony other than limiting the number of people that can be in the room,” said Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “Anyone can still come down, sign up and testify in person.”
His committee rules already prevented progressive lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez, and her husband, Arizona Advocacy Network executive director Joel Edman, from testifying on a bill that would strip power from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
Rodriguez’s lobbying firm, Creosote Partners, now requires its employees to work remotely unless they deem an in-person meeting with lawmakers absolutely necessary for one of their clients’ highest priorities. The Clean Elections bill, HB2014, rose to that level, but Rodriguez tested positive for Covid a few days before the committee hearing and couldn’t testify in person.
“I don’t like that the option is come down here anyway and expose others if you’re sick, and there’s no other option. That is absurd.” she said. “Fortunately, my clients have said, ‘Please don’t put yourself or others at risk,’ and I’m hoping other lobbyists’ clients are saying the same.”
Democrats on the committee have protested multiple times over Kavanagh’s refusal to allow remote testimony and his lax enforcement of mask rules.
“We do have people who are concerned for their safety, both physical safety and health safety, who want to testify on these bills but are unable due to our current circumstances,” said Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix.
The 2021 legislative session will begin January 11 in an exceedingly unusual fashion, with sharp limits on public access and increased security left over from post-election unrest.
Double rows of chain-link fencing now surround the Capitol complex, following massive protests on January 6 that resulted in a cracked window at the old Capitol Building. New security measures have already been put in place for the Executive Tower, which houses the offices of the governor and secretary of state, to limit access into the building for everyone. An Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman said they monitored the “stop the steal” protest rally at the Capitol.
The Department of Administration, however, has already been leading an effort to beef up security measures – mostly for the protection of Gov. Doug Ducey and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who’ve been dealing with their own threats and harassment stemming from the November election.
Nobody will have access to the basement, seventh, eighth or ninth floors of the building without an escort. Media and members of the public used to be able to access all but the ninth floor without a security badge. Neither agency would provide specific information on the new security measures that took effect on December 14 and will remain in place indefinitely.
“Security procedures at the state Capitol have been enhanced not for any one specific event but just to ensure the safety of the public. … Our policy is not to discuss specific security measures,” a DPS spokesman said.
The Senate told its employees to head home early January 6 afternoon and offered security escorts to their cars. Other state agencies soon followed suit.
The Arizona Supreme Court closed on January 7 at the urging of the Department of Public Safety and the Governor’s Office also alerted all other agencies to do the same.
Along with lingering threats of political unrest connected to the 2020 election, the Covid pandemic will upend what is normally a boisterous day of festivities. Ducey will present his State of the State Address by video from his office, rather than on the House floor in front of 90 lawmakers and their guests.
The speech will be broadcast on the big screen in the Senate, but most lawmakers expect to watch from their offices. Senators, who will be sworn in earlier in the day, are allowed to bring two guests but most have opted to take their oaths of office without friends or family watching.
In the House, new freshmen will each be allowed to bring two family members, but no returning lawmakers will get guests. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, praised that plan as a way to balance the need for safety with allowing new lawmakers to mark a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“You don’t get to recreate special moments like this in your life,” he said.
The field-tripping school children, advocacy groups and observers who normally fill the House and Senate galleries won’t be welcome this year, as the Senate has already adopted policies to limit attendance and the House appears likely to follow suit.
Under a set of Covid rules produced by the Senate late last year, members of the public would only be allowed in the building to attend a committee hearing for a measure they intended to testify on. They must wear a mask and pass a temperature check to get in, and must leave immediately after the hearing concludes.
On January 6, Senate President Karen shared an even stricter set of guidelines to follow in the event that she, Majority Leader Rick Gray and Minority Leader Rebecca Rios determine that an in-person meeting would cause increased health risks. In those cases, only five lawmakers would be allowed in a committee hearing room with the rest participating by video call from their offices, and the lobbyists and citizens testifying on bills would also be given information to call in to the hearing.
The updated rules also include incentives for lawmakers to keep their masks on: if anyone removes a mask or otherwise fails to comply with the Senate’s Covid rules on the floor or in committee hearings, the hearing or floor session will recess until the offending lawmaker complies with the rules.
Fann and Rios also confirmed plans to bar reporters from designated press desks on the Senate floor. This will primarily affect the Arizona Capitol Times, the sole media outlet that stations a reporter on the floor during every floor session.
Instead of the press tables on either side of the Senate president’s dais, Fann intends to set up two big screens for lawmakers who are participating by Zoom.
“We want to try and maintain that social distancing and it would be very, very difficult with the media right there in those press boxes,” she said.
Reporters will instead be allowed to view action from a gallery overlooking the chamber, and members of the public who normally fill the gallery won’t be permitted in the building. Several lawmakers, including influential Senate Appropriations Committee Chair David Gowan and Vice Chair Vince Leach, only answer media questions in person.
“It’s going to be easier for members who want to avoid reporters or their constituents,” Rios said.
A legislative chamber last tried to bar reporters from the floor in 2016, when then-Speaker Gowan demanded that the Capitol press corps pass background checks in an apparent act of retaliation for negative coverage in the Capitol Times. He quickly rescinded that policy under pressure from fellow lawmakers.
The new rules would permit any member of the Senate to participate in a floor session from their offices, provided Fann approves their request 90 minutes before it begins.
-Yellow Sheet Report Editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this story.
The Arizona Senate’s legal team met August 25 to discuss the Cyber Ninjas’ partial report on its review of Maricopa County’s 2020 general election – but there was no report to discuss.
“There’s no report,” Senate audit liaison Randy Pullen said.
Pullen, former Republican Party of Arizona chairman, said the meeting instead focused on planning and “the process of getting the report completed and out the door.” Pullen did not have a timeline for when to expect a draft.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said on August 23 that the Senate legal team would receive a partial draft of the report and would review it August 25. She attributed the delay in getting a full report to Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan and two members of his five-person team testing positive for Covid.
Fann said that one team member, not Logan, is in the hospital with pneumonia and that the three are “quite sick.”
Fann did not return a phone call August 25 seeking further comment. Senate attorney Kory Langhofer and Senate liaison Ken Bennett said they also have not seen a draft of the Cyber Ninjas report.
“To my knowledge, nobody has actually seen a draft,” Langhofer said via text.
Pullen confirmed that Logan attended the August 25 meeting via Zoom and that he was the only representative from the Cyber Ninjas team in attendance. Pullen said he wasn’t sure who else comprised the five-person team.
“I don’t believe that was disclosed or was going to be disclosed, and I don’t know exactly who that is anyway,” Pullen said.
On August 23, Fann said the Senate team plans to hold another meeting to review the rest of the draft report once submitted. Then the final report will be shared with the Senate Judiciary Committee and the findings will be released to the public.
It’s possible some information from the report will be made public sooner than that, Fann said.
“We don’t want to just put out just arbitrarily information, but if there’s something that the team is comfortable with that is hard, solid facts – we know that everybody’s anxious to see these reports and would like some information – so I would love to have the ability to share it as soon as we know that it’s confirmed,” she said.
Besides Covid, Fann blamed Maricopa County for the delay, saying the Senate received requested images of ballot envelopes on August 19 and that they still need to be analyzed.
But the county maintains that it already gave images of the ballot envelopes to the Senate on April 22, according to Megan Gilbertson, Maricopa County Elections Department spokeswoman. The county also said as much in an August 2 letter in response to the Senate’s July 26 subpoena.
“If Cyber Ninjas are unable to find them there, the County can produce them again,” the county’s August 2 letter stated, directing Cyber Ninjas to where it said the files could be found.
Gilbertson said the county gave the images to the Senate a second time on August 19.
Fann said that wasn’t true and that the auditors received the images for the first time on that day.
“I had three separate IT experts look, and it was not there,” Fann said. “I think they thought that they had sent it to us, but I don’t know. I’m not the IT tech, but I can guarantee you it was not there.”
Pullen said the review of those images “probably would be finished sometime next week” but said the location of the review “hasn’t been settled yet.”
Fann’s plans for the audit release have changed several times over the past few months. In June, the Legislature included language in its budget saying the Senate Government Committee, led by secretary of state candidate and audit skeptic Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, would receive and review the report. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee later insisted they would have jurisdiction over it instead. And in recent weeks, Fann has referred to a “Senate team,” though she has yet to identify the people on that team.
A month into the legislative session, nobody has yet filed a formal complaint about lawmakers who deliberately disregard the Covid safety guidelines set up by the House and Senate to ensure the safety of lawmakers, staff and visitors.
But Senate Democrats say that after pleading with Republicans to follow the rules and lodging verbal complaints with Senate leadership, they’re ready to take the next step and file formal complaints.
A public records request for complaints against lawmakers for breaking Covid protocols netted no records of any complaints in either the Senate or House.
But while no formal records have been filed, Senate Democrats have informally approached human resources and Republican leaders several times. Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said Senate President Karen Fann assured her she would intervene with lawmakers — but the time for polite requests is over.
“Clearly we are now in the second month of session, and we’re at the point where we’re going to start following up verbal complaints with written complaints,” Rios said. “It’s been a month, and that’s more than enough time to learn to wear a mask.”
Most recently, Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, on Monday complainedto human resources about Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, not wearing a mask while wandering the hallways of the Senate — but that complaint came only after Townsend filed a complaint against Gonzales for harassment because Gonzales told her to wear a mask.
Human resources told Gonzales that Townsend was exempt from wearing a mask because of a medical issue, though Townsend has declined to disclose what that medical issue is or why it prevents her from wearing a mask.
But for now no one is actually speaking up and filing complaints against those purposefully not following the rules.
The rules differ between chambers, but are basic. In the Senate, – everyone must remain masked except while alone in an office. The House, which installed plexiglass barriers, makes exceptions for lawmakers at their desks on the floor.
Everyone at the Capitol is also expected to keep six feet apart whenever possible, and handshakes and any physical contact aren’t allowed during committee hearings. But some lawmakers have disregarded the protocol since day one, and House leadership has empowered those who refuse to wear masks.
Instead of a single swearing-in ceremony at the House of Representatives, there were two: one for those who wore masks and one for those who didn’t.
Since then, guidelines have been repeatedly violated. Representatives routinely wander the floor and speak without masks or while wearing their masks as chin straps or earrings while several Republican senators only cover their noses when Fann is watching. One of the most salient details of former legislative assistant Michael Polloni’s ethics complaint against Sen. Wendy Rogers — that she screamed in his face until her spittle hit him — was only made possible because Rogers wasn’t wearing a mask while in close quarters with staffers.
In the Senate, a Covid policy explicitly gives staff permission to leave the room if lawmakers aren’t following rules — but in practice, pages are still called over to assist senators who fail to comply with safety guidelines.
That gets to the heart of the power dynamics at the Capitol, where staffers can be fired for no reason, and have little to no room to complain about lawmakers.
Lobbyists are largely in the same position. Just as staffers are allowed to file complaints, but cannot do so in practice without compromising their relationships and endangering their jobs, lobbyists depend on personal relationships with lawmakers to do their jobs. Complaining about a lawmakers’ refusal to wear a mask would “be bad for business,” Tory Roberg, a lobbyist for Secular Coalition for Arizona, said.
“It would definitely cause tension if I said or did anything,” she said.
Before the start of the legislative session, Senate President Karen Fann said that failure to comply with the new guidelines could lead to an inability to conduct voting and a possible session shutdown. That hasn’t happened.
Instead, Fann gave senators masks with the Senate seal and has gently reminded the lawmakers to wear their masks correctly.
“We’re doing a pretty darn good job with the masks, I just need a little more fine-tuning here,” Fann said on the Senate floor on the second day of session. “It needs to be up over your nose, please, because there are things that come out of your nose as well as your mouth.”
Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist with Creosote Partners said she doubts that House or Senate leadership would even take action against lawmakers who have disregarded the rules they set in place to keep staff, lawmakers, lobbyists and visitors safe.
“It doesn’t sound like it would do anything other than making you feel a little better about getting it off of your chest, but the thing you’re getting off of your chest is that they’re not taking the pandemic seriously,” she said.
House Democrats have criticized House Republicans for not wearing a mask when speaking during House committee meetings and not keeping their mask over their nose. But none of the Democrats have filed a formal complaint.
House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said he has seen some improvement from House Republicans in following guidelines, but there are still “bad actors who are putting others’ health and safety at risk.”
Those lawmakers who repeatedly break the rules need to “step up to the responsibility, that, not only that the (Senate) president has asked, but the governor, the (House) speaker and every other health expert has asked,” he said.
“Those who are choosing not to wear it are doing it out of a sense of arrogance and I believe that is something they absolutely need to change moving forward,” he said.
Bolding has discussed raising points of order against lawmakers in violation of protocols and said “everything is on the table when it comes to health and safety and protecting staff and members.”
Bolding said it will be obvious when someone pushes him to raise a point of order, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
Several staff and lawmakers have contracted the virus since the session started. While lawmakers continue to argue about taking the pandemic seriously, Arizonans continue to get sick. According to the Arizona Department of Health Service’s COVID-19 dashboard, since the Legislature began on January 11th over 123,000 new cases of Covid have been confirmed in Arizona and more than 2,500 deaths.
It’s promoted as a measure to ensure that no future governor shuts down religious services during an emergency.
But some legislators worry that the actual wording of the legislation would give churches and other religious organizations not only special privileges to operate during pandemics and other situations, but potentially immunize them from lawsuits over child abuse.
HB2648 would spell out in statute that religious services “are declared an essential service and are deemed necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public.” The bill already has cleared the House and now awaits a Senate floor vote.
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who is sponsoring the measure, said it’s simply designed to put churches on even footing with other businesses.
“The spirit of the bill is essentially to say that if Costco and Walmart and any other private business is allowed to be open during a pandemic, then so should religious organizations,” he said.
It also would allow a religious organization to sue the state to not only get a declaration that it is entitled to continue to operate but also for monetary damages. Toma said that’s appropriate.
“If they are discriminated against, there should be financial consequences on any governments that infringe on their rights,” he said.
But the verbiage in the bill is raising questions about whether this is about more than giving churches the equal opportunity to stay open.
It starts with language designed to provide protection against “discriminatory action” by the government. More to the point is the definition of what that includes.
For example, it would bar state government from causing “any tax, penalty or payment to be assessed against a religions organization.” And it would prohibit imposition of any “monetary fine, fee, civil or criminal penalty, damages award or injunction against a religious organization.
That language alarmed Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe.
“There is currently a long-term, worldwide scandal about sexual abuse of children in religious organizations,” she said.
“And this has resulted in many fines, fees, penalties and criminal sanctions against religious organizations,” Hernandez continued. “And I am incredibly concerned that this bill’s prohibition would deny children victims any recompense for their abuse.”
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, also said this appears to be about far more than letting congregations meet during a pandemic.
“The expansive breath of this bill is astonishing,” he said. More to the point, he said it’s “completely unnecessary,” and not just because Gov. Doug Ducey has specifically exempted religious services from any restrictions in his emergency declaration.
Quezada cited a ruling last month by the U.S. Supreme Court which overturned a California ban on indoor church services as a method to fight the pandemic.
The court, however, upheld attendance limits based on the size of the facility. And the justices said that, given the way the Covid virus spreads, state could prohibit singing and chanting during services.
Toma’s bill would allow the state to require religious organizations to comply with “neutral health, safety or occupancy requirements” as long as they apply to other organizations that also provide essential services. But it does say that that the state cannot impose “a substantial burden on a religious service” absent showing it is “essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
Sen. J.D. Mesnard R-Chandler, acknowledged that the measure does deal with more than just what happens during a declared emergency. But he said he does not read the bill as broadly as some of the foes.
“There is no immunity in this bill except for one thing: immunity from discrimination,” he said. Mesnard said it does not immunize religious organizations to go out and break any law.
“That would not be the government coming after you solely because you’re a religious entity, which is the meat of the bill,” he said.
Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, openly questioned the need to cater to the church.
Peshlakai said she understands the stated goal is to protect religion in government. But she said that hardly appears necessary.
“I see nothing but the protection of the church in this state and in this country,” she said. By contrast, Peshlakai said Native Americans were not granted freedom of religion until President Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, overruling laws that had rendered some religions and sacred ceremonies illegal.
Yet all along, other non-Native American religions were given the freedom “to hurt people,” relating how her grandfather, in the name of converting Native Americans to Christianity, was forced to go to an Indian school.
“So I am very wary of giving that much immunity and that lack of responsibility to these religious essential services,” Peshlakai said.
No date has been set for the Senate to debate the issue.
Although not advertised, the Arizona Department of Health Services allows people to receive Covid vaccines if they are in the same car as someone with an appointment at State Farm Stadium.
DHS said it’s not a nefarious plot for people to jump the line, but rather a way to prevent vaccines from potentially going to waste. Agency spokesman Steve Elliott said several factors make the “plus one program” possible.
“On occasion, the registration lead for the site will make the clinical decision to offer a vaccine to a person in a vehicle in addition to the patient with an appointment,” Elliott said. “It depends in part on the ready-to-go vaccine supply at that moment — it is a national best practice to provide doses to patients rather than risk them expiring in the limited time they can be used after thawing.”
He added some people scheduled to get the vaccine don’t show up at the site, freeing up a dose.
“The clinical decision also can include whether the additional person is a caretaker, in a vulnerable group, etc,” he said.
Elliott did not respond to further questions on how many vaccines were administered this way or if any vaccines have gone to waste in Arizona like they have in other states, but he confirmed it’s also possible to receive the vaccine earlier than a scheduled appointment if with another person whose appointment is during that time.
“In that case, they might both be offered a dose at the same time so they don’t have to come back the next day,” he said. “(But) because we can only guarantee vaccine availability for patients with an appointment, we do not recommend bringing additional individuals with the expectation they will get vaccinated.”
The state still lags behind in inoculations even with opening up the opportunity for more Arizonans — those 65-years old and up — to receive the vaccine in Phase 1B. Arizona administered about 36% of available doses so far and just crossed the 300,000th dose given. Latest numbers as of January 20 show just more than 44,000 people have received both doses and 270,000 received their first dose so far.
Appointments for February booked up in roughly 12 hours January 20 at both State Farm Stadium and Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
The registration site is still having issues where people could not get an appointment and had to furiously hit refresh or check dates previously looked over to land a spot. The state has yet to publish a full vaccine dashboard, despite Gov. Doug Ducey’s office promising to have one set up as soon as possible more than two weeks ago. Also, several long-term care facilities have not begun administering vaccines to the elderly who have qualified since Day One.
Around the time Senate employees swapped out paper signs saying masks were “required” with signs saying they were “encouraged,” new signs popped up outside the office suite shared by Sens. Rebecca Rios and Victoria Steele.
Laminated yellow papers featuring a mask-wearing emoji and the words “please wear a face mask inside this office” are taped under their nameplates and on the door itself. After the Senate voted along party lines to eliminate its mask mandate on March 29, those pleas are all Democratic lawmakers and Senate staff say they have left to protect themselves from the airborne illness.
“Unfortunately, now it’s every man for themselves,” said Rios, the Senate minority leader. “People will have to stay masked up and avoid people who refuse to wear masks.”
A week after Gov. Doug Ducey abruptly announced that he would stop local governments from enforcing mask mandates, except in their own buildings and public transportation – Arizona never adopted a statewide mask mandate – Republican majorities in the House and Senate have done away with mask requirements but left restrictions that limit public access to the government in place.
In the House, where a mask mandate existed solely on Speaker Rusty Bowers’ orders, enforcement stopped immediately. House Government and Elections Committee Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said during his afternoon meeting on March 26, scant hours after Ducey’s announcement, that Bowers, R-Mesa, had told him masks were now optional.
“I have no power to mandate mask wearing, especially when the actual rule is you don’t have to,” Kavanagh said in response to a complaint from Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, about some Republicans not wearing masks.
Across the mall, Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, took the news that the governor was blocking city mandates as a sign that she could finally leave her office, where she had been sequestered and voting by video call all session because she refuses to wear a mask.
Townsend walked on to the floor on March 26, causing a commotion. Senate President Karen Fann told her to wear a mask “at least one more day,” and Townsend moved to the doorway, prompting Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, to insist that she needed to be escorted back to her office.
A few days later, Townsend returned to the floor once again, this time for good. After a frequently emotional debate on March 29, the Senate voted to do away with the mask mandate entirely, but keep other Covid restrictions.
Senate President Pro Tem Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, tore his mask off with a flourish as soon as the vote ended and gestured for a senior Republican staffer to do the same (the staffer refused). One row in front of him, Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, fired off a tweet using language from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Free at last! I just removed my mask at the legislature. Looking forward to seeing more faces and fewer masks,” he wrote.
No vote was required in the House, where only four Republicans showed up with masks on March 29. By March 31, most Republicans had removed the plexiglass barriers separating their desks, though Democrats kept them up.
Masks are still mandatory in the chief clerk’s office and the rules office, and are encouraged wherever else social distancing is impossible, under the House’s new policy.
“We are basically asking people, if they come to see people who are wearing masks, they show respect and maintain social distancing,” Bowers said.
Fann, likewise, encouraged senators to show respect for each other. She swapped floor seats with Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, and the only Republican who sat on the left side of the chamber, creating an invisible line between mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers. Fann is rarely at her desk because she presides over the chamber, and she vowed to wear a mask whenever she was there.
It was a nice gesture, said Sen. Martín Quezada, who sits behind Fann, but it had the unintended consequence of bringing even more barefaced Republicans to his side of the room because they want to talk to Fann.
“It’s like animals to a watering hole,” said Quezada, D-Glendale. “It just attracts more of those members over to her.”
Quezada said he is particularly concerned about Senate staff, including the many young and not yet vaccinated pages who sit next to lawmakers on the floor and run errands for them. While Senate rules still explicitly allow employees to leave any room in which CDC guidelines are not being followed, he said no staffer in their right mind would challenge an elected official.
One junior employee, the legislative assistant for freshman Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, was abruptly forced to resign earlier this year after talking back to Rogers about office décor and working while sick. That former employee is preparing to sue the Senate.
“They can’t come out and give interviews,” Quezada said about Senate staff. “They can’t come out and be quoted in the newspaper, but I hear from them.”
All legislative Democrats and employees but only a few Republican lawmakers have continued covering their faces this week. Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he decided to stay masked until after he gets his second dose of a Covid vaccine and waits the recommended number of days for the vaccine to fully take effect.
Even after that, Shope said he’ll keep a mask in his pocket and be ready to put it on as needed.
While the House and Senate have changed their mask policies, other Covid restrictions remain in place. As senators finished their work on the Senate floor on March 31, a masked-up custodial worker sanitized the bottom rung of a stair railing – continuing an intense cleaning regimen that began with Fann having pages scrub doorknobs every hour in March 2020.
Lawmakers are still allowed to vote remotely in committee hearings and on the floor. Public access to both buildings is still limited, though Bowers said he will begin allowing a limited number of guests in the gallery.
And in the Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike continue huddling in private rooms behind locked doors to hold caucus meetings that are legally required to be open to the public. Fann blocked Democrats from continuing to share video links to their caucus meetings and never offered the option for Republican caucuses, leaving lobbyists, reporters and interested citizens in the dark.
Fann has blamed Covid – or, more precisely, critical coverage of how Republicans have handled Covid – for shuttering the building.
The chief medical officer at the state’s largest hospital network has some words of advice for would-be New Year’s Eve revelers looking to party with others.
Don’t. Just don’t. Even if you wear a mask and are fully vaccinated.
Dr. Marjorie Bessel said on December 28 that Covid cases continue to increase in Arizona, fueled in large part by the Omicron variant.
On one hand, she said, it appears to be less virulent, producing a less-severe disease. And Bessel said that, in turn, may mean a smaller percentage of people who contract that variant are likely to need hospitalization than those who have come down with the Delta variant.
But there’s another side to that: Omicron is more contagious and easier to transmit. And the sheer number of people who contract that variant, by itself, can overwhelm an already stressed hospital system.
Bessel cited the daily figures from the Department of Health Services which show only 114 beds in intensive-care units available statewide, just 7% of the total. The figure was only slightly better for in-patient beds, with a 9% vacancy.
Bessel said, though, that some Banner facilities are operating above full capacity.
The health department also reported an additional 162 new deaths December 28, bringing the statewide total to 24,144. There also were 1,976 additional cases of the virus logged.
And things, said Bessel, are going to get worse before they get better.
“Our predictive modeling tools show no sign of the surge letting up,” she said. “We expect that volumes will continue to increase through the beginning of next year before peaking around the middle of January.”
The big unknown in all this, said Bessel, is Omicron.
She pointed out that Banner, like many hospital chains, have been using monoclonal antibodies to treat people who contract the disease. These drugs can help enhance the immune system.
Only thing is, the ones now available don’t seem to work quite as well against the Omicron variant.
Bessel said there is a new form of the drug called Sotrovimab that does seem to be effective.
But Banner cannot get any of that. So Bessel said Banner hospitals have stopped administering any monoclonal antibodies until the new drug is available, with some expected next week. She said “supplies will be extremely limited.”
There is a new oral medication to fight the virus that is now available.
Here, too, Bessel said, those coming down with the virus should not assume they will be able to simply pop some pills and beat the disease.
“It is in limited supply and not everyone is eligible to get it,” she said. “The medication will be used for those at highest risk for hospitalization and meet strict criteria.
All that comes back to the point about people placing themselves at risk of getting the new, more transmissible version of virus at some New Year’s Eve celebrations and then finding that cures are not widely available.
“You should not be gathering in large groups,” Bessel said. And she said those who have had the disease — or even are vaccinated — are not immune and should not feel they are free to party.
“Omicron can and is infecting those with previous Covid infection,” she said. “Omicron is resulting in higher vaccine ‘breakthrough’ infections, particularly in those who have not yet been boostered.”
And then there’s that increased transmissibility.
All this also comes as getting tested has become more difficult, with an increasing demand. And while Bessel is not recommending routine testing, she said it is appropriate for some.
“We do know that the Omicron variant can also present like a regular cold,” she said. “So anything that could be consistent with Covid should cause somebody to go and get tested.”
But Bessel said the testing may be appropriate for others.
“We all are aware that if you’re traveling sometimes you need to get tested,” she said. “And others who are perhaps planning to visit with high-risk relatives are getting tested ahead of time to reduce or minimize the likelihood that they may pass on the virus to others.”
That, then, leaves the question of quarantine and precautions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week modified the original guideline of staying away from others for 10 days. That was based on a finding that transmission seems to occur right before or within a few days of the onset of symptoms.
Bessel said she agrees with the new protocols for five days of isolation for people without symptoms.
But she said people need to understand the second half of what that entails: wearing a mask for another five days after resuming outside activities.
Top aides to Gov. Doug Ducey are defending the $1.5 billion cut in tax collections and bailout of the most wealthy as “modest and responsible.”
In a briefing with media on Wednesday, Matt Gress, the governor’s chief finance officer, said the deal Ducey has negotiated with Republican legislative leaders will still leave plenty of money for new and expanded programs. He said these, ranging from road improvements and cash for new schools to new body cameras for Department of Public Safety officers, all can be accomplished even with the tax cuts that will largely benefit the most wealthy.
“It’s a downpayment on Arizona’s future,” said Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s chief of staff.
More to the point, he said that Arizona needs to enact aggressive income tax cuts to ensure that Arizona attracts new business and gets firms to expand here.
Scarpinato said Arizona has landed new jobs in high tech and driverless cars because it has been competitive. But he said it’s not a static model.
“Other states are becoming more competitive,” Scarpinato said.
“So we’re going to continue being more competitive,” he continued. “And if we don’t act these things will be left behind and we won’t see this continued economic activity.”
Scarpinato said all this can be done because the state has more money than anticipated. And he brushed aside questions of whether cutting this much in income taxes based on current economic conditions creates the hazard of having to cut programs and services the next time the economy goes south.
“We’re being very conservative in both revenue projections but also on ongoing spending,” he said.
And there’s something else.
Scarpinato said the state is counting on more than $200 million a year in new sales tax revenues once Arizonans get to start wagering on professional and college sports. And the state also is benefiting from a relatively new levy that Arizonans are paying when they purchase items online.
He also insisted that while the state has gotten about $4 billion in federal cash due to Covid it is not building those into the budget. Instead, it is being used for one-time expenses.
But that’s not exactly true.
For example, the plan calls for putting $1 billion in federal dollars into expanding child care for the needy. That should wipe out the current “wait list” of people seeking state help but finding no cash available.
That, however, leaves the question of what happens to those people who were getting child care once the cash runs out.
What makes all this crucial is that the tax cuts in the deal are effectively permanent: Because of constitutional constraints, it would take a nearly politically impossible two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to rescind them once they are in place if tax collections collapsed.
The plan starts with that 2.5% flat tax for everyone, collapsing a progressive structure than has rates as low as 2.59% and as high as 4.5%. That makes those in the top category the big winners.
But they benefit a second way.
Voters decided in November that earnings above $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples should be subject to a 3.5% surcharge. The Ducey-GOP plan, however, effectively cuts that to no more than 2%.
The schools will still get the money that Proposition 208 was designed to generate. But that will come out of state coffers rather than the pockets of the wealthy.
Scarpinato was unapologetic.
“The governor wants to see the state move forward from an economic development standpoint,” he said.
And that, he said, includes protecting small businesses. He pointed out that Proposition 208 was structured in a way that affected small businesses who pay no corporate income tax but instead pass through all the profits to the owners who would be subject to the surcharge.
Anyway, Scarpinato said, it’s not like the governor believes that the tax-cut plan and paying the voter-imposed obligations on the wealthy to do more for public education is going to harm anything.
“Why wouldn’t we let Arizonans keep more of their hard-earned money?” he asked.
The spending side of the package is a kind of laundry list of priorities.
For example, there’s $100 million in “pavement protection” for targeted roads in the 13 rural counties. The plan also calls for salary increases — but only for “targeted positions” at certain state agencies, like DPS officers, adult and juvenile corrections officers, child safety caseworkers and staffers at the Department of Water Resources.
There’s $65 million for what’s been called the “new economy initiative.” This expands an existing program to provide cash to universities to graduate more students in what the governor has said is a critical high demand industries like coding, artificial intelligence and “entrepreneurism.”
Rural community colleges would get $28 million, with additional dollars for Pima and Maricopa community colleges for STEM programs: science, technology, engineering and math.
At the K-12 level, the state will provide an extra $50 million for special education students. It also contains a new plan to evaluate incoming kindergartners to know where they are in reading, with the idea of putting resources where needed.
The state also is finally going to revise what it pays for construction of new schools, bringing it to what Gress said is the “market rate.” Many districts have until now had to supplement the state allocations with local funds, an issue that resulted in a yet-to-be-resolved lawsuit playing out in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The state also will pay down some debt, put more cash into maintenance of state prisons and close down the prison at Florence, the oldest in the state. That will move the inmates to the nearby Eyeman facility which, in turn, will help deal with chronic staffing shortages in the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.
Also in the plan is $25 million for “forest health.” That includes sending 720 inmates out to clear hazardous vegetation.
And there’s also $200 million in the budget to find more water for the state — eventually.
The idea is to start putting money aside that can be used essentially to purchase water in the future. That could include desalinization plants.
But aides to the governor also foresee the possibility of having water brought into Arizona from the Missouri River, meaning, at the very least, constructing a pipeline.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday upped the pressure on the growing number of public-school districts defying a state ban on mask mandates as they try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Republican created a $163 million school grant program using federal virus relief funds he controls, but schools that have mask mandates or have to close because of Covid outbreaks won’t be eligible for the additional $1,800 per student.
“Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t,” Ducey said in a statement. “These grants acknowledge efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students.”
School districts with current mask mandates will have 10 days to rescind them or lose out on the money, Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said. That’s despite the fact that a law banning schools from enacting those rules does not go into effect for more than a month.
Ducey also created a $10 million grant program that largely mirrors the state’s private school voucher program by awarding parents $7,000 for each student if their public school required isolating or quarantining due to Covid exposure, or if it mandated masks or gave preferential treatment to vaccinated children.
“Our COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit will empower parents to exercise their choice when it comes to their child’s education and COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” he said.
Arizona is one of eight states that have laws or executive orders banning mask requirements in public schools, with some landing in the courts. Education advocates have filed a lawsuit over Arizona’s ban and several other state laws that restrict the power of local governments and school districts to impose Covid requirements.
At least one other state, Florida, is giving private school vouchers to parents who say a public-school district’s mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children.
Arizona’s GOP-led Legislature this year rejected an expansion of the voucher program that now gives about 10,000 students public cash to attend private schools. Students who do not have special needs get 90% of the state funding, about $7,000 each, that would have gone to their local public school to pay for private school tuition or other costs.
The governor’s moves come as an increasing number of school districts defy the provision in the newly enacted state budget that bans mask mandates and instead follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding face coverings. Ducey and Republicans who control the Legislature crafted the state’s restrictions.
Democratic House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said Ducey was creating his own “Hunger Games” for Arizona schools with his actions.
“It’s a sickening irony that he’s doing this by dangling millions of federally provided funds for COVID-19 relief and forcing school districts to choose between the health and safety of kids and educators, or millions in additional funding that Republicans have withheld for years,” Bolding said in a statement. “With the delta variant running rampant and COVID-19 cases among children on the rise, it’s disgusting to put a bounty on spreading this illness to kids and punishing schools that try to operate safely.”
And Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in a tweet called Ducey’s action “the most absurdly dangerous and anti-science step (he) has taken.”
“Until kids under 12 have access to the vaccine, what are parents supposed to do?” she asked. “Just hope their kids don’t get sick and end up in the ICU?”
Arizona has seen coronavirus cases surge in the last six weeks, and numerous school districts have had large outbreaks. State health officials on Tuesday reported 2,661 cases and three deaths from the virus.
In all, the Arizona Department of Health Services has reported more than 970,523 cases and 18,467 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began. Fifty-four percent of the 7.1 million Arizona people living in the state have been vaccinated.
Five districts, two in metro Tucson and three in the Phoenix area, opted to require students and staff to wear masks after a judge ruled Monday that the budget law does not go into effect until Sept, 29. A teacher who filed a lawsuit challenging a mask mandate at a Phoenix district argued it took effect after lawmakers approved it in late June.
In all, at least 16 districts in Arizona are requiring students and staff to wear masks while indoors amid fears over the delta variant.
The districts collectively account for 198,000 students and nearly 300 schools, most in Tucson and metro Phoenix. Arizona has about 1.1 million public school students.
The school board in Bullhead City in the state’s northwest voted unanimously Tuesday night to instruct teachers and other school employees not to discuss their own or the children’s Covid vaccine status with students. Board members said such health questions belong exclusively to the students’ families.
Ducey’s $163 million grant program that uses American Rescue Plan funds excludes any district or charter schools that do not follow all state laws as of Aug. 27 and that don’t remain open for in-person instruction for the whole school year.
The Phoenix Union High School District, which has 22 schools and about 28,000 students, was the first to defy the mask mandate ban on July 30 and was the defendant in the lawsuit. Asked for comment, a district spokesman pointed to a tweet from Superintendent Chad Gestson saying many state-level decisions are undermining efforts to safely provide in-person instruction.
“Today, I am worried about our children. All 1.1 million,” Gestson wrote. “But as for those in our care in PXU, we will continue to prioritize their health, safety and wellness.”
Karamargin said the governor’s moves were not about penalizing schools that defy his will or their students, who will lose out on funding he is withholding.
“This is about sending a clear message to those schools that are not violating the law about how important it is to follow the law,” Karamargin said.
Meanwhile, a western Arizona school district is considering an unorthodox proposal to ban any discussion between staff and students about vaccines and masks. The Colorado River Union High School’s governing board was set to meet on the matter Tuesday night in Bullhead City. The measure would allow for disciplinary action to be taken against any district employee who speaks on “anything related to vaccine status or encouraging/discouraging vaccines or mask with students.”
District officials did not immediately return a message from The Associated Press seeking comment. According to the district dashboard, there are 18 active COVID-19 cases across the district.
Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud, Terry Tang and Anita Snow contributed to this report.
In delivering his shortest State of the State address to date, Gov. Doug Ducey made Covid the dominant theme of his speech on Monday, although he hinted at a host of legislative priorities for 2021.
The theme of this year’s speech was #AZResilient, (following previous themes #AZAwesome, #ThingsThatMatterAZ and #The ArizonaWay), and Ducey highlighted that resilience theme by offering praise to doctors, nurses and other health care workers on the front lines who have helped care for Covid patients for months.
Ducey said the 10,000 Arizonans who died due to Covid is an example of the best not being enough.
“In so many ways, an extremely tough year brought out the best in us. And yet sometimes, despite all, our best wasn’t enough,” Ducey said remotely from his office. Arizona’s Covid numbers show 10,147 deaths so far and more than 625,000 known positive cases. Hospitalizations almost hit 5,000 today, which is the highest it’s been to date.
But the governor noted that with the vaccine here, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“If last year was the year of the virus, this year will be the year of the vaccine,” he said.
Ducey said there are extremists on both sides – those calling for a lockdown and those calling to reopen everything – but said he’s going to stick to his centrist path.
“In my 50-plus meetings with the press, I’ve heard endless variations of the same question: Why not more and longer lockdowns?” He said, adding said Arizona has never been under a lockdown, and it’s not something anybody should expect to happen.
“Look at the experience of the other states that did lockdown. What do they have to show for their strict mandates and orders? They’re still dealing with the worst of it. Just as we are,” Ducey said.
House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said he and the other Democrats still had many questions after listening to Ducey’s speech. He contrasted Ducey’s more general statements on COVID-19 with the more specific proposals the Democratic leadership touted in a news conference this morning, such as extending the eviction moratorium and making it easier for Arizonans to collect unemployment benefits, among other areas.
“My hope is the governor is able to look at the comprehensive approach that we put (forth) and compare it with whatever he’s working on so we can move forward with this crisis that is affecting many Arizonans,” Bolding said.
He took a shot at mayors who’ve clearly gotten under his skin.
“I’m not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities,” he said, referring to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, who have been harsh critics of Ducey’s management of the crisis.
Arizona is the current worst spot in the world for new cases per capita and continues to hit records for hospitalizations and other metrics that show a bleak future reliant on the vaccine.
The speech, which clocked in at just 22 minutes, compared to last year’s 64-minute speech and the previous year’s 39-minute speech, was light on policy proposal , but included a few hints of what might be coming in his budget proposal Friday, including “eliminating unnecessary state buildings.” He also spoke about more tax cuts, Covid liability protection for businesses, modernizing the gaming compact, expanding access to broadband internet as well as offering laptops and wi-fi to students who don’t have access.
Ducey said he’s not going to provide any additional cash to public schools who have found themselves with fewer children in classrooms due to the pandemic. Instead, the governor said he wants to get students “back where they belong.”
“With every public health professional, from Dr. Fauci and the CDC on down, saying that the safest place for kids to be is in schools, we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure,” he said. “Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic.”
After the speech, press aide C.J. Karamargin said his boss is not considering cutting off funds to schools who instruct students either in whole or in part online. He said Ducey supports virtual options for parents who want them.
“When he references not funding ’empty seats,’ he simply means that for parents who have chosen a new option for their kids, the money will follow that will follow that student to their new public school,” Karamargin said, options that include other traditional district schools as well as charter schools.
Notably, Ducey did not mention any of his priorities from 2020 that did not come to fruition due to a truncated session. Several, if not all, are likely to come back in one form or another this year, but will take a backseat to his and the Legislature’s Covid response.
Ducey announced last year he would shut down the state prison in Florence — which came as a surprise to everyone, including Florence. The plan was riddled with unanswered questions, but was supposed to happen over a three-year period. It’s unclear how Covid affected that timeline and if any progress has been made, given prisoners and correctional officers testing positive for the virus.
Ducey pushed an education program he dubbed “Project Rocket” that would appropriate money to low-income, low-performing students in K-12 schools in an effort to close the achievement gap. However, that failed to launch as Democrats and some Republicans wanted to amend it last year.
Ducey’s budget plan will come on Friday, and given his nod to the achievement gap in his speech, it’s possible he’ll set aside money for it.
Reporter Nate Brown and Capitol Media Services contributed to this story.
On March 11, 2020, Gov. Doug Ducey placed Arizona under a state of emergency to combat the spread of Covid. The country declared Covid as a pandemic that same day.
To his harshest critics, Ducey’s efforts largely failed, and many directly blame him for the deaths of more than 16,000 Arizonans.
To his loyal supporters, he’s getting results. Arizona’s economy is one of the strongest in the nation and the vaccine rollout — despite several hiccups — has already inoculated at least 20% of the state’s population.
Ducey resisted calls for “extreme” measures put forth by both sides of the ideological aisle. He refused to impose a statewide mask mandate, angering the liberal base. But he also restricted business activity, upsetting conservatives.
And as Arizona’s cases skyrocketed in the summer and the fall, Ducey abandoned his early efforts at transparency. Specifically, the regularly weekly briefings went away, and he got testy with reporters in the sporadic ones he held.
Ducey and his staff refused to comment for this story.
Shut down, reopen, shut down again
A businessman by profession, Ducey acted cautiously, particularly when it came to calls to shutter business operations.
Before anybody really knew how bad Covid would get, Ducey put Arizona in a quasi stay-at-home order for a month, shutting the doors of “non-essential” businesses. He extended the order two additional weeks, but began to walk it back in early May to align with one of many visits by President Trump. He shut down schools in a joint-announcement with Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
Ducey allowed businesses to begin reopening, but his critics said he had no plan in place to help slow the spread, insisting his administration implemented neither a comprehensive contact tracing effort nor a mask mandate and that the state allowed certain businesses to exploit a loophole and continue operating.
He refused to add any new mitigation measures as Arizona became a global hot spot around November through January.
Many leaders said they were left out of the administration’s decisions – and the complaint emanated not just from mayors and other political rivals.
Things turned for the worse around Memorial Day, when bars took advantage of a loophole in the governor’s executive order to remain open amid a sharp rise in cases and deaths that disproportionately wreaked havoc on Arizona’s elderly population.
Some said his office only sought to mend relationships after mounting pressure and public shaming.
Dana Kennedy, the Arizona state director of the AARP, said her relationship with Ducey’s office became practically nonexistent after two meetings in early March 2020.
Kennedy said she had not heard from Ducey or his staff again until around June or July, when Ducey’s chief of staff reached out.
“My advocacy started working, and I got a call from Daniel Scarpinato where he said, ‘What do we need to do to repair this relationship?’ Kennedy said.
That led to the state setting up a task force for long-term care facilities.
And later, when vaccines became available, Ducey immediately prioritized vaccinating Arizona’s oldest residents, putting them in the same priority category as health workers, something Kennedy applauded.
But Kennedy lamented that Ducey and Cara Christ, the state health director, still wouldn’t allow numbers from long-term care facilities to be released and fought to keep any information sealed in court.
Kennedy said she felt hopeless at times.
“They felt like I was the only person who could help them. And I couldn’t,” she said about the aging community. She added that there hasn’t been any transparency from Ducey or Christ when it comes to the assisted living facilities or other long-term care facilities.
“I still to this day disagree with not releasing the information regarding assisted living facilities,” Kennedy said. “And to this day I could not tell you how many people have died in long-term care facilities.”
Arizona is among just a few states that hide that information from the public. What AARP Arizona knows is that least 2,500 residents of skilled nursing facilities have died. The true number, she speculated, is much higher than that.
“We know for a fact that there were a lot of deaths in our long-term care facilities, and they won’t release that information. They have it, but they won’t release it,” Kennedy said.
Deaths and transparency
Ducey started holding press conferences again toward the end of November.
More than half of all of Arizona’s Covid deaths would occur after his last public appearance on December 16.
And the last time Ducey publicly expressed condolences regarding a Covid-related death happened nearly a year ago.
“Our heartfelt condolences go out at this tragic loss of life,” Ducey tweeted about the second death from the virus.
Some lament that it’s not enough.
Among the 16,464 Arizonans who have died from the virus is Kristin Urquiza’s father, Mark. His death prompted Urquiza to launch Marked By Covid, which collects stories from people whose lives were upended by Covid.
Urquiza, who gained national attention, wrote a letter to Ducey inviting him to her father’s funeral, blaming him in part for her father’s death on June 30. She told the Arizona Capitol Times that her father believed the governor when he said Arizona was on the other side of the pandemic and decided to end the de-facto stay-at-home order in May.
At the time, bars briefly reopened and Ducey refused to allow cities to issue their own mask mandates. Ducey later relented, allowing local governments to issue mask-up ordinances in June.
“I haven’t received any condolence or outreach from the governor, Cara Christ or the Department of Health,” Urquiza said. “[They have all been] completely silent, and from everybody that I interact with who’s lost a loved one in Arizona, I don’t know a single person who has received a generic or a personal condolence from Doug Ducey.”
Loyal opposition, loyal critics
One of Ducey and Christ’s harshest critics is Will Humble, the former state health director who accused the state leaders of only acting after mounting pressure from experts, the public and media.
“How this Governor’s Office operated is that if you could embarrass them publicly they might consider changing direction,” Humble said.
Humble, who briefly remained in his health director role early in Ducey’s tenure, said the governor’s lack of transparency trickled down to nearly all state agencies, speculating that’s also the reason why directors from the Department of Economic Security and Department of Corrections also don’t hold news briefings.
Ducey’s supporters maintain that, despite the incessant criticism, Arizona sits with a robust economy despite early predictions to the contrary. They point to the governor’s innovative strategies to ramp up vaccination, notably by opening three statewide vaccination sites.
They note that the administration has acknowledged problems in the vaccine rollout, but that it’s working on fixing them and they see a light at the end of the tunnel shining just a tad brighter.
Meanwhile, it has been 85 days since Ducey’s last public appearance.
Getting a leg up on everyone else in his age group, Gov. Doug Ducey got his first dose of the Covid vaccine on Tuesday morning.
But his press aide insists he wasn’t jumping the line.
In an unannounced event, the governor got Dr. Cara Christ, the state health director, to administer the shot at State Farm Stadium. That is one of the state-run sites for inoculations.
Only later did his office put out a release, video and photos of the event. That included an explanation that, at age 56, he was now eligible.
And that followed the announcement Monday by Christ that the process is now open to anyone age 55 and older.
What the governor’s release did not say is that when Christ announced the change on Monday she said that no one could sign up to even get an appointment before noon. Ducey’s release came more than an hour before that.
And even then, anyone who did manage to get through the state registration system would not be scheduled until at least Thursday — if not later — with only about 50,000 doses available to the 55-plus crowd.
So was Ducey taking advantage of his position?
“The governor did not jump the line,” said Ducey publicist C.J. Karamargin. Instead, he said, the goal was to create a public service video.
“We had a message to get out about the importance of getting the vaccine, that we were opening up to a category that includes a lot more people,” Karamargin said.
What that did not include, he conceded, is an event with media who then would not just publicize the announcement but also be able to ask him questions about the state’s handling of the virus and other issues.
“We chose not to,” Karamargin said. “We chose to approach this important announcement by letting people know about it with a video and a press release.”
And the fact that Ducey did get inoculated ahead of everyone else in his age group for the PSA?
“This is what leading by example looks like,” Karamargin responded.
Declaring the Covid pandemic under control and the need for restrictions over in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey is abolishing all the limits that still remain on businesses and public gatherings.
And he is eliminating – and once again nullifying – the ability of local communities to maintain their own mask mandates.
In a new executive order March 25, the governor dissolved all the limits he had previously imposed on how businesses need to operate. That dissolves any remaining requirements to limit the number of customers to ensure social distancing and to require that staff and patrons wear masks.
Instead, everything that used to be a mandate is now simply a “recommendation.”
That means businesses can – but are not required – to have their own mask mandates and to refuse service to anyone who does not comply.
That also means that all the music venues and bars that have been closed are free to open their doors again. And here, too, while there is a suggestion to maintain social distancing and masks, that is no longer a requirement.
In issuing the new order, Ducey acknowledged that there have been nearly 940,000 cases of Covid in the state, including 16,874 deaths. But he also cited the fact that the number of new cases has been declining for 10 weeks and hospitalizations are at their lowest level since the end of September.
At the same time, he said, more than 1.9 million Arizonans have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, with almost 1.2 million who are now fully inoculated. And he said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Arizona as among the best states in getting the vaccine to those who are most vulnerable.
All that, he said, leads to his latest order.
“The measures put in place last summer allowed Arizona to fight back COVID-19,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “Today, we are in a different spot, and we also are a lot smarter.”
None of this affects schools, which have been reopening with requirements for teachers and students to wear masks. A spokesman for the Department of Health Services said those orders remain in effect.
That pleased state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
“Masking is one of the top mitigation strategies for safe in-person learning as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” she said in a statement. But Hoffman was clearly less impressed than Ducey with the number of Arizonans who already have been inoculated.
“With only one in four Arizonans vaccinated, I encourage everyone to continue wearing a mask when in public spaces,” she said in a statement.
The decision to override local control got the predictable angry response from the mayors of the state’s two largest cities.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said Ducey ignores the fact that the surge in June was curbed only when the governor relaxed his own opposition to masks and agreed to let communities impose their own mandates, many of whom did.
“To abandon precautions now is like spiking the ball on the 5-yard line,” she said in a prepared statement, pointing out the new variants of the virus.
“The risk of another surge is real,” Gallego continued. “The governor clearly cares a lot less about the people of Arizona than his political future.”
In Tucson, the governor’s move could lead to more than talk. An aide to Mayor Regina Romero said there already are discussions with City Attorney Mike Rankin about filing suit to allow the community to keep its own masking requirements.
This isn’t the first time Tucson has made that threat. In fact, it was only after Romero threatened litigation last year that Ducey relented and agreed to permit local options.
The new order does not strip cities of all of their rights. They maintain the ability to require the use of masks in public buildings and on public transit.
Ducey’s decision to lift restrictions comes as state lawmakers, many frustrated with the limits the governor imposed on individual activity – including at one time a stay-at-home order and the closure of all businesses he said were not essential – are moving to exercise their right to terminate the emergency entirely or, at the very least, amend the Arizona Constitution to limit how long future governors can impose emergency declarations without legislative approval.
Yet, while Ducey is lifting all the restrictions, he is not ending the emergency he declared slightly more than a year ago. That gives him the right to reimpose any of the restrictions any time he wants.
What that also does is preserve his right to preclude cities, towns and counties from imposing their own more restrictive requirements.
It also ensures continued flow of federal dollars for things like free vaccines and testing. And it also keeps in place an order shielding certain medical workers from lawsuits for mistakes made in diagnosing and treating Covid victims.
While businesses will no longer be at risk of being cited or shut down for not enforcing distancing and mask wearing, Ducey said he is confident people “will continue to practice the fundamentals and act responsibly as we gradually get back to normal.”
In fact, the state Department of Health Services clearly does not believe it is advisable for people and businesses to go back to life as it was before.
Hours after the governor issued his executive order, the agency put out its own recommendations.
For individuals, the health department still thinks that people should wear masks when they go out to restaurants, bars and nightclubs. There also is the usual advisory to wash hands often, especially after leaving, and, when possible, to use “touchless” payment methods.
The health department also wants businesses to provide physical separation between unrelated parties, whether by a barrier like plexiglass or six-foot distance and to limit large parties to no more than 10.
Salad bars and buffets also are again allowed, though the agency asks that these be limited.
And while dancing is no longer off limits, the agency wants to “encourage” those who get out on the floor to remain at least six feet from others.
Parents who think their kids need a bit of an academic boost can begin signing up this coming week to send them to summer camp.
But, for the most part, it won’t be the kind of place with boating and archery. Instead, it’s designed to help them catch up with what they may have missed due to Covid.
The focus, Gov. Doug Ducey said Wednesday, will be on reading, math and American civics.
“This couldn’t come at a more pressing time,” he said.
“Last year just 38% of our students passed the statewide English language arts test,” the governor said. “And only 31% passed the math test.”
Ducey said, though, this eight-week program will be more than kids parked at their desks.
“This is truly a camp, with activities, games, peer learning and so much more to look forward to,” he said.
Former state schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, whom Ducey tapped to run the program, said some of these will be operated at public schools, with teachers paid extra to staff the operations. But she also said that the state is looking to partner with other organizations, like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who can offer programs that include the necessary academics and something more to keep kids interested and engaged.
And there’s something else she said is important after all the remote learning.
“This is the time to re-engage,” Keegan said.
“Our children deserve experiences that reconnect them with the joys of learning,” she continued. “And they need to be able to be with their friends as themselves personally and not as avatars.”
All of this will be free.
Ducey said he has set aside $100 million of federal Covid relief funds, enough, he said, for about 250,000 students to enroll in these eight-week programs. And he promised to find additional dollars if the demand is higher.
Enrollment starts Monday at “ontrack.az.gov” website.
Keegan said parents will be presented with multiple options from which to choose, giving them an opportunity to select a program they believe is best suited for their children.
Or more than one.
Keegan said she anticipates some organizations wanting to provide shorter and more-intense training, such as a four-week course in math. That provides the opportunity to enroll in a second program for the balance of the session.
And they will be tailored to individual needs.
Enrollment is open to students as young as those just entering kindergarten this year. And Keegan said even high school seniors who don’t get all the credits they need to graduate will find programs.
She also said that the schools and other organizations that are selected to offer the programs will provide transportation.
But there is one restriction: The program is open only to students in traditional public and charter schools. Youngsters in private or parochial schools are ineligible.
The first step, she said, is doing outreach. Keegan promised a lot of promotion, including working with schools to ensure their students — and their parents — are aware of the option.
There is one other issue: finding qualified teachers to staff the programs in a state where schools have had a hard time filling vacancies.
“That is the biggest issue for all of our schools,” Keegan said.
Arizona schools have been facing a teacher shortage for years.
Keegan said she is looking to attract teachers at job fairs and going to teacher organizations. And she said that students in teacher preparatory programs also could be used.
She said, though, that there will be compensation for teachers willing to give up some of their summer vacations.
Ducey said there’s one other benefit of the program. He said it could give a break to parents who, in many cases, had to stay home while schools were closed.
“For those with the option of remote work, they balanced being a full-time parent with having a full-time job,” the governor said. In some cases, he said, they had to juggle two or three jobs.
“But not everyone was fortunate enough to have the option of remote work,” Ducey said. “Many of them had to step away from their job, prioritize their children and stay home to care for the kids.”
Gov. Doug Ducey is blocking government agencies and some businesses from requiring customers to prove they have been vaccinated against Covid.
But the owner of your favorite restaurant or grocery store remains free to turn you away if you aren’t fully inoculated.
In the latest use of his emergency powers Monday, the governor issued an executive order barring any state or local government from denying access to any building, business, facility, location, park or other space simply because that person has not provided proof of vaccination. The same executive order says vaccination proof also cannot be required by government agencies as a condition of receiving any permit, service, license or work authorization.
Ducey also said that any business that has a contract with the state to provide services to the public is similarly prohibited from demanding documentation of vaccine status of customers.
“The residents of our state should not be required by the government to share their private medical information,” the governor said in a prepared statement.
But Ducey’s claim that he is banning so-called “vaccine passports” doesn’t hold up under closer examination.
His restrictions on what businesses can and cannot do covers only firms with state contracts. Companies that aren’t getting money from the state are unaffected and can shun unvaccinated customers, just as they now are free to require their patrons to wear masks despite the lack of any statewide mandate.
Potentially more significant, the order as crafted also does not affect what employers can require of their workers. Firms can decide to hire only those who are fully immunized.
And Ducey’s order also contains other exceptions to his ban on people having to produce proof of vaccination.
For example, hospitals, nursing homes and other congregate care settings still can deny access to patients, residents, employees or visitors.
It also leaves undisturbed the current ability of schools, child care centers and universities to demand a student’s vaccination records.
But those laws address the normal childhood diseases, things like measles and mumps. There is no current requirement for children to be vaccinated against other viruses, including Covid.
Finally, Ducey’s order does allow state or local health officials to require people to provide documentation of their vaccination status during any Covid outbreak investigation.
The issue of vaccine passports has become a political issue since the Biden administration said it was developing standards for people to prove they have been vaccinated against the virus.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said there will be no national mandate. But just the idea of it has raised fears that people might be asked for their papers.
It also comes nearly two weeks after the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an even broader plan. It would prohibit any and all businesses from demanding proof of vaccination for customers, regardless of whether they get money from the state.
HB2190, as currently written, also would bar businesses owners from making vaccination a requirement for employees. But Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said that language is likely to be removed if and when his measure goes to the full Senate.
The order also comes as Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, is seeking a legal opinion from Attorney General Mark Brnovich on whether private companies can make vaccination proof a condition of being a patron or employee.
Dr. Cara Chrst, the state health director, said earlier this month she supports the idea of “vaccine passports” but does not want them to be something that people would have to show to enter certain businesses.
“It would be nice to have an electronic format of some of that,” the health director said. “But we’re not looking here at the department at making that a requirement.”
Still, Christ said, this isn’t a question for her agency.
“Business owners do have the ability to implement mitigation strategies,” she said, ways to protect against the spread of the virus. And that is not limited to masks and social distancing.
The order comes as the latest figures from the state Department of Health Services show that just 37% of Arizonans have received one dose of the vaccine and only about 25% are fully immunized.
“While we strongly recommend all Arizonans get the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s not mandated in our state — and it never will be,” Ducey said. “Vaccination is up to each individual, not the government.”
The scope of the governor’s order drew a sigh of relief from Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“We appreciate that this order has been narrowly crafted and does not impose new mandates on private sector businesses broadly,” he said.
The new order also spells out that it does not limit the ability of people to access their own vaccination records as well as to have them forwarded to anyone else.
Gov. Doug Ducey has forbade public universities and community colleges from requiring that students and staff wear masks and get tested regularly for Covid.
In an executive order Tuesday, the governor specifically lashed out at the policy announced by Arizona State University requiring that students be vaccinated before returning to class in the fall.
That policy is not absolute. But Ducey pointed out it says those who are not inoculated or choose not to share that information “will be subject to invasive restrictions such as daily health checks, twice weekly testing and mandated mask wearing.”
That, the governor said, is unacceptable.
“No person should be compelled to disclose to a governmental entity as a condition of attending classes, receiving services or participating in activities without a demonstrated compelling need,” he wrote in his executive order.
He acknowledged that Covid is “highly contagious.” But he said that it does not have the kind of transmission characteristics that would meet requirements for mandated vaccines.
And Ducey said while getting one of the vaccines that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration under its Emergency Use Authorization is “strongly encouraged, it is not and will not be mandated by the state of Arizona.”
Ducey’s new order affects more than ASU.
The University of Arizona has had a virtually identical policy, allowing non-vaccinated students on campus but only if they wear masks and get tested once a week.
And Northern Arizona University has required that everyone on campus wear a mask and maintain at least six feet of physical distancing.
But none of the schools is planning to contest Ducey’s edict.
“We will comply with the governor’s executive order and continue to monitor our public health conditions to help ensure the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff,” said Pam Scott, a UA vice president.
ASU also won’t fight the order despite comments earlier in the day by President Michael Crow defending the school’s policy as providing freedom of choice.
“So we expect vaccinations,” he said on KTAR radio before the governor’s edict. And for those who don’t, Crow said the school expects students to follow the guidelines laid out by the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, “which are quite clear.”
The governor’s order also extends to all community colleges, overriding any mask mandates and testing requirements they have in place for non-vaccinated students. And he is working with Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who first raised alarm about the ASU policy, to codify the executive order into statute.
“The vaccine works, and we encourage Arizonans to take it,” Ducey said in prepared remarks. “But it is a choice and we need to keep it that way.”
In a separate Twitter post, the governor called the policies “social engineering at its worst.”
Health policy should be based on science, not virtue signaling,” the governor wrote, the practice of publicly expressing opinions to communicate the good character of the speaker.
That’s the same verbiage being used nationally by some elements of the Republican Party to eliminate any kinds of mask mandates. And it isn’t Ducey’s first foray into the battle.
In March, he barred local governments from imposing mask mandates except in public buildings and on mass transit.
In April, he lifted the mask mandate that had existed for public schools. But in that case, he left the decision to local school officials — something that his new executive order says s is not an option for colleges and universities.
“Public education is a public right, and taxpayers are paying for it,” the governor said in a prepared statement with his new order.
“We need to make our public universities available for students to return to learning,” he continued. “They have already missed out on too much learning.”
While none of the colleges actually mandates that students, staff or visitors be vaccinated, just the restrictions on those who are not inoculated was too much for not just the governor but for several legislators.
It was Shope, an ASU graduate himself, who first raised the issue on Monday.
He cited a note to new students for the fall semester from Joanne Vogel, vice president of student services. That laid out the requirement for unvaccinated students or those who don’t share inoculation information to get tested twice a week, submit a daily health check and wear face covers in all indoor and outdoor spaces on ASU campuses.
Shope told Capitol Media Services he realizes that nothing in this policy — or the ones at the other two universities — actually mandates that people get vaccinated. But he said the additional requirements imposed on those not vaccinated are improper.
“The twice-weekly testing, I feel that’s a bit onerous for folks that are going to school,” Shope said. “We need to get to a point here where we recognize, especially the student population that’s there, is probably the least susceptible to succumbing to this.”
Shope brushed aside questions of whether young people, even though they’re less likely to get seriously ill, can still be carriers who can spread the disease to those who are more vulnerable.
“I think the science is still out,” he said.
But ASU spokeswoman Katie Paquet said the idea of halting the spread — and not just among other students and staff — was precisely one of the reasons the university adopted the policy. She said there is a belief that the school needs to protect the community at large.
“We are living in a state where, what, about half the population is vaccinated, maybe not quite there yet?” Paquet said.
In fact, the most recent number is 48.1%. And in Maricopa County, where the campuses are located, it’s just 32.8%.
“We know that our students are not confined to the borders of ASU,” she continued. “They live and they go out into the broader community so we wanted to make sure that we’re taking steps to protect the unvaccinated.”
Holly Jensen defended the similar policy at the University of Arizona, saying it, too, closely tracks with the CDC recommendations.
It requires not just testing but also says that non-vaccinated individuals must wear face coverings in all classrooms and other group instructional settings. Masks also are requiring outdoor “where continuous physical distancing of at least six feet is difficult or impossible to maintain.”
Former state Health Director Will Humble said the governor should not have overridden policies at the universities.
“What it does is provide an incentive for those students that haven’t been vaccinated yet to do it,” said Humble, now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. “Because if they do get vaccinated, the fall semester will be less of a pain because they have certain things that they won’t have to comply with.”
And Humble said he does not view the policy as improper government coercion.
“Your stick is my carrot,” he responded. Humble said it also helps schools by having one set of rules to manage the risk among those who are vaccinated and separate rules for those who are not.
“It’s pure political posturing for a future Republican primary,” Humble said, referring to speculation that Ducey has his eye on national office after he is no longer governor.
Shope said he doesn’t see why there is a need for special treatment of students who won’t get vaccinated against Covid.
“We don’t test for many things that are contagious, especially in a dorm setting,” he said.
“I’m not sure where we draw the line at on this,” Shope continued. “And I think that’s what the concern is for me, especially on a twice-weekly (basis).”
There are exceptions in Ducey’s order.
Students who are participating in clinical studies at hospitals, nursing homes and similar facilities can be required to provide proof of vaccination and be subject to regular screening.
It also allows universities to require testing if there is a “significant” outbreak of the virus in student housing that poses a risk to students or staff. But even then, the school must first get approval from the Department of Health Services.
Other GOP legislators also have weighed in.
Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said that telling students to get vaccinated or wear a mask and get tested twice a week “is not really a choice.”
“Who would do that?” he told Capitol Media Services, calling it a “Hobson’s choice” between two unacceptable alternatives.
Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, specifically called the ASU policy “blatantly discriminatory” and “troubling.”
“It’s important that this tyrannical policy must not prevent any Arizonan from accessing our state university system,” he said.
Arizonans are going to have to start looking for work again later this month if they want to keep their unemployment benefits.
Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday rescinded an order he signed in March 2020 suspending those job-search requirements during the pandemic. That was based on not wanting to force people who were infected with Covid or were caring for others with the virus to go out looking even as the pandemic was raging.
Now, effective the week of May 23, anyone wanting to keep those benefits will again have to make contact with potential employers at least four days a week.
Initially it requires just a “sincere” job search in the chosen field to maintain benefits. There also is a mandate to document the effort.
But anyone who collects benefits for at least four weeks will find themselves being forced to take pretty much anything that comes their way. That’s because a 2018 law signed by Ducey — and now again takes effect — says people forfeit their benefits if they do not accept any jobs that pays them at least 20% more than they were collecting.
With state benefits capped at $240 a week, that’s pretty low.
That translates out to $6 an hour for a full-time job. That means any job at all that pays the minimum wage of $12.15 an hour would qualify.
So, too, would jobs for tipped workers who are entitled to be paid just $9.15 an hour as long as their tips bring them up to the minimum.
Ducey’s move comes despite the fact that the state’s employment situation has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.
The state Office of Economic Opportunity lists the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate at 6.7% for March, the most recent figures available.
That is far below the 14.2% peak it reached in April 2020. But it had dropped as low as 4.7% in November 2019.
At the same time, the number of people actually working also still lags.
According to OEO, the state has recovered just 68% of the 331,500 jobs it lost since the pandemic-induced recession began in February 2019.
And that same agency reports that unemployment is still 36% higher than it was when the pandemic began.
More telling is that the recovery is quite uneven.
For example, the state’s financial activities sector has recovered just 37% of what was shed, versus 62% for leisure and hospitality — the sector that includes bars, restaurants and lodging facilities — and 78% for manufacturing.
In fact, the only part of the economy that’s doing better than before the Covid outbreak is trade and transportation.
That’s driven largely by e-commerce and the fact that people have been buying more online. That, in turn, has meant the need for more workers at warehouse and fulfillment centers, like those operated by Amazon, and delivery drivers.
How much better?
Doug Walls, the OEO’s marketing information director, said the 45,800 job loss has been more than compensated by 64,300 more people now working in this sector than at the beginning of the recession.
The most recent report from the state Department of Economic Security says there are about 55,000 Arizonans currently collecting state benefits.
That is down from a peak of more than 230,000 last summer. But it still is higher than the 17,000 a week before the pandemic.
Ducey in a prepared statement, said he believes it’s time to reinstate the job-search requirements.
“Arizonans are ready to get back to work,” he said. “Our economy is booming, jobs need filling more than two million Arizonans are fully vaccinated, and vaccination appointments are available to anyone who wants one.”
And the governor quoted from Ronald Reagan who said “the best social program is a job.”
“Unemployment benefits are still available to Arizonans who need them,” Ducey said. “But now that plenty of jobs are available, those receiving the benefits should be actively looking for work.”
Particularly hard hit has been the hospitality industry with many hotels and resorts, now starting to recover as more people are vaccinated and willing to travel, reporting they are finding no takers, including among former employees.
With the new executive order — and the mandate to take pretty much any job after four weeks of benefits — those hotel and restaurant jobs could be filled by former professionals from a variety of fields.
None of this affects current negotiations to boost the maximum benefits.
A Senate-approved measure by Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, would increase the cap by $80 a week, to $320, and potentially to $400 at some point. But the trade-off is that once the statewide unemployment rate drops to 6% or less those benefits would be cut from the current 26-week cap to 22 weeks.
But Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, is pushing a plan to boost benefits to $300 a week, but without the cut in the length of benefits.
The governor has not yet weighed in on either of the measures.
Despite the governor’s new executive order, there are some exceptions.
Under federal law, those who are getting the extra $300 a week in “pandemic unemployment assistance” do not have to be out looking for a job to keep those federal benefits if they have been diagnosed with Covid or if they are caring for a family member who has the virus.
Also exempt are those who provide care to a child who cannot go to school because it is closed, and those who have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to Covid.
Tasya Peterson, DES press secretary, said those exceptions do not apply to the $240-a-week in state benefits. But DES is empowered to allow someone to not return to work if they have “good cause,” which can include pandemic-related situations. She said these are determined on a case-by-case basis.
Gov. Doug Ducey is offering up to $60 million in federal cash to hospitals to help with staffing — but only if they start promoting and treating some patients with early indications of Covid with monoclonal antibodies.
Christina Corieri, senior adviser to the governor, said the money will buy the services of 750 nurses for eight weeks at hospitals. She said the nurses will be hired by the Department of Health Services and distributed to facilities based on need.
The move comes as several hospitals have said they are stretched to close to capacity, at least in part because of Covid patients who are occupying 30% of their intensive-care beds. And when patients with other conditions are added in, that leaves just 148 vacant ICU beds statewide, or 8%, similar to what was the situation when the virus peaked in January before vaccines were available.
But the significant string attached is that any hospital chain that wants the help will need to have a system-wide practice of promoting and administering monoclonal antibodies, a type of therapy available to those with mild to moderate Covid symptoms that can decrease the level of virus in the blood and, potentially, keep someone out of a hospital.
And the hospitals will be required to offer Covid vaccines to everyone being discharged from the hospital for any reason.
This isn’t the first time Ducey has linked conditions to getting state funds.
He already has told public schools the only way they will get a share of $160 million of other federal dollars is if they do not have policies requiring students and staff to wear masks and if they remain open for the entire year for in-person instruction.
“There’s always been conditions on the staffing support,” said Corieri, noting the state has ponied up cash twice before to help hospitals with staffing.
In prior cases, she said, it was a requirement to participate in the “surge line,” a program to ensure that no one hospital was overwhelmed with patients.
“It is regular practice when funds are being given out that there’s conditions to that funding,” Corieri said.
The strings apparently do not bother the hospitals.
“We applaud the governor for recognizing the tremendous strain on hospital staff during this latest hospital patient surge,” said Ann-Marie Alameddin, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association. As to the conditions, she said Arizona hospitals “are committed to using all of the tools in their toolbox to prevent and treat Covid.
Monoclonal antibodies were given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. Results show that it can reduce hospitalization or emergency room visits in patients in the early stages of infection who are at high risk for disease progression — things like diabetes, obesity and hypertension — or those who are 65 and older. It is not recommended for patients already hospitalized for Covid.
Corieri said that clinical tests show positive results.
That is backed up by a study by the Mayo Clinic of nearly 1,400 patients, half of who received the treatment between December 2020 and early April and half who did not.
They were evaluated at 14, 21 and 28 days after treatment. And in each case, the numbers for hospitalization were significantly lower than the untreated group.
Corieri said that while some hospitals in Arizona are making the treatment available, many have not deployed it system wide. But she said that recent development remove some of the reasons that hospitals may have been reticent to participate.
She noted that, at one time, the therapy had to be administered through infusion, a process that could take hours. Now, she said, a simple injection may be all that’s required.
And that, she said, goes to the issue of why the governor wants a system-wide plan for hospitals to administer the therapy — and how it can help deal with the current hospital crowding situation.
“A hospital may decide that their system-wide plan is to send out home-health care to deliver it,” Corieri said.
“They may decide to deliver it at their urgent care” centers, she continued. “They will have flexibility in deciding their deployment plan.”
And if it works as promoted, it can keep a Covid patient out of the hospital.
Corieri said she does not know which hospitals are now providing the therapy. But the governor’s office noted that Tucson Medical Center set up a special clinic within the hospital in January solely focused on this treatment, becoming only the second one in the nation to do so.
The treatment is not for everyone.
Aside from it being available only for those with mild or moderate symptoms, individuals also must be at least 12 years old. That makes it useless to deal with the increasing number school children of that age who cannot be vaccinated and are contracting Covid.
And the therapy is not available to everyone else. The treatment is supposed to be reserved to those at high risk for progressing to severe Covid infection or hospitalization.
That list includes those who are 65 or older, have diabetes, are obese, have chronic kidney disease or are receiving immunosuppressive medications.
Those 55 and older are eligible if they have cardiovascular disease, hypertension or chronic respiratory disease.
And for those in the 12 to 17-year-old age group, the therapy is available to those who are obese, have sickle cell disease, heart disease, neurodevelopmental disorders like cerebral palsy, or asthma or other chronic respiratory disease that requires daily medication for control.
Corieri stressed that the nurses that will be hired are not for the monoclonal antibody therapy programs but instead to help hospitals with their general staffing issues.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill Friday to limit the governor’s power to implement a state of emergency for “public health” reasons.
Resulting from frustration over Covid regulations, the bill would require the governor to get permission from the state legislature to extend a state of emergency past 120 days if it pertains to a public health emergency.
“This bill restores the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches by limiting the length of time a state of emergency can be declared. All across the country, governors invoked their emergency powers, many times in perpetuity, to unilaterally make decisions that would have otherwise had to go through the legislative process. Sadly, this abuse of power was arbitrarily used to take peoples’ liberties from them. I sponsored this bill to make sure it never happens again,” said bill sponsor Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, in an emailed statement.
Ducey called a state of emergency to address Covid on March 11, 2020, which lasted two years and finally ended on March 30 of this year. The state received billions of dollars in federal relief funding which were poured into virus mitigation and various large projects.
Ugenti-Rita introduced a similar bill last year that did not pass through the House but was signed into law as a part of the state budget. It was later thrown out with the budget bills because of a Supreme Courtt decision that voided the bills for “logrolling” too many unrelated pieces of legislation together.
This year, the standalone bill, SB1009, made it all the way in the Legislature on party lines and arrived at the Governor’s desk on its own.
Under the new law, the Governor can extend the state of emergency every 30 days until 120 days, at which time the Legislature can continue the state of emergency through concurrent resolution as many times as they like, but only by 30 days each time.
A joint committee of the Health and Human Services committees in the House and Senate must provide the Governor and the full Legislature with a review on the health emergency after the first sixty days it continues.
Since 2020, conservatives have argued that the Governor and federal government were overreaching with mask mandates, vaccine requirements, social distancing rules and other pandemic measures. The closures of private businesses and school shutdowns were met with resistence from communities across the state.
Liberals criticized the regulations as insufficient given the severity of the pandemic.
“I am a little bit confused about this bill because we are in a pandemic,” Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, said in the bill’s Senate government committee hearing, getting a laugh from the Republicans in the room.
Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, D-Coalmine Mesa, noted that the state of emergency allows Arizona to receive federal funding.
Republicans were not swayed. “In my opinion it doesn’t go far enough. I don’t know how many people can stay in business after 120 days,” said Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert. “The great thing that we have learned about COVID-19 is that if people want to protect themselves they can. If people want to self-quarantine, go ahead and do that.”
In a state of emergency, the Governor has total power over state agencies including the right to use police in any manner of ways.
As Republicans across the state and country face a party identity crisis about moving on from former President Donald Trump or to keep embracing him and his ideals, Gov. Doug Ducey has seemingly separated himself from the drama.
The 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, took place the final weekend of February in Orlando, Florida., but Ducey did not attend. Trump was the main attraction as his base embraced him, hoping he can remain the Republican Party’s best chance of becoming president again in 2024.
Ducey has not attended a CPAC event since 2017, but this year he is the chair of the Republican Governors Association, putting him as one of the top elected Republicans in the country.
Doug Cole, a Republican strategist at Highground Public Affairs who served under former Gov. Fife Symington, said Ducey made the right call in not attending CPAC.
This particular CPAC, Cole said, had taken on an aura of “what’s next for Donald Trump.”
Not attending a weekend event with the most conservative members of the party appears to send a message, but Ducey’s communications director, CJ Karamargin, gave a simple answer for why he did not travel to the Sunshine State.
“There is a lot going on in the Legislature right now. A lot of very important things and there’s a lot of work to be done here in Arizona,” Karamargin said.
Mum on specifics, Karamargin said three areas Ducey was focusing on prevented him from attending an event that several Republican legislators attended themselves. Those areas are “education issues, amendments of the gaming compact, and at the top of the list – Covid,” he said.
Education leaders, like state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, are trying to game-plan how schools can completely reopen, something Ducey is in favor of doing.
Ducey’s years-long legislative priority of amending the state’s gaming compact with Arizona tribes stalled in Senate Appropriations on February 23, as the chairman, Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, held a gaming bill from Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, in favor of his own effort to add historic horse race betting, which Ducey and the tribes won’t support. There’s a mirror bill to Shope’s in the House from Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, which is still alive. Karamargin wouldn’t provide details on what Ducey’s office was planning to do on this topic.
“I’m not in position to go into any details right now, but suffice it to say, stay tuned,” he told Arizona Capitol Times, adding that he does, in fact, have details, he just cannot share them.
And for Covid, Arizona continues to vaccinate its way through the pandemic – to paraphrase the governor. Nearly 2 million people have received at least one dose, including Ducey himself who got his first shot on March 2.
Karamargin did say that there was a standing invitation for all GOP governors to attend CPAC, Ducey just chose not to go.
Ducey has spent the better part of 2021 telling several media outlets what the Republican Party looks like to him and slowly beginning to distance himself from Trump, without explicitly saying that’s what he is doing.
Cole said while CPAC focuses on Trump and his part to play for Republicans in the future, Ducey can focus on being the Republican Governors Association chair and actually work to help more Republicans get elected throughout the country.
“[Ducey’s] key task is not to support whatever Donald Trump may or may not do next. His focus, rightly so, is raising money, recruiting candidates, and keeping current governors in their seats if they face re-election,” Cole said.
The events that transpired in Washington, D.C. on January 6 caused a domino effect of major corporations changing or contemplating a change in political spending, which is a “sobering situation for the head of the Republican Governors Association,” Cole said, adding that Ducey is in a position to lead the party with fundraising — something that has been a great strength for him in his own races to date.
Ducey repeatedly condemned the rioting and said Trump deserves some blame for what happened.
Cole said of Ducey, “His job is to put the infrastructure, the candidates and the financial resources in the coffers of the Republican Governors Association and be successful. He made the right decision by all counts.”
Of course, Ducey is still tasked with leading Arizona for the next two years and managing what remains of the year-long Covid pandemic, where he is the sole person who can put an end to the emergency declaration he put into place on March 11, 2020.
Karamargin deferred questions to the state Department of Health Services about where Arizona has to be for Ducey to feel comfortable ending the emergency declaration.
Steve Elliott, the DHS spokesman, said there isn’t a magic number of vaccinations that need to be administered for the emergency declaration to end.
“But it likely would include a combination of decreased case counts, decreased patient counts, and slowing vaccine demand, which would suggest that Arizonans who want to be vaccinated have been vaccinated,” Elliott said. “When conditions are such that there’s no realistic potential of cases exceeding hospital capacity, it will be time to discuss lifting the emergency order.”
The divide between Gov. Doug Ducey and the state schools chief and teachers grew after his Jan. 11 State of the State speech.
Ducey threw the education community into chaos when he said “we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and many public education interests and journalists interpreted the line of the address to mean he wants to end funding for virtual learning.
“Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic,” Ducey said.
Hoffman said immediately after the speech that Ducey is ignoring the worsening spread of Covid and its severe effect on students and teachers and that he was contributing to the “toxic environment where teachers, board members, and superintendents are harassed for making data-driven decisions.
Richie Taylor, the communications director for Hoffman, said the Department of Education was as confused as everyone else after the speech – mainly because the governor hadn’t communicated with Hoffman’s office beforehand.
“Our initial understanding was that they were going to defund distance learning,” he said.
Ducey’s office quickly clarified that Ducey is not advocating to rip away funding for schools in distance learning, instead saying he was promoting Arizona’s longstanding policy of allowing parents to choose school districts and directing funding to follow the students to whatever school their parents choose.
“This misunderstanding and this confusion could have been avoided if they had reached out and told us what they were going to say,” Taylor said.
In an interview with Arizona Capitol Times on January 13, Hoffman said she has found it difficult to work with Ducey lately because he won’t include her or any other school leader before he makes announcements that affect the education community. She said she has not spoken to Ducey directly for quite some time.
Ducey and his team have made a habit of not communicating with stakeholders or warning education officials about pending announcements, including in October, when Ducey claimed he was working with school leaders to modify the health benchmarks for reopening. Hoffman immediately stated she did not ask for the modification, nor did any other school leaders – Ducey’s office had to walk back that claim.
“We always want to have ongoing communication with the Governor’s Office,” Taylor said. “Things work better when we are working together for the education community and for students and teachers.”
The alliance Hoffman and Ducey built early in the pandemic has now soured, Hoffman said, and it has put her in the position of taking the state’s top elected official to task over decisions she does not agree with in the area in which more than 1 million people elected her to lead.
Hoffman said the overall tone of his speech was “disrespectful to teachers” and that she wasn’t satisfied with his office’s response to the “empty seats” flub. She noted that the state is only funding students taking advantage of virtual learning at 95% of the level as in-person students, even though virtual learning is more expensive because many students need laptops and wifi, and teachers need training on how to conduct a class virtually.
“We currently have a budget surplus for the state as well as the $1 billion rainy day fund. So there is no excuse to not fully fund our schools,” Hoffman said, adding that she wished Ducey had focused on policy solutions in the speech.
She mentioned tensions are still high over the governor shorting some schools that were set to earn enrollment stabilization grants, and didn’t think it was a major request because of where the state is financially.
“The majority of our schools are either in some sort of hybrid or distance learning mode right now. So I think our schools need to hear that commitment. I would have also liked to hear a commitment to make up for that to make up for those dollars,” Hoffman said. “Why not use the funding that was already budgeted for schools to make their budget whole.”
Hoffman has repeated that she didn’t think Ducey was doing enough for teachers with everything they’ve had to go through during the pandemic adding onto an already stressful job, especially in Arizona.
She said it was just another part of his speech that “disappointed” her.
Hoffman said she wouldn’t go as far as saying Ducey doesn’t care about the teachers, something teacher groups have claimed on social media, but she said he’s just not accessible likely because of how divisive everything has been.
Hoffman and Ducey led together to manage schools when the state of emergency began, but cutting communication with her soured the relationship, she said, citing his ignoring of health benchmarks and cutting the funding of the stabilization grants as two examples that caused her and education officials to lose trust in his ability to lead.
The greatest disappointment, she said, is how Arizona is having the worst outbreak right now and nothing is being done to help.
“I’m just having a hard time understanding how the governor is not seeing the connection or the impact that [Covid] is having on our schools and their ability to be in-person,” she told Capitol Times. “It’s that disconnect that makes it really hard for me to work with him.”
About half of Ducey’s speech addressed Covid and his administration’s efforts to manage public health and the economy during the pandemic.
Declaring it’s now safe, Gov. Doug Ducey is ordering all schools to return to in-person and teacher-led instruction right after spring break or by March 15.
In an executive order March 4, the governor said that standards developed by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control show that 12 of the state’s 15 counties have sufficiently curbed Covid to the point where it is safe. That includes the state’s two largest counties.
“Arizona’s students need to be back in the classroom,” Ducey said in a prepared statement. And he said that more than half the state’s schools are agreeable to offering at least an in-person option.
“More schools need to follow their lead and pave the way for equitable education options for every Arizona student,” he said.
There is an opt out of sorts.
Ducey’s order spells out that schools must notify parents “within a reasonable time period” that in-person instruction will resume. But it does require them to continue to offer virtual instruction for students “upon request from a parent or guardian.”
Ducey said the threat of spread has been reduced because teachers have been given priority for getting vaccinated.
“Many have already received their second dose,” he said. “The science is clear: It’s time all kids have the option to return to school so they can get back on track and we can close the achievement gap.”
The order does have other exceptions.
In counties where the transmission rate is still listed as “high” – meaning Pinal, Yavapai and Coconino – there is no mandate for in-person instruction for middle and high schools.
But the governor said that should not be taken as a license to simply continue with online instruction. And his order says that schools in those counties that already are open “shall remain open and strictly implement mitigation strategies.”
“CDC is clear that there is a safe pathway if they implement proper mitigation strategies,” he said.
But questions remain.
“How is he going to enforce this?” asked Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. “How does that change the autonomy and the authority of the governing board?”
State law gives a governor who declares a health emergency broad powers to take action to curb disease.
But this order does nothing of that sort. And there appears to be nothing in the statutes granting Ducey special powers during an emergency he has declared – and which remains in effect – to let him tell the more than 200 locally elected school boards to alter their plans for reopening.
The order drew a surprised reaction from Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association.
“It’s hard to be told you’re going to do this with 12 days’ notice and no advance warning,” he said.
“He did not engage in a broader stakeholder process to let us know what his thinking was because, after all, we’re the ones that have to implement this,” Kotterman said. “And now our members are going to be faced with questions from the public they don’t have the answers to because they all found out at the same time.”
He said Ducey should have reached out broadly to those in the education community before issuing an order. And Kotterman said the unilateral order ignores local wishes.
“There are communities that are in general agreement that they don’t necessarily want their schools to be open,” he said.
Thomas said there’s another flaw in this top-down approach – and, in particular, the mandate to reopen immediately following spring break.
He said some schools that actually have been open are looking at stepping back from total in-person instruction to hybrid in the week following spring break.
“They were assuming there were a lot of families that were going to travel,” Thomas said, increasing the risk of students getting exposed while on break and then coming back to school, unaware they may be carrying the virus.
Thomas also said that when schools were first closed last spring they essentially were told to come up with their own plans for how best to manage during the virus.
“All of the decision-making had been going on at the local level,” he said.
“And to now, today, have the governor step back into that space and say ‘regardless of all the good work and the conversations that have gone on and everything that you’ve accomplished, we’re all going to be on the same page in like three weeks,’ we are scratching our heads,” Thomas said “We don’t understand what has fundamentally changed.”
It wasn’t just school board members and teachers who were left out of the process.
Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, also learned about the order just as it was being issued. And she, too, has questions.
“The timing of this announcement will make it challenging for some schools that had already made plans to return to in-person instruction on a different schedule due to their local community circumstances,” Hoffman said in a prepared statement. “To achieve stability for our school communities, it’s necessary to provide them with adequate time to inform and ready their staff, students and families.
Ducey, for his part, is relying heavily on updated guidance by the CDC which says “there is evidence to suggest that K-12 in-person school attendance is not a primary driver of community transmission.”
Beyond that, the governor noted the CDC says that schools can safely provide in-person instruction “through strict adherence to mitigation strategies.” That includes masks, physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory etiquette.
While Ducey did not first reach out to educators, he already had lined up the backing of the Republican legislators who chair the education committees at the Legislature, including their prepared comments in his press release.
“The data is clear – kids can go back to school,” said Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who chairs the House panel. And Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said the guidance “will help ensure families that are ready to send their kids back can do so.”
The order does have an escape valve. It says that individual district or charter schools may close – but only if the local health department advises closing the entire school to a significant outbreak of the virus “that poses a risk to students or staff.”
Even in those cases, though, that closure also has to be approved by the Arizona Department of Health Services. And the schools must continue to offer on-site support services for students who need it during the closure.
The order actually creates three categories of schools and what they are required to do.
In any county with low or moderate transmission, it says schools will be open with both in-person and virtual instruction options. At the moment, though, only Yuma County qualified.
Eleven counties are in the category of having “substantial” risk of transmission. They have the same requirement, but with a note saying that middle and high schools “may reduce attendance to reduce transmission and increase physical distancing.”
That leaves the three counties with high risk of transmission. There, middle and high schools that have not already reopened can continue with virtual instruction, though that is not required.
Editor’s note: This story has been revised from its original version to include more information.
Facing a slowing rate of Arizonans getting vaccinated, Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday tapped former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona to be his new senior health advisor on Covid matters.
But don’t look for the Tucson physician and 2012 Democratic candidate for U.S. senator to challenge the Republican governor’s beliefs that schools and universities should be prohibited from requiring students and staff to wear masks. Carmona said he accepts the facts as they now stand, what with the legislature banning such mandates and the governor signing them into law and now seeking to enforce those prohibitions.
“That’s probably is not something that I would have supported,” he told Capitol Media Services of the legislation.
“But that’s the way it is,” continued Carmona who currently is a professor of public health at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. “My sense is the futile debate about mask mandates, anything mandates, is not helping us advance the public health of the state.”
Ditto any talk about state-mandated vaccines.
“The perils of a democracy are often trying to balance the rights of the individual versus the collective right of society,” he said. Carmona said he dealt with that as surgeon general when he was dealing with people who want to smoke “but we know it’s deadly.”
He said the answer is doing “everything we can” to get people vaccinated. Carmona said it makes no sense to continue to debate about mandates and politics.
The move comes as the governor tapped Don Harrington, a 20-plus year employee of the Department of Health Services, to serve as its acting director. For the moment, he replaces Dr. Cara Christ, who resigned to take a job at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arizona.
Her last day is Friday.
It also comes amid increased criticism of both Ducey and Christ by doctors who say the state should allow school boards to mandate masks in public schools, particularly as those younger than 12 are unable to be vaccinated.
Both the governor and his now soon-to-be-former health director have supported taking that power from school boards. Instead, they contend this instead should be an individual decision by parents.
And Ducey signed legislation which, beginning Sept. 29, makes such orders by school boards illegal, though there are legal challenges to the validity of that law.
Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said the creation of this new slot has nothing to do with the debate over masks.
He said the key purpose behind Carmona’s appointment is to try to boost the state’s vaccination rate. About 55% of Arizonans have received at least one dose, a figure that according to the Mayo Clinic is about five points below the national average. And fewer than half of all Arizonans are fully inoculated.
“That number needs to go up,” Karamargin said. “Dr. Carmona and Don Harrington are going to help us bring those numbers up.”
The problems are immediate.
On Thursday the state health department reported another 3,621 new cases of Covid. There also were 13 new deaths, bringing the statewide tally to 18,661.
At the same time, hospitals statewide reported they have just 730 beds available. That’s 8% of total capacity, a figure not seen since January, before the vaccine was available.
And there is now the more transmissible Delta variant.
“Given this situation, there is a new sense of urgency on everyone’s part to get everyone vaccinated,” including people who have been hesitant,” Karamargin said.
He said that the doctor’s role won’t be limited to that.
“The purpose of having someone with Dr. Carmona’s experience at the table is to provide honest, informed advice,” he said. “And Richard Carmona is the best possible person for that at this time.”
But that, Karamargin said, does not extend to debating the governor’s belief that schools and local governments should not be allowed to require people to wear masks.
“You’re making this a political discussion,” he said.
“This is not a political discussion,” Karamargin continued. “This is a health issue.”
Carmona, for his part, said he’s content to focus on the governor’s goal of getting more Arizonans vaccinated.
“Why? Because we don’t want to shut down,” he said.
“If we shut down like we did last year it will be even more catastrophic,” Carmona continued. “The unemployment rate goes up, we’ll have lots of businesses close and not be able to reopen, we won’t be able to enjoy our sports activities where large groups get together.”
That, however, leaves the question of what more he can do to get people vaccinated given the number of Arizonans who have so far refused.
Vaccination rates, which topped 78,000 a day in April, has now slowed to the neighborhood of about 15,000. And the state’s lower-than-average vaccination rate comes despite efforts of Christ and her agency to both convince people that the vaccine is safe and effective as well as to set up mass vaccination sites to make the process easier.
Carmona promised a new approach.
“I don’t think it’s fair to sit back and just say, ‘We did the best we can, we’ll just live with this,’ ” he said.
“We’re going to die with this,” Carmona said. “The fact is, morbidity and mortality is going to go up and we have to do something different.”
Still, the newly appointed advisor had nothing specific to offer at this point.
“I’m going to work very hard and look at every possible strategy to be able to move forward and to make sure that everybody gets vaccinated,” he said. “And, hopefully, we will prevail.”
Gov. Doug Ducey is moving to quash requirements by state universities that unvaccinated students must wear masks and get tested regularly for Covid.
In a series of Twitter posts, the governor specifically blasted the policy of Arizona State University which says that unvaccinated students must submit a daily health check, participate in weekly testing and wear face coverings indoor or outdoors unless otherwise directed.
“The vaccine works,” the governor said.
“But the vaccine is a choice,” calling the policy “social engineering at its worst,” he continued. “Health policy should be based on science, not virtue signaling.”
More to the point, Ducey said he will issue an executive order “that will ensure this excessive policy is never enforced.”
It isn’t just at ASU.
Holly Jensen at the University of Arizona said her school has a virtually identical policy, allowing non-vaccinated students on campus but only if they wear masks and get regularly tested.
And Northern Arizona University, while having no specific policy on vaccinations, requires that everyone on campus wear a mask and maintain at least six feet of physical distancing.
While none of the colleges actually mandates that students, staff or visitors be vaccinated, just the restrictions on those who are not was too much for not just the governor but for several legislators.
It was Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, an ASU graduate himself, who first raised the issue on Monday, citing a note to new students for the fall semester from Joanne Vogel, vice president of student services. That laid out the requirement for unvaccinated students or those who don’t share inoculation information to get tested twice a week, submit a daily health check and wear face covers in all indoor and outdoor spaces on ASU campuses.
Shope told Capitol Media Services he realizes that nothing in this policy — or the ones at the other two universities — mandates that people get vaccinated. But he said the additional requirements imposed on those not vaccinated is improper.
“The twice-weekly testing, I feel that’s a bit onerous for folks that are going to school,” Shope said. “We need to get to a point here where we recognize, especially the student population that’s there, is probably the least susceptible to succumbing to this.”
Shope brushed aside questions of whether young people, even though they’re less likely to get seriously ill, can still be carriers who can spread the disease to those who are more vulnerable.
“I think the science is still out,” he said.
But ASU spokeswoman Katie Paquet said the idea of halting the spread — and not just among other students and staff — was precisely one of the reasons the university adopted the policy. She said there is a belief that the school needs to protect the community at large.
“We are living in a state where, what, about half the population is vaccinated, maybe not quite there yet?” Paquet said.
“We know that our students are not confined to the borders of ASU,” she continued. “They live and they go out into the broader community so we wanted to make sure that we’re taking steps to protect the unvaccinated.”
Jensen defended the similar policy at the University of Arizona, saying it closely tracks with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
It requires not just testing but also says that non-vaccinated individuals must wear face coverings in all classrooms and other group instructional settings. Masks also are required outdoor “where continuous physical distancing of at least six feet is difficult or impossible to maintain.”
All this proved too much for Ducey.
“Public education is a public right, and taxpayers are paying for it,” he said in his series of Twitter posts.
“We need to make our public universities available for students to return to learning,” the governor continued. “In Arizona, we are going to have students in classrooms learning.”
Gov. Doug Ducey is not taking any action to curb the decisions of some cities and counties to ignore his directive that they scrap their mask mandates.
And there’s no current indication he will.
Gubernatorial spokesman C.J. Karamargin on Tuesday dismissed as “inconsequential” that several communities have decided to maintain their ordinances requiring people to mask up in certain situations. That includes not just in public buildings and transit, which Ducey has said is OK, but also in businesses and restaurants which the governor says are free to tell employees and customers they need no longer wear masks.
Karamargin declined to say whether this effectively means that the governor has acquiesced to the arguments that cities and counties are free to ignore his edicts.
“They’ve never enforced the mask mandates,” he said.
But, absent a legal challenge from the governor — or anyone else — those ordinances remain on the books.
The governor last week abolished any remaining state-imposed mask requirements at businesses. State Health Director Cara Christ said she and the governor concluded they were no longer necessary.
Ducey, however, issued a new executive order barring any local ordinance that is in conflict.
“This includes but is not limited to mandated use of face coverings,” the governor said.
On Tuesday, however, the Pima County Health Department announced that as far as it was concerned its mask ordinance, enacted in December, remains in effect.
It requires everyone to wear a mask when in public if they cannot easily maintain a continuous distance of at least six feet from others. It also mandates that businesses require customers to wear masks.
Violators are subject to a civil fine of up to $500.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry acknowledged that neither the city nor the county has issued citations. But he said that doesn’t make them ineffective or irrelevant.
“What it is, basically, is a high degree of voluntary compliance,” Huckelberry said.
“If you rescind it, you send the message that it’s no longer necessary,” he continued. “Well, it is necessary based on public health standards and infection rates per 100,000 people.”
Pima County is not alone. Officials in Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff also have refused to rescind their own mask directives.
What the ordinance also is, Huckelberry said, is legal — and beyond the reach of the governor. He said counties in particular are specifically authorized to enact public health measures.
“Our mask resolution was based on the county’s countywide public health authority as expressly given in the statutes,” Huckelberry said. “We don’t believe, at least our attorneys don’t believe, that an executive order can preempt a statute.”
While there’s been no action by Ducey, three Republican legislators are moving to challenge the local governments who have not agreed to accede to the governor’s authority. Sens. Vince Leach of Tucson and Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale have asked Attorney General Mark Brnovich to determine the legality of the local decisions as has Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa.
This isn’t the first time the county has used its health powers to enact local regulations.
In January the county imposed a 10 p.m. curfew to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. But that lasted less than a month after Pima County Superior Court Judge Kellie Johnson concluded that the resolution “was adopted without statutory authority, and is in violation of the governor’s executive order.”
Huckelberry said this is different.
“Masks are proven statistically to actually reduce infection rates,” he said. Huckelberry brushed aside claims by some who dispute that conclusion.
“There’s a reason why everyone in an operating room wears a mask,” he said. “Masks are proven to be very low-cost effective measures at preventing infections
And the curfew?
“It was just another layer” to help protect public health, Huckelberry conceded. “It did not have the scientific evidence behind it.”
President Joe Biden is overreaching with his new requirement for employees of large businesses to be vaccinated or regularly tested for Covid, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday.
The Republican governor said Arizona will fight back but repeatedly declined to say on how the state would respond.
“This requires pushback and response, and that’s what the state of Arizona is going to do,” Ducey told reporters after speaking at the opening of a sportsbook in downtown Phoenix. “There’s more to follow on what that’s going to be.”
Ducey has encouraged people to get vaccinated. But he has worked aggressively to block mandates of all kinds, including for vaccines and face coverings, drawing intense criticism from some public health and school officials.
He signed a law prohibiting schools from requiring masks, which doesn’t take effect until later this month, and he said schools that require masks are not eligible for one pot of federal coronavirus relief funds that he controls.
Biden on Thursday ordered sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase Covid vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant. The rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly. Workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding also will have to be fully vaccinated, as will federal employees and contractors.
Ducey said the rule will lead people to quit their jobs, leaving businesses and schools in a lurch.
“We need more people to get vaccinated,” Ducey said. “This is not the way to get it done.”
Arizona on Thursday reported nearly 2,500 additional confirmed Covid cases as virus-related hospitalizations remained over 2,000 for the 10th straight day.
The additional 2,480 confirmed cases and 62 deaths reported Thursday increased the pandemic totals to 1,039,492 cases and 19,141 deaths, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.
The dashboard also reported that 2,071 virus patients occupied hospital beds as of Wednesday. The state’s virus-related hospitalizations peaked at 5,082 on Jan. 11 during the winter surge.
Citing staff shortages, hospitals have said they are stressed by the recent influx of virus cases and that it’s difficult to treat all patients needing treatment for other medical reasons.
According to Johns Hopkins University data, the state’s seven-day rolling averages of daily new cases rose over the past two weeks from 2,626 on Aug. 24 to 2,907 on Tuesday.
The average of daily deaths rose from 19.1 to 32.3 during the same period.
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.
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.”
And there’s more.
“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 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 rejected 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.
And 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 currently 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 percent 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.”
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]They may share the first name, but around the halls of the Executive Tower’s Ninth Floor, they are known respectively as “Scarp” and “Ruiz.”
For the past six or so years the two Daniels – Scarpinato and Ruiz – have worked closely together turning a relationship of colleagues into one of good friends as they weathered the flak that comes from tough decision-making.
Daniel Scarpinato just passed over the reins of Gov. Doug Ducey’s chief of staff to Daniel Ruiz in August and departed his state government job for the final time on August 27.
Scarpinato began in Ducey’s office as his top spokesman. The former Arizona Daily Star and Yellow Sheet Report journalist became Ducey’s point of contact for his former reporter colleagues. Any questions directed to Ducey would almost always go through Scarpinato, beginning in early 2015 when Ducey took his oath of office.
Ruiz joined staff later that year assisting the communications team, with a focus on state agencies’ communications strategies and as a de facto boss for agency spokespeople.
Scarpinato briefly left the Governor’s Office in 2018 to help Ducey’s re-election and Ruiz took over. Ducey won in a landslide over Democrat David Garcia and both Daniels were due for promotions as some top staffers did not stay for a second gubernatorial term.
Ruiz became a top adviser for a year before Ducey made him the state’s chief operations officer and Scarpinato as Ducey’s right hand man, replacing former House Speaker Kirk Adams.
On August 5, Ruiz became Ducey’s third and likely final chief of staff.
Scarpinato has joined an advertising and political consulting firm called Ascent Media as a partner.
During an exclusive interview in the Governor’s Office, Scarpinato and Ruiz reflected on their time working for Ducey as the reality began to sink in that the Ducey days are almost over. His term runs through the end of next year.
“I’m jealous that I don’t get to work for him,” Scarpinato quipped before launching into his explanation for why Ruiz is the right person for the job given his years of experience from communications to operations to policy.
“I don’t think there’s anyone more prepared, certainly in this administration, but I think almost if you look at any previous administration, no one with the kind of experience that he brings. His years at the county, the state, having served as a deputy director at a state agency, to being chief operating officer so he’s certainly more prepared than I was for the job.”
Scarpinato didn’t have any words of wisdom to pass along to his successor but did have something to give Ruiz that has been on the Ninth Floor for several administrations.
“[Kirk Adams] gave me this button that you press that says no in 12 different voices, and he said – and actually Scott Smith [former Gov. Jan] Brewer’s last chief of staff] had given it to him. And he said, ‘You’re going to need to say no a lot in this job.’”
That prophecy, of course, became true, but Scarpinato joked that he mostly would try to buy more time before having to make a decision. He said Ruiz is “much better” at being decisive.
Ruiz said he was sad to see two of his friends leave the office. Deputy Chief of Staff Gretchen Conger left to advise the gubernatorial campaign for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running in Arkansas.
“I’ve built a lot of really good friends in this office, and two of them leaving is going to be a difficult change for me … I’ve gained, not just mentors, but lifelong friends. And Daniel is a chief amongst them,” Ruiz said.
Both of the Daniels consider the Governor’s Office as a family and cherished working for Ducey. And while they had no problem complimenting one another for being great workers and friends, they wouldn’t bite on sharing how they were personally affected by not just the tough decisions they were involved in making during the 18-month long pandemic, but how they were personally affected themselves.
Arizona, as of August 30, crossed 1 million cumulative positive cases and nearly 19,000 deaths due to Covid as the third wave begins to fully form courtesy of the dominant delta variant. Ducey and his administration have been hit hard from the press and public over his management of the virus.
Ruiz said the governor’s team has a really good camaraderie that became crucial to support each other during the “really tough days.” And there have been a lot during Covid, he said.
“Certainly, during the height of the pandemic there were really tough decisions that needed to be made and we tried to walk a balance that allowed a culture in Arizona that could continue while protecting the public health and safety of the people that live here. And I think we did a good job of finding that balance, but what that means is that, on either end, you’re going to have criticism, and you’re going to make decisions that you never thought you’d have to make,” Ruiz said.
“It can be draining and it can be exhausting, and it’s one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning, as you’re preparing for the next day’s press briefing having this team around you that is experiencing the same thing that you’re experiencing with the same goals that you have is – I can’t underscore how important and meaningful that is with the type of pressure that those decisions brought on,” he continued.
Ruiz wouldn’t answer how it personally affected him to be involved in these tough decisions or how his friendship with Scarpinato helped get him through the tough times.
Scarpinato similarly touted how well everyone gets along in the office, especially compared to previous administrations he said made news for “infighting and backstabbing and people trashing each other.” The culture in Ducey’s administration was not like that, he said.
He told Arizona Capitol Times that he truly feels his coworkers and now-former state health director, Cara Christ, are some of the hardest working people who made a lot of sacrifices to manage the pandemic over the past 18 months.
He said while other states were seeing officials resign left and right as things got challenging, in Arizona state government everybody stuck it out.
“These were very challenging decisions, and you need people who are smart and who are tough, and who can get through it … I think speaks to the pressure that existed for everyone who was having to deal with these decisions, and the folks that dedicated themselves and made it through, the personal sacrifices that they had to make,” Scarpinato said.
Daniel and Daniel were involved with a lot of major decisions that transpired since 2015, and Scarpinato got choked up reminiscing on how impactful his time working for Ducey was.
Ruiz and Scarpinato clearly care about the work they did and are doing and it invoked an emotional response in the room as they realized what it means to them that this chapter in their lives is now over.
Scarpinato likened his time on the Ninth Floor with these coworkers and friends as being in elementary school because he said it was the only other example he could think of where you spend that many years with the same people every day. He looks back on the past six years fondly as he starts the next chapter in his career.
With “Scarp” gone now, Ruiz said his colleagues still won’t be able to call him by his first name.
A coalition of school board members, educators, child welfare advocates and others is asking a judge to void a host of changes in state law approved in the waning days of the legislative session.
Attorney Roopali Desai is not alleging that any of these new laws, individually, is illegal. They range from whether schools and even universities can impose mask mandates and changes to election laws to banning the teaching of what legislators and Gov. Doug Ducey have incorrectly labeled “critical race theory.”
The legal problem, she said, is that these were combined with other unrelated provisions into what lawmakers call “budget reconciliation bills,” essentially a grab-bag of issues.
That, said Desai, violates constitutional provisions which clearly state that each piece of legislation “shall embrace but one subject and matters properly connected therewith.” And that same provision requires each element to be laid out in the title.
What that means, she is telling Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper, is that each of the challenged provisions was illegally enacted — and cannot be enforced.
If Desai wins the case, the implications go beyond nullifying the challenged provisions and, most immediately, ending the legal risk that now exists for schools, colleges and universities which are requiring staff and students to wear masks while on campus. It also would force a major change in the long-standing practice of lawmakers doing what she called “horse-trading,” piling unrelated issues — many which had previously failed on their own — into a single package designed to corral the necessary votes.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said she could not comment until she reviews the lawsuit with attorneys. There was a similar response from Ducey who has opposed mask mandates and signed all the measures into law.
All this comes as the Department of Health Services, whose director Dr. Cara Christ has said she backs the decision by the governor and lawmakers to bar mandated mask use in schools, reported more than 3,000 new cases, a level that hasn’t been seen in six months.
At the same time, hospitals reported 1,590 in-patient beds — 18% of capacity — occupied by Covid patients. And 22% of intensive-care beds were being used by Covid patients.
The question of whether the Legislature violated the requirement limiting each measure to a single subject and having the title properly reflect what is in the bill starts with HB 2898, which has the language banning not just school districts but also counties, cities and towns from requiring the use of face coverings or proof of vaccination against Covid to participate in in-person instruction.
What’s also in the 231-page bill is a provision prohibiting teaching curriculum “that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.” That includes concepts like saying a student “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex” and even authorizes the state Board of Education to suspend or revoke an offending teacher’s certificate.
Only thing is, Desai said, HB 2898 is titled “appropriating monies, relating to kindergarten through grade twelve budget reconciliation.” The reality, she said, is the bill includes “substantive policies that have nothing to do with the budget.”
“It’s bad enough that the titles don’t describe what’s actually happening in these bills,” Desai told Capitol Media Services. “But the legislature went out of its way to mislead people about what’s in the bills.”
For example, SB1824, dubbed as “appropriating monies; relating to health budget reconciliation,” says students cannot be required to be immunized to attend school using any vaccination that has only been given “emergency use authorization” by the Food and Drug Administration. That, for the moment, is the status of all Covid vaccines.
And another section bars local governments from establishing a “vaccine passport” or requiring proof of vaccination to enter a business.
Then there’s SB1819 which, according to its title, deals with “budget procedures.” But that bill includes “fraud countermeasures” for paper ballots and strips power from Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to defend election law challenges. What’s also in that bill is setting up a special committee to review the findings of the audit of the 2020 election, changes to the governor’s emergency powers, investigating the practices of social media platforms and even language about condominiums.
“None of these subjects have any logical connection to each other,” Desai said.
She argued this is more than just an academic discussion.
Desai said one purpose of the single-subject rule is to prevent “logrolling,” trying to pull together the support for a series of measures that would fail on their own by adding items designed to convince foes of any particular provision to agree to support the whole package because it also contains something they want.
For example, she cited statements by Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, that he would not support HB2898 unless it also included a ban on mask mandates for students.
Desai also pointed out the measure about the teaching certain concepts about race, ethnicity and gender actually failed to get the necessary votes when offered as a separate bill. But it then was then tucked into that same K-12 education reconciliation bill to get the votes of those who had previously opposed it.
“Never before has the legislature so ignored the normal process and procedure for enacting laws as they did for this session,” Desai wrote. She said if the courts do not enforce the single-subject rule it would be “rendered wholly meaningless.”
In her filing, Desai said these are not simply academic and legal concepts.
She said if the provisions in the K-12 measure are not voided “public schools could be left powerless to protect their students and staff.” And she said that teachers who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit could find themselves disciplined for violating a “vague prohibition” on what can be taught about race and gender.
No date has been set for a hearing on the new lawsuit.
Gov. Doug Ducey says it’s illegal and “will never stand up in court.”
And Attorney General Mark Brnovich says it is taking “federal overreach to unheard of levels.”
But attorneys who specialize in labor law say the decision by President Biden that large employers must have all workers vaccinated is well within the power of the federal government. And companies that listen to the Republicans and ignore the requirement could find themselves facing stiff fines.
In his Sept. 9 announcement, Biden said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is developing a rule to require all companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated. The alternative is requiring any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work.
The administration estimates it will impact more than 80 million workers in the private sector.
Normally, that kind of rule change takes time, including hearings. But the president said OSHA will implement an “emergency temporary standard” to put it into effect.
“This is not the power vested with the federal government,” Ducey said of the order. And he promised resistance against what he called a “dictatorial” approach.
“What the Biden administration is doing is government overreach, pure and simple,” the governor said.
Brnovich promised to “take all legal recourse to defend our state’s sovereignty and the rights of Arizonans to make the best healthcare decisions for themselves.”
And House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann, also both Republicans, call it “an illegal government mandate.”
But Shefali Milczarek-Desai, director of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the University of Arizona College of Law, said the actions by the administration are neither as questionable nor as outrageous as the Republican politicians contend.
The key is that the plan is rooted in the authority of OSHA to ensure that employers have safe workplaces.
“Not only is this something that OSHA can do but it’s something OSHA’s always done in the past,” she said.
The key Milczarek-Desai said, is a federal statute that allows for emergency temporary standards “when workers are exposed to ‘grave danger.’ ”
“The exposure here can be toxic substances, it can be something that is physically harmful,” she explained.
“Or, interestingly, the statute also says ‘from new hazards,” said Milczarek-Desai who also is a practicing attorney. “And that can be where Covid is coming in.”
Attorney David Selden agreed.
“They do that under the ‘general duty’ clause which requires that all employers have a workplace free of recognized hazards that can cause serious injury,” he said. And while that may be “ill-defined,” Selden said it’s broad enough to sweep in Covid-related issues.
It is true, he said, that Arizona has its own OSHA plan and program, funded in part by the federal government and administered by the state Industrial Commission. But he said that does not make Arizona free to ignore federal rules, as the federal law requires the state program be “at least as effective” as the federal plan.
“Once federal OSHA adopts a standard, it will be mandatory for Arizona to enforce the same standard,” said Selden who normally represents employers in legal issues, including OSHA compliance.
Attorney James Barton, who represents worker interests, said he believes legal efforts to void the mandate will fall flat, given the agency’s statutory duties.
“I think you’d have a hard time saying that this language isn’t about workplace safety,” he said. “It sure seems like it is to me.”
Nor is this unprecedented.
“There have already been OSHA reviews and inspections based upon Covid protocols,” said Selden. “We have situations, even in Arizona, where an employee may make a complaint to OSHA.”
Usually, he said, it involves people who want to work at home because they say they’re being asked to work too close to others, especially if they are not wearing masks. That forces him, as an attorney for the company, to respond to state OSHA officials to assure them that there are policies in place to protect the health of the workers.
That can include leaving every other cubicle open, testing workers and even taking their temperature when they report to work. But citations remain possible.
But aren’t vaccines something different?
Milczarek-Desai doesn’t think so.
She said it is up to OSHA to show that there is that risk of “grave danger” when workers have to be in proximity with others who are not vaccinated. And if that’s the case, Milczarek-Desai said, requiring vaccinations “is something that comes within OSHA’s purview.”
“It’s a health and safety measure that impacts the workforce,” Barton agreed. “To me, it doesn’t seem any different than any other health and safety measure.”
Barton also noted there is an alternate option: weekly testing.
“So it doesn’t mandate vaccines,” he said. And Barton said there always are the requirements for accommodations to be made in cases where there are medical reasons or someone’s sincerely held religious belief.
If there is a potential weak point in the plan, Selden said it is that fact that is will apply only to companies with 100 or more employees may provide some basis for a challenge.
“A worker in a workplace with 75 employees could be exposed to the exact same risks as someone who works for someplace with 101 employees,” he explained.
“Why would there be a different standard for one than the other?” Selden continued. “That kind of gives the appearance this is a politically driven thing rather than pure safety because every worker should be entitled to protection, particularly when the grounds for this are that it’s a grave risk.”
Barton, however, said he thinks the exemption for smaller firms might be upheld.
He said that precedent has been set in other laws. For example, federal statutes on age and race discrimination apply only to companies with 15 or more employees.
Milczarek-Desai said there’s something else that could become an issue.
Take, for example, a company that has more than 100 employees but most of them work from home. She said the firm might be able to make a case for an exemption.
But Milczarek-Desai said she expects challenges “to be quite limited in scope.”
Selden said there’s a word of caution for employers who implement the new policy: address employee concerns on an individual basis and avoid “uniform edicts and ultimatums that cause people to be resistant to a top-down mandate.” He also said companies must take care to maintain medical information about employees as confidential, including vaccine ID cards and Covid test results.
And Selden said employers should not have a retaliatory attitude towards those who are resistant to vaccines.
TUCSON — Chandra Dobbs was stunned when the constable showed up on her doorstep with a fat packet of eviction papers. She thought she had more time.
“I didn’t think I was going to be evicted because I applied for rental assistance money,” Dobbs said a few days later. “But they didn’t want to wait the four to six weeks. So now we’re homeless — me, my 16-year-old son, my daughter and my grandchild, a toddler.”
Her confusion is a common theme across America at a time when the federal government has ended renter protections while doling out billions of dollars in rental assistance. Instead of the expected surge in evictions, many landlords are holding off, waiting for the federal money to come through.
But while a few jurisdictions bar landlords from evicting renters who have applied for the money, most do not.
Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus, president of the Arizona Multihousing Association, said, “The vast majority of property owners have worked with their residents for nearly two years to keep people in their homes.”
She has defended landlords throughout the pandemic, noting that many have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.
Court records show the eviction judgment against Dobbs was for $3,837, which included $2,700 in rent plus late fees and court and legal costs. Encore Management LLC, which filed for the eviction, did not respond to a request for comment about its side of the case.
Dobbs, who was laid off from her job as an exotic dancer during the pandemic, said her family is staying temporarily with friends while working with a nonprofit to find a new home and get money for a rent deposit.
After a slow start, the pace to distribute the first $25 billion installment of $46.5 billion in rental assistance is picking up. Treasury Department officials said the program had served 420,000 households in August — up from 340,000 in July — and distributed $7.7 billion since January.
Treasury officials said the strong signs of progress came from New Jersey, New York and South Carolina, which at first struggled to get their programs going. New Jersey, for example, sent out no money in the first quarter but now has distributed 78% of its first-installment money and doubled the number of households served in August compared with July.
Spending in Florida increased from $60.9 million in July to $141.4 million in August while South Carolina went from $10.6 million to $25.3 million. New York saw a jump from $8.5 million to $307 million.
“These numbers are still early, uncertain and there is likely additional pain and hardship not showing up in these reports,” said Gene Sperling, who is charged with overseeing implementation of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package. “But what is out so far is certainly better than anyone’s previous best-case scenario for the month after the moratorium.”
Sperling credited rental assistance and an increase in eviction diversion programs as key reasons the tidal wave predictions didn’t come through, adding that it was important to keep speeding relief money to landlords. On October 6, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a new rule barring landlords from evicting tenants in HUD-subsidized public housing without providing them 30 days’ notice and information about available federal emergency rental assistance.
Some tenants have benefited from remaining eviction moratoriums including in California which ended last month, New York’s which runs through the end of the year and Boston’s which is ongoing.
Others have taken advantage of newly created programs from Washington to Texas to Philadelphia to New Hampshire that aimed at keeping eviction cases out of the courts and keeping renters in their homes. Some court systems have also put in place policies staying evictions if a tenant has applied for rental assistance, while at least three states and 10 cities have approved measures providing tenants with free legal counsel in eviction proceedings.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of a low-income coalition, said the nonprofit has encouraged leaders of state and local governments to maintain the few local eviction bans remaining after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium ended in late August.
Landlord advocacy groups have encouraged members not to evict tenants who have applied for government funds to pay their back rent, but owners don’t always follow that suggestion. Smaller property owners have struggled for months to pay their own mortgages and taxes with many tenants not paying rent.
Many property owners were more willing to offer concessions during the pandemic, waiving late fees and sometimes reducing or forgiving rent, according to a synthesis of two recent studies of mostly small landlords carried out by the Terner Center of Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
The findings also highlighted the financial hardships landlords have faced, with some opting to sell their properties, a move that could lead to a loss of affordable housing stock in some communities.
U.S. Marine veteran Paul Wunder, who was also on Constable Kristen Randall’s schedule the following week for eviction from his Tucson apartment, said all landlords should wait to receive federal money set aside for rental assistance so they can get the rent money they are owed.
“If they just wait one month, they’ll get all their money,” said Wunder, cradling his small dog Missy, a shaggy terrier mix, inside his apartment a few days before he was locked out. The 66-year-old was laid off early in the pandemic, then laid off again after getting another job as an air conditioner technician.
“If they throw us into the street,” he said, “they’ll get nothing.”
Michael Casey contributed to this report from Boston.
The Senate Ethics Committee decided this evening to launch a formal investigation into a complaint filed against freshman Sen. Wendy Rogers.
The unanimous vote by three Republicans and two Democrats followed more than an hour of closed-door discussions in executive session, in which the members received legal advice.
The decision authorizes committee chairman Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye to lead the investigation, issue subpoenas or retain outside attorneys to represent the committee. Rogers must have a hearing before the committee within 20 days.
Rogers, in a written response to the committee, dismissed Polloni’s complaint as untrue, and said he didn’t follow Senate rules in submitting it.
Merely days into the legislative session, Michael Polloni, Rogers’ former assistant, filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee on Jan. 21, alleging the senator forced him to resign following an altercation with her.
In his complaint, Polloni outlined a pattern of verbal abuse that began shortly after he was hired on Dec. 7 last year and escalated after he took a required sick leave after contracting Covid on Jan. 3.
He alleged that Rogers told him to lose weight so he’d look better behind the desk when people came into her office and that she made inappropriate comments about his sister’s sexuality and his aunt’s political beliefs. She also repeatedly asked him to do campaign work, including contacting campaign donors, on state time, he said.
Polloni said Rogers’ behavior toward him worsened after he became ill.
“When I had COVID-19, Senator Rogers demanded that I should be working and when I told her that I couldn’t work she got upset,” the complaint said.
Rogers expressed doubt as to whether he was really sick, according to the complaint. And when he told her he was cleared to return to work, she asked him whether he had spent the previous two weeks doing nothing, Polloni said.
The next day, Polloni learned that Rogers moved his personal belongings into drawers and broke an Eagle Scout award. She pulled him into her office for a conversation and proceeded to yell at him, standing so close that he could feel her spittle on his face, according to the complaint.
During that conversation, Polloni said he opened the door to call for another assistant because he felt unsafe, but Rogers slammed the door and could have broken his hand if he hadn’t moved it. She eventually let him call for the majority staffer who supervisors assistants, and Polloni began writing up his account of what happened, he said.
Within a matter of hours, he was summoned downstairs and given the choice to resign or be fired. Because a firing would prevent him from ever working for the state again, Polloni opted to resign, he said.
Along with the Senate ethics complaint, Polloni filed a federal workplace discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He is also considering filing a police report.
Rogers denied the allegations.
“I believe the allegation by the Complainant alleging I created a hostile work environment is not true; therefore, the alleged, untrue allegations do not constitute improper conduct that adversely reflects upon the Senate. This alleged personnel matter is not a matter of Senate ethics,” she wrote.
The Ethics Committee will next meet after the Senate floor session on Thursday, Feb. 11.
A Senate panel voted along party lines Tuesday to dismiss an ethics complaint against a freshman Republican senator accused of mistreating her former assistant.
Michael Polloni, who worked for Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, during her run for office and was hired as her legislative assistant in mid-December, said he was forced to resign on Jan. 14, three days into the legislative session, following an altercation in Rogers’ office.
An investigative report released Monday corroborated some of Polloni’s complaints, including that Rogers yelled and swore at Polloni on Jan. 14, and that she sent him text messages about work while he was out sick with Covid. Other allegations, including that she berated him about his weight, sister’s sexuality and aunt’s political beliefs, stemmed from one-on-one conversations and Rogers and Polloni disagree on what happened.
The three Republicans on the committee said nothing they saw met the standard of “clear and convincing evidence” required to move ahead with a hearing or disciplinary recommendations.
“A hearing wouldn’t provide further investigation,” said Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa. “It would provide further cross-examination.”
Pace said Polloni is free to present his argument in a court, which has lower standards of evidence and could result in him receiving actual compensation. The ethics committee could only recommend disciplinary action up to and including expulsion, and Pace said nothing beyond a formal reprimand was ever on the table.
Polloni’s attorney, former lawmaker Adam Kwasman, said he will move ahead with legal action against the Senate and potentially Rogers as an individual. Polloni did not actually file a federal workplace discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, making it easier for his attorneys to file a notice of claim against the Senate without waiting for federal approval.
“What they just did was a political outcome,” Kwasman said. “We’ll be pursuing a legal outcome.”
Democratic Sens. Victoria Steele and Kirsten Engel first sought to move ahead with a hearing and then to dismiss the complaint on the condition that Rogers take a four-hour course through the Arizona Department of Administration that is required for state employees in supervisory roles.
Senate rules define unethical behavior in part as “improper conduct that adversely reflects upon the Senate.” Steele and Engel said some of Rogers’ alleged behavior, as supported by evidence, clearly meets that standard.
“There are assistants, pages, other people in this building who are looking at what we do here,” Steele said. “We have evidence to support Mr. Polloni’s accusation that the senator yelled, that she saw him crying, that she swore at him. I don’t want assistants in this building thinking that it’s OK for them to be treated this way.”
Rogers, Polloni and another witness agreed that Rogers raised her voice at Polloni and swore at him on Jan. 14, when she pulled him into her office to discuss office decor. In her interview with the Senate’s investigator, Rogers said she told Polloni “I will talk down to you. You work for me.”
Text messages provided to the Senate’s attorney also illustrate that Rogers texted Polloni about work during eight of the 10 days he was out on sick leave with Covid, despite him sharing that his bosses told him not to work while on leave.
“Rather than leave Mr. Polloni alone to get well, even after hearing that he was told not to work, Senator Rogers continued to ask him to do work,” Engel said. “At one point she berated him on a Sunday for not responding to her on a Saturday.”
Engel said the least the committee could do was recommend Rogers take a course on how to supervise employees, but the three Republicans on the committee rejected that idea.
“It appears at least one senator on the committee appears again to want to mete out some kind of punishment,” said Sen. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke. “That is not in the purview of the committee as far as I am aware.”
No “reasonably prudent” person would believe that Arizona State University was advertising on Instagram during the pandemic for students to get “f—-ing lit” at maskless parties.
That’s why U.S. District Judge Dominic Lanza denied a default judgment motion by the Arizona Board of Regents in its quest to keep anonymous Instagram user “asu_covid.parties” from using ASU colors and logos in his profanity-laced party posts last year.
“(I)t cannot be the case that every social media post written by a college student that happens to use the school’s colors and/or logo in the post, and identifies the school’s location as the location of the poster, creates initial interest confusion and qualifies as an actionable trademark violation,” Lanza wrote in last week’s ruling.
ABOR filed its complaint against anonymous defendant John Doe in August 2020, arguing Doe was using ASU trademarks on his Instagram to spread “dangerous misinformation about Covid19 just as students are returning to ASU’s campuses to begin classes.”
Facebook was initially a defendant in the case but was dropped after agreeing to disable Doe’s account and prevent Doe from creating new ones.
Lanza noted that only one of Doe’s 19 Instagram posts – the very first one — used both ASU colors and its logo. While that post stated, “No more social distancing. No more masks. It is time to party!”, the surrounding context is important, Lanza said. The anonymous account posted the first two comments on the post, including “Those of you coming back to Phoenix. We about to get f—ing lit.”
“Although it is not uncommon for universities to attempt to appeal to students by imitating their vernacular, no university would drop the f-bomb in an official party invitation,” Lanza wrote.
Only one latter post used the ASU logo and none prominently featured the colors maroon and gold, Lanza noted.
Despite siding with Doe, the judge called him “deeply unsympathetic” and his conduct “odious.” Still, Lanza said it didn’t amount to a trademark violation.
Outside of the profanity, “there are the Nazi analogies,” Lanza said – another reason “it is not plausible (to put it mildly)” that reasonable people would think ASU was the source of the messages on the account.
“This is ASU, not the USSR, Nazi Germany, North Korea, China or Venezuela, etc. … They will use false positives to push their agenda to control you. The administration is filled with rich power hungry corrupt fascists,” one post stated.
ABOR only gave one example of someone appearing confused by the messages on the account: an anonymous Twitter user who claimed to be an ASU graduate and threatened to revoke their alumni membership.
Lanza said that wasn’t enough to establish a likelihood of confusion and that it wasn’t clear whether the poster thought ASU was behind the account or rather an ASU student.
“(E)ven assuming that one out of the ‘nearly 500,000 Sun Devils worldwide’ —that is, 0.0002% of the alumni base—believed that the profanity-laden posts coming from the ‘asu_covid.parties’ account were actually coming from ASU, this would not establish a likelihood of confusion,” Lanza wrote.
For his part, Doe has not participated in the legal proceedings since last August. He sent one email and filed a response to the complaint, which was stricken for litigation misconduct. The response included more Nazi references and lines such as “The First Amendment allows me to be as offensive as I want to be” and “This lawsuit is complete BULLS— (to use a legal term).”
A doctor and teacher of medicine is advising the Covid vaccine helps in blunting clinical illness.
While those who have had the shots could still get the virus, the statistics show it will be a mild rather than a deadly case. Remember, even the lifesaving polio vaccine was not 100% fool proof, but it stopped an epidemic and saved millions of lives worldwide. Trust only those doctors and scientists who have spent their entire professional life studying a Covid type virus and other infectious diseases. These scientific experts from prominent institutions should be your only source to follow when deciding whether to get the vaccine.
Don’t be fooled by very persuasive media outlets. It could cost you or your loved one their life.
Those who have been studying this deadly virus feel that wearing a mask is a protection not only for you but for family, friends, and even strangers. Please, follow the advice of learned scholars who are immersed in finding out the facts of this disease rather than those who have an ill-informed rationale.
If you haven’t already, consider getting the Covid vaccination today!
Double layers of fences, increased police presence and mass Democratic absences from the House and Senate over fears of violence appear to have been for naught.
Arizona’s Capitol complex, like state capitols around the country, upped its security after a January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and FBI reports of credible threats of repeated violent protests at all 50 state capitols leading up to President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
State agencies urged their employees to work from home if possible several days over the past three weeks, and the majority of both Democratic caucuses stayed away from the Capitol on January 19 and 20 after requests to temporarily pause the legislative session went unheeded.
In lieu of the concern, Arizona’s seat of government was all but deserted this week. A handful of protesters showed up, though they were far outnumbered by reporters present to document the demonstrations.
The FBI’s Phoenix Bureau announced early this week that it hadn’t identified any specific threat to Arizona’s government.
Some Republican politicians who had egged on election protests for weeks shifted gears this week – they urged their supporters to stay clear, albeit while also propagating erroneous theories that antifa was actually behind the violence at the U.S. Capitol. Police reports and interviews with Capitol mobs make clear that they were almost entirely President Trump supporters.
State Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, tweeted on January 19: “Stay home tomorrow patriots. We want peace for our country. The only people acting up at capitols will be leftist radicals.”
Democrats who stayed away on January 19 and 20 returned to work in person January 21, after Biden’s inauguration. But some, including Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said they still don’t feel fully safe at the Capitol after months of raucous and occasionally violent protests by people objecting first to government Covid restrictions and then toelection results.
“I don’t think just because something has not happened this week that something’s not going to happen,” Steele said. “If I was a really bad guy and I wanted to hurt somebody to make a point, to go down in infamy, I’d wait until the big deal events were over and the security started relaxing.”
A key federal official is telling Gov. Doug Ducey he cannot use Covid grant dollars to penalize schools that impose mask mandates.
And if Ducey doesn’t fix the problem he is threatening to take back the money.
In a letter to the governor Tuesday, Deputy Treasury Secretary Adewale Adeyemo said the cash, Arizona’s share of a $350 billion program in state and local relief dollars, were designed to finance “evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Instead, Adeyemo said, Ducey is distributing the money only to schools that do not require students and staff to wear face coverings during classroom hours and while on campus. And the governor also is using the cash to give out $7,000 vouchers to parents who want to pull their kids out of schools with mask mandates and instead send them to private and parochial schools without such a requirement.
Only thing is, Adeyemo said, is the purpose of the money is to “mitigate the fiscal effects stemming from the COVID-19 public health emergency.” And that, he said, includes supporting efforts to actually stop the spread of the virus.
What Ducey has done, the treasury official said, is actually discourage schools from following protocols that are designed to contain the virus. And that, he said, is “not a permissible use” of the federal cash.
Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said the governor and his aides are reviewing the letter and will respond. But he said that, as far as Ducey is concerned, he has done nothing wrong.
Still, he acknowledged that how his boss is dividing up the cash comes down to the governor’s personal support of “school choice” and vouchers which existed long before there was a Covid outbreak.
“The way we are using it aligns with the governor’s long-stated goal of giving parents the opportunity to choose what’s best,” Karamargin said. And he brushed aside questions about the fact that the federal dollars were designed to help prevent the spread of the virus, not to provide dollars for private and parochial schools.
“We believe the use of the funds is appropriate,” Karamargin said.
The governor’s press aide also took a slap at what he said has been the Biden administration’s “focus on mandates.”
“Here in Arizona we trust families to make decisions around what’s best for their children,” he said. And Karamargin said that, given the challenges of the past school year, that focus should be on giving families the resources they need to get their kids caught up educationally.
“That’s exactly what this program does: giving families in need the opportunity to access educations resources like tutoring, child, care, transportation and more,” he said. “It’s baffling anyone would disagree with this approach.”
But Ducey put only a minimal link between the new voucher program, formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts,” and financial need. Eligibility is limited to households at or below 350% of the federal poverty level, the equivalent of $92,750 a year for a family of four.
And Karamargin had no immediate response to how withholding federal aid from schools with mask mandates actually helps education or families.
Much of the battle is over $163 million Arizona got through the American Rescue Plan to boost per-pupil funding.
Ducey announced in early August, however, that those dollars will be available only to district and charter schools “following all state laws” as of Aug. 27. And the governor contends that schools that are requiring students and staff to wear masks are not in compliance.
Since then Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper voided the ban on mask mandates, saying it — and multiple other provisions in state budget reconciliation bills — was enacted illegally.
Karamargin, however, has said it is within Ducey’s discretion how to distribute the federal dollars. And he said the same is true over the $10 million program to provide those $7,000 vouchers to parents to send their children to private or parochial schools.
In that case, the governor said the money, which also can be used for online tutoring and child care, is to help families “facing financial and educational barriers due to overbearing school mandates.”
“These are American Rescue Act Funds,” Karamargin said at the time the program was announced. “They are funds made available to Arizona for the governor to use as he sees fit.”
Adeyemo, however, said that’s not the way the federal law reads. He said the state cannot impose conditions on receipt of these dollars to acting in ways “that would undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 or discourage compliance with evidence-based solutions for stopping the spread.”
He also reminded Ducey that the state, prior to receiving nearly $2.1 billion of such dollars provided a certification that it would use all the dollars it received in compliance with the federal law and any regulations issued by the Department of the Treasury. And those limit use of the dollars to responding to the public health emergency and its negative economic impacts.
All that, Adeyemo said, limits Ducey’s discretion.
He has now given the governor 30 days to respond explaining how the state will “remediate the issues identified” with the two programs, the one tying aid to schools on not having a mask mandate and the other providing vouchers so parents can get their kids out of schools that require masks.
“Failure to respond or remediate may result in administrative or other action,” Adeyemo said, including the federal government demanding its money back.
There may be other fallout.
The U.S. Department of Education already has launched civil rights investigations into six Republican states that forbid schools from requiring masks of faculty and students, arguing that may violate the rights of students with disabilities. The agency said it has been watching other states, including Arizona.
There is a financial-needs component of sorts to Ducey’s voucher program, formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts,” with eligibility limited to households at or below 350% of the federal poverty level. But that is the equivalent of $92,750 a year for a family of four.
An increasing number of vaccine deniers coupled with one of the easiest opt-out provisions in the nation has left Arizona with close to one out of every 10 kindergartners unprotected against key childhood diseases.
And that’s causing concerns from the state’s top health official.
“The measles MMR vaccine is highly effective,” said Don Herrington, interim director of the state Department of Health Services.
The same vaccine properly administered also protects against mumps and rubella. And he said a high vaccination rate is the best way to prevent an outbreak among those who can’ be vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons, or simply because they’re too young.
Yet during the last school year, the most recent data available, only 90.6% of Arizona kindergartners got the MMR vaccine, Herrington said, “well short of the 95% threshold considered necessary to prevent localized outbreaks.”
The result are those outbreaks, like three new cases of measles earlier this month in Maricopa County, including an adult and two minors, all unvaccinated. One had to be hospitalized.
And Herrington said these are not innocuous diseases
“Measles, in particular, you can have loss of hearing,” he told Capitol Media Services.
“It can affect their intellectual development,” Herrington continued. “You can have brain swelling. It’s killed people.”
But of particular concern are the increasing number of parents who are claiming a “personal exemption” from the requirement that children attending school be vaccinated against not just measles, mumps and rubella but a host of other diseases. More to the point, they need not provide any reason at all.
The result is that 6.6% of kindergartners in school statewide have a personal exemption for one or more vaccines.
And that only paints part of the picture.
The opt-out rate exceeds 10% in Mohave County and 11% in Gila County. And close to one child out of every seven in Yavapai County has a personal exemption for one or more mandated vaccines.
“It’s insidious,” Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said of the decline in childhood immunizations in the state, with the rate dropping about a half percent a year for the past decade.
“That might not sound like a lot,” he said. “But if you start looking at a 10-year period, now you’re looking at a loss of 5%.”
Hence, the 90.6% coverage rate – and that trend line moving ever lower.
Herrington said there’s only so much he can do.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Arizona is one of only 14 states that has a personal exemption. And Gov. Doug Ducey, who has seen the personal opt-out rate for kindergarten-required vaccinations rise from 1.4% in 2000 to 6.6% now, has shown no interest in asking lawmakers to eliminate that privilege.
That’s not a new attitude for the lame-duck governor.
“Ultimately, decisions are going to be left to parents,” he said in 2019 when the opt-out rate hit 5.4%.
That was after California, facing a measles outbreak at Disneyland, eliminated the personal exemption. And the same week that Ducey declared his support for parental opt out, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation saying parents could not use personal or philosophical exemptions and still send their children to school.
Ducey press aide CJ. Karamargin said Wednesday the governor’s attitudes have not changed since then.
But Humble said Herrington’s agency is not entirely powerless even if Arizona keeps its personal exemption.
He pointed out the department had worked with state Sen. Heather Carter to create a pilot program in 2018 to provide educational materials to parents seeking to opt out of one or more vaccines. The idea was to show the benefits outweigh any risks.
But the effort was scrapped after complaints from some parents who feared they would have to take the course to get the personal exemption, something that was not true.
Humble, who was health director before Ducey took office, said the agency should revisit the plan.
All that is based on his view that there’s a direct link between vaccine acceptance and education and the related issue of income, one he said was borne out by a study the University of Arizona did for the health department a year ago.
“The lower income families, when their pediatrician says something, they believe it. It’s ‘the doctor recommended this, so this is what I’m going to do,’ ” Humble said.
And those with higher income and more education?
“You get people who think they know more than the doctor knows,” he said. “So I guess it’s hubris when you think you’re smarter than you really are about things and question the physician’s recommendations and therefore decide on your own not to vaccinate, either based on what your friends are saying in the friend group or what you’re reading on Facebook or whatever those sources of bad information are.”
Herrington, however, said he’s not prepared to have that fight again.
“I think it really was like a line in the sand for some people,” he said of the reaction to the 2018 pilot program. “We meant it to be very informative … so that we could inform people of the drastic consequences of not being vaccinated.”
But he said that’s not the way it came across.
“I think some folks felt that we were trying to scare people, which, of course, we weren’t,” Herrington said. So rather than push ahead, he said, “we just rethought it and discontinued it.”
What’s left in his toolbox, he said, are press releases, blog posts and media interviews, all with the goal of explaining to people about the benefits of the MMR vaccine – and why it’s not like others that some see no reason to take.
“People read that Covid vaccines might prevent half of cases,” Herrington said. “Flu might prevent 60%.”
“But that measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, if you get both doses in the right sequence, timing I mean, it’s 97% effective,” he said. “And I think that’s going to have to be a lot of our messaging is that don’t associate all vaccines with that of the flu vaccine or with the Covid vaccine.”
District and charter schools spent just about half of Covid relief allocation in FY2022, with the bulk of spent funds and planned spending for FY2023 going toward employing and maintaining staff, according to an updated report from the Arizona Auditor General’s Office.
The report found most schools are prepared to eliminate or phase out any reliance on ephemeral funds. But anxiety still runs high throughout public education as the cut-off of relief dollars coincides with a dwindling general fund.
Meghan Hieger, director of the Accountability Services Division, prepared the report. She said schools and districts that plan for the end of money can reduce the negative impact when the relief dollars are cut off, especially as it relates to staffing.
“There are some districts and charters that do not have plans or have not evaluated all maintaining operations spending to determine how they will support operations when relief monies expire,” Hieger said. “Those districts and charters may have to make difficult and ill-timed decisions, such as eliminating classroom or non-classroom staff positions to continue operating with available revenues.”
The auditor general issued an initial spending report in January and updated the findings in July.
District and charter schools spent about $2.2 billion of the $4.6 billion through June 30, 2022, with about 54%, or $1.2 billion, going toward maintaining operations, the bulk of which was staffing costs.
About $753.5 million went toward classroom salaries and benefits while $186.1 million went toward non-classroom staff funding. Schools then prioritized technology, new programs and curriculum, food service and facility repair.
In planned future spending, the focus stays on staffing costs, with 45%, or about $979 million, anticipated to go toward maintaining operations with a focus on classroom salaries and benefits.
And the 2023 outlook shows a similar breakdown with a focus on new programs and technology, but with increased allotment toward school facilities.
They also note about $224.3 million, or 23% of future ongoing funds allocated to maintain operations and staffing lack an alternative funding source.
About 59% of planned spending is on one-time costs or ongoing costs to be phased out, while the remaining 18% makes up ongoing costs with an identified alternative funding source.
The report also found about 75% of the money spent has been in addition to state funds, not instead of state funds. But the ending fiscal year balances for school districts have continued to increase since 2018, with a $1.44 billion bump in 2020 with pandemic funds.
The Auditor General’s Office released recommendations and advised schools to prepare written plans of how they intend to phase out or supplement ongoing funds for operational needs, noting that less than a third of schools reported having a written plan and many submitted inconsistent or missing information.
Hieger said, “Each district and charter really have their own circumstances to consider,” but she noted schools should consider unsupported ongoing costs.
Hieger also pointed to the Auditor General’s School District Financial Risk Analysis, which identifies the highest risk districts and factors to consider in assuaging any financial ills, namely student populations, changes in budget reserves and balances and potential funds available in the future.
Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, said school districts are particularly worried going into the next year when Covid relief funding ends as the general fund sees further strain.
“This a huge cliff we’re going to hit,” Garcia said. “The schools are very aware of the fact that the general fund is about to be depleted for the next year, there will be little to no money.”
She pointed toward the growing cost of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which is estimated to hit nearly a billion dollars by July 2024, as a cause.
Because of the one-time nature of the Covid funds, Garcia said schools will likely have to go out for bonds or overrides to shore up appropriate funding.
Garcia said pandemic relief “was a stabilizing factor. But again, it was a Band-Aid to the larger issue … underfunding of public schools.”
As a Senate panel prepares to vote on legislation that would immediately end Gov. Doug Ducey’s Covid-caused state of emergency, an influential House Republican and legislative attorneys are warning it would have unintended consequences.
In a letter sent to all 90 lawmakers Saturday, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, urged his colleagues to hold off on any attempts to overturn the emergency order, at least until they know whether Attorney General Mark Brnovich would agree with legislative attorneys. Those lawyers told Kavanagh that an end to the statewide emergency declaration could just result in more patchwork local emergency declarations.
“Those who believe that terminating the governor’s Covid-19 state of emergency and consequential executive orders will end all restrictions and mandates on individuals, schools, organizations and businesses, eliminate mask mandates, cancel limits on public gatherings and nullify all other mitigating steps are wrong,” Kavanagh wrote in his letter to lawmakers.
The Senate Government Committee is scheduled to vote on a host of bills meant to overturn Ducey’s emergency declaration and prevent a repeat. Most pressing is Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita’s SCR1001, which would immediately terminate the emergency order declared on March 11, 2020.
According to an opinion legislative attorneys provided to Kavanagh, overturning Ducey’s executive order would just give local leaders — some of whom have long advocated for greater restrictions — more power to control Covid restrictions because their states of emergency will remain in effect.
In cities like Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff, mayors and city councils could close businesses, install curfews and block public gatherings. In areas like Yavapai County, where local mayors have continued to hold events and refused to mandate mask-wearing, all restrictions could be lifted.
“Were Arizona to become a mosaic of jurisdictions with conflicting restrictions ranging from nonexistent to draconian, residents and visitors seeking relief from the tedium of restricted areas would flock to the packed restaurants, bars and public events in the laissez-faire jurisdictions where they might become infected with covid-19 and, most ironically, bring the disease back to those jurisdictions that tried the most to control it,” Kavanagh wrote.
As a resolution, Ugenti-Rita’s measure would require only a majority vote in the House and Senate, and not a signature from Ducey. Ugenti-Rita did not return a phone call Monday morning.
While the opinion Kavanagh received from Legislative Council – and the one he has requested but not yet received from the Attorney General – only gets into what cities and the governor can do if the Legislature ends a statewide emergency, there are other concerns about what such a move could mean for access to federal relief funding and free vaccinations. All 50 states now have public health emergencies in place, and ending the emergency declaration could risk losing federal aid.
Sen. Warren Petersen, one of the Republicans on the Senate committee, said he hadn’t yet read Kavanagh’s email and planned to vote for SCR1001 anyway. Petersen, R-Gilbert, is also the sponsor of another measure on today’s agenda, SCR1003, which would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment declaring that a state of emergency ends 14 days after it begins unless the Legislature extends it.
Petersen’s referendum, and a similar one from Ugenti-Rita that would set a 21-day time limit, couldn’t take effect unless voters approved them on the 2022 general election ballot, making it extremely unlikely they’d have any bearing on the current state of emergency. Nor would another resolution on today’s agenda, Sen. Kelly Townsend’s SCR1010, which, if approved by voters, would require the governor to call a special legislative session concurrent with the state of emergency.
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, another Republican member of the committee, said Monday morning he hadn’t yet read Kavanagh’s email and was still dissecting the differences among the many emergency-related bills filed. For now, he said, he plans on voting for the vast majority of them in committee to advance a legislative conversation about how to handle executive power.
“We’re at this early stage, and the further these get in the process, the conversation will become more focused,”said Mesnard, R-Chandler. “Unless I’m philosophically opposed to the outcome that one of these would cause — which might be the case, I don’t exactly like what I’m hearing (Legislative) Council was saying with one of them — I probably will defer to move these along.”
The three Democrats on the committee plan to vote against the emergency measures, though they’re outnumbered by the five Republican members. Ranking Democratic Sen. Juan Mendez of Tempe said he was surprised Ugenti-Rita scheduled bills that appear to contradict each other.
“We were definitely worried about second-scale repercussions that they hadn’t anticipated,” Mendez said.”It definitely felt like they were just trying to throw everything against the wall and see what would stick, and that’s never a healthy way to do policy.”
A spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey’s said the office does not comment on pending legislation.
Covid and increased Capitol security aside, this January at the Legislature started like almost every one before it.
Lawmakers and their assistants scurried between the House and Senate, passing bill folders back and forth to collect signatures and promises to support legislation. Grand ideas to dramatically change state government, tiny technical corrections fixing apostrophe placement, bills that took up two sentences and bills that ran for hundreds of pages all landed in hoppers in the House and Senate, ending with a record 1,708 bills — and another 115 memorials and resolutions — ready for hearings.
Six weeks later, more than half of them are legally dead.
For every rule in the Legislature, there’s a maneuver to bend it. When it comes to session deadlines, strike-everything amendments buy another chance for seemingly dead bills.
This year, strikers on electronic cigarettes, unemployment and elections surfaced after deadlines for them to be heard in committee.
Vaping: For years, health care professionals and smoke shop owners have waged war over proposed regulations of vape products and electronic cigarettes. This year, Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, championed the health care side of things, with a now-dead bill that would have classified vaping products as tobacco and allowed municipalities to require tobacco retailers to obtain local licenses. Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, sponsored the now-dead vaping industry bill that would have preempted local regulations. Senate Commerce Committee chair J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, held both bills but introduced a strike-everything amendment to SB1103 with parts of both bills. Mesnard won committee approval of SB1103, which he described as a way to buy the two camps more time to negotiate. Its future depends on whether Boyer and Leach can strike an agreement.
Unemployment insurance: Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, used a strike-everything amendment to introduce a sweeping set of changes to the state’s unemployment system. Her SB1411 would raise the maximum weekly benefit to $320 from the current $240, reduce the number of eligible weeks to 20 from 26 and gradually increase unemployment taxes paid by employers. Fann said she has the votes to pass her bill.
Gambling: Gov. Doug Ducey and the state’s Native American tribes are negotiating a new gaming compact before the current one expires, and they reached agreement on allowing sports betting, as represented in a pair of mirror bills introduced by Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, and Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler. But Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, declined to hear Shope’s bill in the Appropriations Committee, which he chairs, and instead used a strike-everything amendment to attach the language to his own bill on historic horse racing. While the amended bill passed in committee, the tribes consider the historic horse racing component a “poison pill.” And it appears unlikely that Gowan’s bill could pass the full Senate.
Overturning elections: Gowan also drew national attention for a strike-everything amendment that would have asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment in 2022 to give the Legislature the sole authority to appoint presidential electors. After taking testimony near the end of a 12-hour hearing, Gowan announced that he would hold the resolution, saying he just wanted to start the conversation.
Checking Biden: Strike-everything amendments on both HB2310 and SB1119 would give the attorney general the power to review the constitutionality of federal executive orders. In 2014, Arizona voters approved an initiative that would prevent the state from using its resources to enforce unconstitutional federal laws. The process laid out in the two amended bills would allow the state to determine the constitutionality based on the attorney general’s opinion without waiting for court rulings. HB2310 passed the House on a 31-29 vote and SB1310 is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.
Conversion therapy: After fellow Republican Sen. Tyler Pace killed Leach’s bill prohibiting bans on conversion therapy or professional punishments for therapists who practice it, Leach reintroduced his bill as a strike-everything amendment to SB1325. The bill was on the February 23 Appropriations Committee agenda, but Gowan held it with no discussion, killing the bill for a second time.
Legislative consultant Beth Lewallen, who has closely tracked the Legislature for a decade, said this year’s dead bills mostly just show how a typical session goes.
“There were such a massive number of bills,” Lewallan said. “It’s normal for that many to die and I think it’s why we all take a deep breath and can’t wait when we get to crossover week.”
While some, such as a Senate resolution to hold Maricopa County’s supervisors in contempt, publicly failed to garner enough votes to pass, most of the bills that die in the House and Senate do so quietly. By the February 19 deadline to hear bills in committees in their chambers of origin, more than 950 measures were left to die.
Most were sponsored by Democrats, who struggle to have their ideas heard when Republicans still control both chambers. But some Republican bills also struggled to find a foothold.
Among the most notable were election bills, including ones sponsored by Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, and Reps. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, and Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, that would have overturned the 2020 election results, given legislators the power to choose future electors and ended the Permanent Early Voting List, respectively.
Lewallen, who founded her own consulting firm, Italicized Consulting, works for many clients and spends a lot of time analyzing and tracking bills. She said she noticed a larger number of duplicate bills this year, which she speculated could be why there were so many that died.
It’s a case of different people sharing the same ideas, she said, and the short window of time to be heard in a committee causes them to die.
The Pandemic and Vaccines
The Covid pandemic upended the 2020 legislative session and dominated the entire interim period through the election cycle, but most Covid bills from Democratic sponsors are now dead, as are bills downplaying vaccines.
Outside of bill sponsored by Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, to give grants to small businesses that were closed due to Covid, none of the dozens of Covid bills targeting unemployment, rental assistance, wage increases or residential eviction moratoriums from Democratic sponsors received a committee hearing.
It’s a fight Democrats have wanted since early in the pandemic, and a reason why they would have been in favor of a special session if the Republicans would have agreed to work with them on legislation. But while Democratic bills are not moving forward, efforts to raise the unemployment cap are not dead. Bipartisan efforts are making their way through each chamber.
Criticisms from the left that Gov. Doug Ducey was not effectively combating the virus or helping the people who needed it the most prompted bills like Paradise Valley Democrat Rep. Kelli Butler’s HB2788, which would increase the amount of paid sick leave for eligible employees in schools, and Glendale Democrat Sen. Martín Quezada’s SB1607, which would have prevented landlords from increasing the price tenants must pay for the duration of a state of emergency plus 30 days.
On the flipside, while Ducey and Arizona health officials push the safety of receiving one of the available vaccines that have been administered to at least 1 million people so far, at least two Republican lawmakers see the pandemic as a new reason to push an anti-vaccination agenda that has come up in consecutive sessions.
The vaccine is not mandatory, but state and federal leaders strongly encourage getting it. Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, still wanted to remove a potential condition for employment to receive the Covid vaccine. Barto has a history of anti-vaccination efforts against the advice of health experts, but has yet to get any passed — though her bill to exempt dogs and cats from rabies vaccinations is moving in the Senate. Her Covid vaccine bill SB1648 never received a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee.
An effort from Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction would have removed school immunization requirements, though it was not limited to the Covid vaccine.
A bill from Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, would have allowed women who get abortions and the doctors who perform them to be prosecuted for homicide, but it didn’t go anywhere after national attention at the start of session.
HB2650 would have given counties and the Attorney General’s Office the power to prosecute abortions while directing officials to enforce the law regardless of any federal laws or court rulings – such as the landmark 1973 case Roe v Wade – to the contrary. It contained an exemption for cases where the mother’s life was in danger, but not in cases when a pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. It was never assigned to a committee.
Other similar bills would legally classify abortion as homicide have been introduced in several other states over the past few years but have never gotten far. Blackman introduced another version of the bill, HB2878, a couple days before the House committee hearing deadline, which would allow abortion to be treated as homicide but doesn’t include the language directing the state to ignore federal courts that the other bill did. It died in the House Judiciary Committee without a hearing.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, introduced a bill this year to repeal the unenforced pre-Roe v Wade abortion ban still on the books in Arizona. It was left to die after being referred to two committees – usually an ominous sign of a bill’s fate.
Responding to the Ballot
In clear response to the passage of 2020’s Proposition 208 (Invest in Education) Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, introduced a ballot referral that would require voters to reauthorize tax increases every five years. Since Prop. 208 was a tax levy on Arizona’s highest income earners for the purposes of funding public education, it would go to the ballot again in 2024 – along with all other retroactive tax increases approved on the ballot. Petersen’s SCR1028 never received a hearing.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, wanted to get a bill approved to crack down on marijuana impairments on the road – a provision that was not addressed when voters approved Proposition 207 (Smart and Safe Arizona), which legalized recreational marijuana for adults. Kavanagh’s HB2084 would set a blood level limit of two nanograms per milliliter to prove impairment, which experts say is not an accurate measure for marijuana intoxication. The bill died without a committee hearing.
Conservatives have long complained that social media giants are biased against them, and two lawmakers who were particularly active in using social media to push conspiracy theories about the results of the 2020 election introduced bills to do something about it. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, filed HB2180 in early January, a bill seeking to penalize social media companies that censor content for “politically biased reasons” by deeming them a “publisher,” not a “platform,” and holding them “liable for damages suffered by an online user because of the person’s actions.” And Townsend Introduced SB1428, which would have let anyone sue Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites if they delete or minimize the reach of posts.
Neither of their bills ever got a hearing. And neither of them are on Twitter anymore. Both deleted their accounts in late January although Finchem, like many other conservatives who decry Big Tech bias, is still active on Parler and Gab.
Heading into the session, everyone expected a repeat of last year’s bitter fight over whether transgender girls should be allowed to participate in girls’ interscholastic sports. Similar battles are raging in legislatures across the country, as part of a nationwide push following a Connecticut lawsuit filed by female athletes who say they lost chances at athletic scholarships to two transgender girls who took top spots at track and field competitions.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman attempted to head off the potential bills with a prominent op-ed in the Arizona Republic arguing that students should be allowed to play on teams consistent with their gender identity — which, for transgender students, is different from their biological sex.
Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, filed SB1637 early in the session to require only biological girls be permitted to play for girls’ teams, but Senate President Karen Fann never assigned it to a committee. Barto, the Phoenix Republican who led the charge last year, as well as ardent supporter Cathi Herrod, director of the influential social conservative organization Center for Arizona Policy, instead opted to hang back and wait for courts to rule on challenges to an Idaho law that would bar transgender girls from girls’ sports and a recent President Biden executive order that appears to require they be allowed.
SB1637 is just one of many Rogers bills that earned headlines in the national conservative media but won’t move forward. Fann also declined to assign her SCR1026, which would have removed Planned Parenthood founder and longtime Tucson resident Margaret Sanger from the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.
Senate Transportation and Technology Committee Chair David Livingston didn’t bite at Rogers’ pitch to rename State Route 260 the “Donald J. Trump Highway.” Barto didn’t hear Rogers’ SB1511, which would classify so-called “gender-affirming care” as criminal abuse, or her SB1383 to ban abortions after a physician can detect a heartbeat – typically six weeks into pregnancy or just two weeks after a woman misses her period.
Committee chairs also declined to hear Rogers’ bills creating harsher punishments for blocking roadways during protests and defacing monuments.
Lewallan, the legislative consultant, said she thought most of the bills from Rogers died because of her different approach than the typical freshman lawmaker.
“She tackled really big, high-profile issues her first year. There was no learning curve. A lot of people come in and especially into the Senate, and take a handful of issues and really kind of learn their way through the process, and she had a very different strategy than a lot of freshmen,” Lewallan said.
The state’s top health official said schools should be able to quarantine unvaccinated students and keep them out of class in at least some cases where they have been exposed to Covid.
Dr. Cara Christ told Capitol Media Services on July 20 she still believes that the best place for children is in school.
“It’s the safest place for kids,” she said, though she said unvaccinated students should be wearing masks even though state lawmakers have now prohibited districts from requiring their use.
The key, she said, is making case-by-case decisions.
“I don’t think we want to be taking broad, sweeping, quarantining entire schools if they’ve got a case of COVID-19,” the health director said.
But Christ said that there are circumstances when separating out some unvaccinated students – and maybe even some who are vaccinated but have underlying health conditions – may be appropriate when there is a confirmed case in a school.
“Isolation and quarantine does remain a tool that’s available to local public health (agencies) when they are working with school districts,” she said. And that guidance remains in place, Christ said, even after Gov. Doug Ducey, through his health policy adviser, told school districts they cannot require that unvaccinated students be quarantined even if they have had contact with someone with a confirmed case of the virus.
In fact, Christ said, that guidance is again under review with the spread of the more highly contagious Delta variant of the virus. And it could result in recommendations for greater use of quarantines.
“One of the things that we’re talking about here at the department is, with how transmissible it is, that all close contacts should be quarantined potentially,” she said.
“That’s something that we’re working through right now because we want kids in school,” Christ continued. “We want to be able to use that as a tool, but we want to be able to use it sparingly and work to implement other strategies to prevent spread.”
Several school districts and health departments already were resisting Ducey’s directive, arguing that the question on the use of quarantines for unvaccinated students is beyond the governor’s authority.
Christ, in her interview, did not address what the governor has ordered. But she said the policies and guidance of her agency, including the use of quarantine for unvaccinated people who have been exposed, has not changed since that letter went out to school districts.
And, more to the point, she said any across-the-board ban on quarantines is not the right way to go.
“Schools should work with their local public health departments to determine the best course of action if they have cases” of the virus, Christ said. The question is particularly important at the lower grade levels, she said, where there is no vaccine option.
But she did say that any action has to be reasonable.
“We don’t recommend that it’s just a blanket quarantine of everybody who’s unvaccinated,” she said. That’s where follow up and input from local health departments comes in, with decisions on a case-by-case basis.
“They work on those contact tracing investigations and make specific recommendations for quarantine, ‘watch and wait,’ all different types of strategies depending on that close-contact specific situation,” Christ said.
She said that can involve making recommendations to families whose children are not vaccinated.
“What we want to make sure is we’re not just using unvaccinated status as a sole reason to quarantine people,” she said. “And that’s not how public health works.”
None of this affects the ability of districts to prohibit students who are infected from coming to school.
The discussion of the use of quarantines comes as the number of cases of the virus is on the upswing, routinely topping 1,000 a day, a rate Arizona has not seen since the end of February. But the health director said there’s no cause for alarm.
“I think we’re in a different place than we previously were,” she said. And the key is the availability of the vaccine.
“We have a tool that is highly effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths,” Christ said.
Still, just 3.3 million Arizonans are fully vaccinated out of a population of about 7.2 million. That includes both those who refuse to get inoculated as well as those younger than 12 for whom the vaccine has not been approved.
That, in turn, goes to what has become another highly charged political issue: masks.
“We have not changed our public health guidance here in Arizona,” Christ said. “So, if you are unvaccinated, we would recommend you wear a mask when you’re around people you don’t live with.”
Ditto, she said, for vaccinated people who are at high risk.
That’s personal for her: She has three children, two of whom are not old enough to get inoculated.
“Those two will be wearing masks to school even though the school district is not requiring it,” Christ said.
The state’s top health official said Friday there’s no reason to continue to limit business occupancy, prohibit large group gatherings and require customers to wear masks because Arizona hospitals now have plenty of space.
Dr. Cara Christ said the main reason that restrictions were imposed and bars were closed entirely was the fear of overwhelming the state’s health care system with Covid patients.
Now, she said, the use of hospital and intensive-care beds is way down. More to the point, Christ said many of the people who are most at risk, meaning the elderly, already have been vaccinated.
The health chief acknowledged that some businesses are not following her advice that, despite dissolution of the gubernatorial orders, they should continue to enforce mask use and to maintain social distancing. There even were reports of at least one bar promoting the idea that customers are now free to crowd in.
But that, Christ said, is no reason to continue to make that illegal. She said individuals now need to assess their own risk of severe complications.
“Hopefully, there weren’t a lot of our older Arizonans at those bars,” she said, the kind of folks who are more likely to get seriously ill.
Christ also pointed out that businesses remain free to enforce mask and social distancing requirements. And she is suggesting they do that.
But she brushed aside questions about whether the new order undermines their ability to gain compliance as customers could argue that the governor has said it’s OK to go maskless.
“They’ve always had — some of them, I can’t say all of them — the ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service,’ ” Christ said.
“They can extend that,” she said, and enforce things like mask mandates at the door in exactly the same way. “They do have the authority to be able to require those types of mitigation strategies.”
All that, however, leaves the question of exactly how the decision to convert health requirements into recommendations was made.
While Christ said hospital capacity was a key factor, the health director conceded she and the governor did not consult with any of their top officials. In fact, several of the state’s major hospital chains released a statement calling Ducey’s move to jettison mandatory distancing and mask requirements as premature.
“A downward trend is not synonymous with the elimination of the virus,” they said in a joint statement.
Christ did not dispute that contention.
“We could see another spike in cases,” she said. But Christ said that’s not the metric that drove the original decisions to impose restrictions. And she said it should not be the metric to decide whether to lift them.
“Really, what we were trying to prevent is an overwhelming of our hospitals and our health care systems,” she said. That also is the reason that health care workers and those at the highest risk of developing complications from the virus — and needing hospitalization — were among the first to get the vaccine.
“We’ve got higher vaccination rates in those vulnerable populations, which is going to keep our hospitalizations down,” she said. “The severe outcomes are really what we’re trying to prevent, those hospitalizations and those deaths.”
Put another way, Christ said, the overall number of people infected is not, in and of itself, significant — and not a reason to have state-imposed mandates.
“If it’s just cases and you’ve significantly reduced the hospitalizations and deaths, do we do that with other diseases?” she asked.
“We don’t” Christ continued. “Everything is a recommendation.”
Beyond that, Christ said she and Gov. Doug Ducey made the decision that Arizona has to return to a point where people have to make their own decisions about the risk the virus poses to their own health. She said that’s no different than any other disease, like the flu, where her department makes various recommendations but ultimately leaves it up to individuals to assess their own health risks.
“It’s really about that personal responsibility,” she said.
Consider the flu.
“We’ve recommended for years that everybody get a flu shot, wear a mask, to stay home when you are sick,” she said. “All of that works for influenza, just like it does for Covid.”
But Christ pointed out that those flu recommendations never translated into mandates, even as the state sees a surge in hospitalizations every winter.
The decision to scrap mandates comes as the state remains far short of having 70% of its population vaccinated, the point at which Arizona would approach “herd immunity” so that a new outbreak would not spread rapidly.
As of Friday, the state reported only 1.2 million were fully inoculated, whether with the second dose of the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That is only about 22 percent of those 16 and older, the age at which the vaccine has been approved for use.
While there continues to be a demand — and people who say they’re still having problems getting appointments — that raises the question of whether the new order scrapping any mitigation mandates sends the message to some that inoculation is no longer necessary.
“I don’t know that would necessarily be based on us lifting the restrictions,” Christ said.
“There are a lot of people that don’t like getting shots, that are vaccine hesitant, especially about this specific vaccine,” she said, despite assurances that it is safe and effective. “But we know we are going to have demand decrease as we continue through the next few weeks.”
That, Christ said, will take a shift in “messaging,” getting out into communities as opposed to simply having large inoculation sites.
“We will hit a point where it’s going to be more about convenience and having it be in the neighborhood or having it being administered at a doctor’s office while they’re doing something else,” she said.
The Arizona Department of Education clawed back more than $70 million in Covid grant funding to make way for a $40 million statewide tutoring program.
Superintendent Tom Horne announced today that funds are now slated to go toward a tutoring initiative for first to eighth grade students who failed to score as proficient in reading, writing and math in statewide testing.
Grant awardees, who received the funds under former Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, received a request for evidence that their programming had resulted in academic improvement on Aug. 18. They were given a five-day deadline.
The programs that the department found failed to provide adequate “data” saw their funding either walked back or cut entirely. In a press conference today, Horne and Associate Superintendent Michelle Udall said the department terminated or reduced funding for 27 Covid grant awardees.
The department cut funding for programs addressing mental health and social emotional learning, but Horne said, “nothing was singled out,” and Udall said there was a “wide variety” of programs cancelled or reduced.
Udall also noted programs that were not on track to spend all the funds by the cut-off, Sept. 30, 2024, also saw their awards walked back or adjusted.
“If they showed that they were having good academic outcomes with students, we just reduced the grant. If they were not showing academic outcomes, we would have canceled,” Udall said.
The department notified those that had been terminated over the weekend.
The Valley of the Sun YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club of the Valley, notMYkid and Playworks Arizona were among the awardees that received termination notices this weekend.
Jenna Cooper, VOS YMCA Vice President of Government and Community Relations, said in a statement, “This decision will have far-reaching consequences, including the immediate discontinuation of social-emotional support programs for youth and a likely reduction in our workforce.”
Udall, who declined to provide a full list of the programs that were cut or reduced, noted the department was still working with awardees to adjust awards.
Udall said the department had rescinded about $70 to $75 million. The department set aside $40 million for the tutoring program. Horne said the department left a “margin of error” for grant adjustments.
Given new data, Horne said, “We can change our minds and let them keep their grant.”
As for the $40 million tutoring program, Horne said private vendors and public and charter schoolteachers will be eligible to apply to tutor students.
He said tutors will be paid $30 an hour with the potential for a $200 stipend if the students hit certain benchmarks.
The department noted it would need to use some of the Covid funds to contract with a vendor to develop tests to measure proficiency.
Joseph Guzman, associate superintendent of accountability, research and evaluation, said the funds spent on contracting with a testing vendor would not be “insignificant.”
The cancelled grant funding was incorporated into the third round of funding from the American Rescue Plan. The department received $180.9 million to be put toward remedying student learning loss.
The federal government directly allocated funding to the department. Udall said because the department is keeping the funds within the Covid-related learning loss “bucket,” it would only need to notify the federal Dept of Education that it is shifting funds around.
Horne said the department plans to set up and launch a webpage with more details on applying for the tutoring program by Sept. 15, and said he hopes to see the program launch by Oct. 1.
The House voted along party lines Thursday to defeat a Democratic attempt to expand KidsCare eligibility by amending a bill funding the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Scottsdale, proposed increasing the KidsCare eligibility threshold from 200% to 250% of the poverty level, raising it from under $53,000 to under $66,250 a year for a family of four. She said the expansion would cost the state $12.5 million a year and bring in $47 million in federal matching funds.
“We have an exciting opportunity today to help 30,000 Arizona children access quality health care that is affordable for their families,” Butler said.
Butler said Arizona has, or at least had before the Covid pandemic, the third-highest rate of uninsured children in the country. Butler has been pushing KidsCare expansion for several years but has been unable to get a committee hearing on a standalone bill; she tried to add the same amendment to the bill in committee earlier this year but it was rejected on a party-line vote.
SB1096 will provide a supplemental appropriation to the tune of $27 million in spending authority for KidsCare as well as authorizing the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to spend $3 billion for adjustments in funding formula requirements and implementation of 2020 legislation to collect an assessment on hospital revenues and increase Medicaid reimbursement payments.
Republicans said making changes to the bill could put its passage at risk, and that if it doesn’t pass, then the more than 2 million Arizonans who rely on the state health care program now, including the 50,000 insured under KidsCare now, could see their coverage put in jeopardy as of April 1.
“Unfortunately this is one of those situations where we have a budgetary issue that we are asking for expenditure authority for the $3 billion that will be going to AHCCCS and to our hospitals,” said Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear. “This is not the time or place for policy changes with a budgetary situation.”
Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, said that Butler’s amendment had an emergency clause and the House could suspend rules to get it on Ducey’s desk as quickly as possible.
“The sky is not falling,” he said.
After the Committee of the Whole rejected Butler’s amendment on a voice vote, she tried to amend the committee report to include the expansion, but the House voted 29-31 against this. The House then voted 34-26 later Thursday to pass the bill, with three Democrats joining the Republicans to advance it and the rest voting “No.”
Republicans said they found it “perplexing,” as Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, put it, that the Democrats were voting against funding the existing health care program for children and the poor. Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, told his colleagues that a “No” vote was the equivalent of voting against coverage for poor and minority children in his district and that they shouldn’t have the mentality that they will “take your marbles and go home” if a vote doesn’t go the way they want. The Democrats said they support the underlying program but were disappointed that the House was refusing to expand it.
“We had an opportunity to add to this bill, to improve this bill to provide health care for 30,000 Arizona children, and we failed to do that,” Butler said. “We failed to act in a pandemic when we had the financial ability to do so. We simply said no.”
In late January 2020, Arizona logged its first recorded Covid infection. Just over six weeks later, the pandemic had spread so widely that Gov. Doug Ducey declared a statewide emergency.
As we’ve passed the anniversary of that emergency declaration, it’s worth reflecting on what we’ve learned from the extraordinary events of the last year. One key lesson is that government leaders absolutely need to be empowered to respond to emergencies – and just as importantly, those emergency powers must be limited.
That’s why Arizonans should welcome the effort by state legislators to curb the governor’s emergency powers. One such legislative proposal, Senate Bill 1084, would go a long way toward restoring balance and accountability to state government.
Ducey’s emergency declaration was defensible last spring, when little was understood about the virus, its rate of infection or its lethality. Given the uncertainty, extraordinary actions were justified to limit the spread of the virus and to ensure that health care facilities could meet the challenge. Most of us were willing to give the governor the benefit of the doubt.
But emergencies are, by their very nature, fleeting. What we have now is a situation that is serious but manageable. That means it’s time to end the state of emergency.
Governors are given special emergency powers because crisis response requires quick and decisive action. Representative democracy, for all its virtues, moves slowly. The Legislature, as the most democratic branch, reflects this norm, as it is designed to deliberate, assess facts and debate ideas before acting.
Under normal circumstance, that’s exactly how public institutions should perform. But when delay could mean death, we empower leaders to act swiftly, even if it means violating democratic norms for a limited time.
However, once the initial emergency situation passes, so too does the rationale for vesting one person with exorbitant unilateral authority. If uncertainty about the right response persists, that’s even more reason not to leave it to one person.
To his credit, Governor Ducey wielded his emergency powers in a relatively targeted and responsible manner compared to many of his counterparts in other states. But even if you thought his decisions were flawless, that does not validate unilateral decision-making for a full year (and counting). A future governor may wield such powers in ways that are reckless and irresponsible.
The potential for abuse is why we should get serious about reforming emergency powers. State policy should not be subject to the whims of one person except in the rarest of circumstances, and then only for a limited time. SB1084 addresses this problem by capping an emergency order at 90 days, unless extended by the Legislature, and prohibiting the governor from issuing a new “substantially similar” emergency order if the original one expires.
To be clear, SB1084 does not affect the governor’s ability to use emergency powers to act quickly and decisively in the first three weeks of an emergency. It merely restores the proper balance of power between the branches once the initial emergency has subsided.
Permanent unilateral rule poses a real threat to liberty because it lacks transparency, accountability, and meaningful legislative oversight. Legal scholar Elizabeth Goitien explained in congressional testimony in 2019 that “permanent emergencies increase the likelihood that the declaration will be used for purposes unrelated to the original triggering emergency.” For instance, emergency declarations involving riots have subsequently been used to suppress the First and Fourth Amendment rights of peaceful protestors. In Kentucky, an investigative report from the State Treasurer’s Office alleged the governor was wielding Covid-related emergency powers to selectively target houses of worship.
Disdain for permanent emergencies is not a partisan issue. Entities such as TheNew York Times editorial board, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Public Citizen (a progressive advocacy group), and Republicans for the Rule of Law have decried the concept. The same is true for individuals across the ideological spectrum, ranging from Democratic chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (“[A]n emergency cannot continue forever,”) to conservative Justice Samuel Alito (“[A] public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,”) to independent legal scholars.
If governors continuously rule by emergency orders, then the power of the state Legislature is severely reduced and its status as a co-equal branch of government called into question. Legislation like SB1084 ensures the proper balance of power between the branches while protecting the governor’s ability to respond decisively to a true emergency. Lawmakers should move forward with this sensible legislation, and then get back to working with the governor to address the ongoing challenge of the Covid pandemic through the established legislative process.
With state lawmakers angling to increase the unemployment cap for the first time since 2004, Gov. Doug Ducey will likely face a political quandary.
Ducey has repeatedly shown little interest in raising the weekly amount above the current rate of $240, the second lowest unemployment cap in the nation. As two separate measures – both with bipartisan support – move through the legislative process, it raises the question whether Ducey would sign it into law or veto an increase, assuming it makes it to his desk.
Over the year of the Covid pandemic, Ducey has repeatedly pointed to the federal government as the avenue to increase unemployment checks.
Congress has passed three separate relief packages adding between $300 and $600 to each state’s weekly unemployment benefit cap, with a fourth on the way soon. Arizona still sits at 49th in the country, above only Mississippi.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, who is far from a moderate Republican, sponsored HB2805 that would raise the cap from $240 to $300 and also raise the cap for part-time workers to still be able to receive some assistance, increasing the weekly income disregard amount from $30 to $160.
It passed the House 50-9 on February 24, getting overwhelming support from progressives and some of the staunchest conservatives.
Senate President Karen Fann has her own proposal written as a strike-everything amendment that would raise the cap to $320 weekly payments, though it would cut benefits from 26 weeks to 20. Fann said she has the votes. In fact, she would only need five other Republicans in the chamber to have two-thirds of the Senate and the potential to override a veto – something that has never been done during the Ducey administration.
Chuck Coughlin, the strategist who used to work for two former Republican governors, said it’s an easy decision for Ducey, as the bill has popular support from bipartisan lawmakers and the public.
“In the last two years of his term, thumbing his nose at two-thirds majorities seems an unwise political thing to do,” Coughlin said. “Any governor’s last two years are amongst his or her most vulnerable because you just have less political capital, and you don’t want to invite that antagonism to your door.”
Coughlin said Ducey could save face by including a note with his signature talking about these “extraordinary times.”
“I think he could say that, and at the same time, indicate that his greatest hope is for people to find employment, find jobs in a robust Arizona economy as the vaccine becomes more prevalent,” he said.
Coughlin also said he doesn’t view signing a bill to increase the unemployment cap as a loss for the governor, despite Ducey’s previous opposition. He likened the decision to former Gov. Jan Brewer’s push to expand Medicaid benefits under Obamacare, saying it made very little sense to punish the state.
“I mean, we do have one of the lowest benefits in the country and so, acknowledging that and maybe readdressing that in a time of pandemic would give him an opportunity to revisit that thought,” Coughlin said.
Another possibility is that Ducey could allow a bill to become law without his signature, by declining to take action on it.
Throughout the pandemic, Ducey has faced many questions about the low unemployment benefits. His answers have varied from “there are jobs available” to some version of it’s up to Congress to act. Ducey has been clear that he supports creating jobs so people can get back to work, rather than pay them to remain unemployed. He has also repeatedly avoided answering whether he could live on $240 per week. Other Republican elected officials like House Speaker Rusty Bowers said “no” to that same question last year.
While Ducey has not conducted a public briefing in nearly three months, there have not been many other opportunities to ask him about these efforts moving through the Legislature. Arizona Republic podcast “The Gaggle” addressed the topic of unemployment on a congressional level on March 3 and Ducey told the hosts similar comments he has said before.
“I want to have public policy that supports employment, and having people incented to work. And I want to work with the Legislature on those types of solutions,” he said. “I do think through this [pandemic] we wanted to make sure that our social safety net was stretched and that it was strengthened and we’ve been able to do that to date.”
He went on to say what concerns him more than increasing the unemployment cap in a post-pandemic world is “pandemic aid.” Otherwise he wants to see what Congress will do before he responds further.
Ducey’s office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, and the governor does not typically comment on pending legislation.
The Phoenix Union High School District plans to require students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks indoors when school starts on Aug. 2.
The district’s decision is perhaps the highest-profile example so far of a school district in a Democratic-leaning area pushing back against state policies that largely bar them from imposing Covid-related restrictions, in defiance of the wishes of Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature’s Republican majority. And the mask policy is possibly in violation of state law banning such mandates.
This year’s education budgets ban K-12 schools and public universities and community colleges from requiring masks. Although budget reconciliation bills generally don’t take effect until the 91st day after sine die, which would be Sept. 29 this year, the education budget contains a retroactivity clause banning mask mandates as of June 30.
Phoenix Union Superintendent Chad Gestson didn’t answer during a press conference Friday whether what he is doing is legal and said the district’s lawyers were looking into it.
He defended the decision anyway, saying it is necessary to protect students and staff due to the high transmission rates of the delta variant in Maricopa County, as well as touting the district’s efforts to encourage vaccination.
“My job, and our job at this point in time, is to focus on health and safety,” he said. “If a legal battle ensues, we’ll be fully prepared to handle that.”
School district officials said in a written statement that the delta variant is spreading quickly in Maricopa County and that, while the board had aligned the district’s masking practices with the state’s prohibition on mask mandates, they had gotten feedback from staff, students and families who support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s masking recommendations. The board will discuss Covid mitigation measures, including masking policies, further at its Aug. 5 meeting.
“We serve nearly 30,000 beautiful young men and women and over 4,000 employees and must take every precaution necessary to protect the lives of those entrusted to us,” the statement says.
Democratic Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo put out a statement backing the district’s decision.
“The delta variant is the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Maricopa County, and it is more contagious than others we’ve seen,” he said. “Kids under 12 still can’t get vaccinated. School leaders must trust the experts like those at the CDC saying all K-12 students and staff should mask up on campus. I support Phoenix Union High School District and other Arizona school districts planning to require masks on the first day of school.”
Ducey’s office said in a written statement he thinks Phoenix Union’s mandate is illegal and unenforceable and that health professionals have made it clear children are safe in the classroom.
“Arizona is not anti-mask, we’re anti-mask mandate,” Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said in an email. “As the governor has often said, mask usage is up to parents. If a parent wants their child to wear a mask at school, they are free to do so. This is not a state decision. Ultimately, this is about personal responsibility and parental choice — something Arizona has long-supported. School administrators should be doing everything they can to encourage eligible students and staff to get vaccinated, not break state law.”
Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, a freshman who has become one of the House’s leading opponents of Covid restrictions, on Thursday criticized school districts that are looking for ways around the state’s mask mandate ban.
“The reality is this stuff was passed,” he said on The Morning Ritual with Garret Lewis. “These policies were passed. This is what we did in our legislative session, and it seems like the left is coming unhinged because they’re losing power and they want to control the narrative and they want to (keep) the power they have.”
Chaplik said he made it clear he wouldn’t vote for the budget without a ban on school mask mandates.
Officials at Arizona State University, whose announcement in June that students would be required to provide proof of vaccination or undergo Covid checks led to immediate resistance from Republicans and an executive order from Ducey blocking the move, put out a statement Thursday “strongly recommending” that students get vaccinated and wear face coverings within university buildings.
“We previously communicated that face covers would be required in certain health care centers and on-campus shuttles,” said executive vice presidents Nancy Gonzales and Morgan Olsen. “Those requirements may extend further to select buildings and at events that may pose a higher risk of transmission. Notification will be provided in advance of events and/or at building entrances if face covers are required. Consistent with the Governor’s executive order and the CDC guidelines, we are not making distinctions between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.”
The head of the House Education Committee wants the Department of Education to turn loose $85 million to help forestall anticipated teacher layoffs.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, noted that several districts have announced they will need to let some teachers go ahead of the 2021-2022 school year for fear that they won’t have the state aid to pay their salaries.
That’s because aid is directly linked to the number of students enrolled. And the most recent figures show that more than 55,000 children have disappeared from district schools this year, about 5% of total enrollment, a figure that translates out to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
On paper, schools get state aid based on the number of students enrolled. And, theoretically that means if the students come back, the state funds will flow.
Only thing is, Udall said, districts have to make decisions now whether to offer contracts for the coming school year.
“The problem is, if you fire those teachers and the kids do come back,you’ve suddenly got overcrowded classrooms,” she told Capitol Media Services.
And Udall said it may be impossible for schools that were hardest hit by declines to rehire those same teachers: Given the teacher shortage statewide, they may by that point have found gainful employment elsewhere.
What that leaves, she said, is schools hiring long-term substitutes who are not certified as regular teachers.
In a letter Udall sent Monday to state schools chief Kathy Hoffman, she said the education department is “for some reason holding onto nearly $85 million of discretionary money” from its initial $1.5 billion allocation of federal Covid relief dollars.
“That should be put to use to help stabilize Arizona schools so they don’t have to make premature reductions in staffing when many of those students may be returning in the coming school year,” Udall told Hoffman. And she questioned the agency’s need for $7 million to administer that $1.5 billion allotment — the maximum allowed — when there are other more pressing needs.
Udall said she expects at least part of the fund problem to be resolved when lawmakers adopt the state budget.
Some of that, she said, will be plans eliminating that differential between what schools get for teaching students in person versus those who are learning online. The state funds the latter at just 95% despite indications of additional costs for such programs.
But Udall said there’s a bigger problem. She said some districts that were doing the best to maintain an in-person option for their students are the ones who she believes ended up getting financially shorted.
She used the example of Tucson Unified School District, which she said got around $7,000 per child in federal Covid-relief dollars, which were doled out largely along the lines of which districts have the most Title 1 schools. Those are schools where a high percent of youngsters live in poverty.
And, Udall said, TUSD did remote learning most of the year.
By contrast, she said, Vail got about $180 per youngster while Gilbert schools got about $300.
“So you have this huge discrepancy and you have districts like Vail and Gilbert who have really worked to have in-person teaching through as much of the time as possible,” Udall said.
“That’s really expensive because they’re doing the in-person teaching but they’re also doing the online at the same time,” she continued. “So they have two modes of teaching going on at the same time, they’ve got extra expenses from the technology but then also extra expenses from the cleaning, from substitutes, from the personal protective equipment.”
Yet they’re the ones getting the least aid.
So what Udall wants, at least for the short term, is that money sitting at the Department of Education. And she said it can be divided up so that all districts are guaranteed a minimum per-pupil aid.
In a response to Udall, Hoffman acknowledged the need “to provide schools with budget stability and avoid unnecessary layoffs.” And the schools chief said money from discretionary funds already is being distributed, though Udall told Capitol Media Services that “there’s still a lot left.”
But Hoffman said some of the blame for what schools are now facing financially can be traced directly to Gov. Doug Ducey.
He promised last year that schools would have at least 98% of the state aid they were getting in the prior year, regardless of attendance.
Only thing is, Ducey provided just $370 million for that based on federal dollars he got. Hoffman said the actual cost of missing students was close to $620 million.
“When the subsequent shortfalls became apparent in November, the governor’s office pointed to the legislature’s need to solve this problem,” Hoffman wrote.
The need to guarantee schools will have money next academic year is based on a presumption that the students who disappeared this year will return.
Udall said one big reason for the drop was that many parents of the youngest children, seeing what was happening with the virus, simply decided to keep them home an extra year.
That is borne out by figures from the Department of Education: Of the more than 55,700 decline in children in public schools last year, close to 30% was in preschool and kindergarten programs.
Of the others, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said he expects them to return.
Part of it, he said, is as parents have to return to work they want their children in a safe place.
“They know where that is,” he said. And then there’s what the kids themselves want.
“I think students want to be in that school community,” he said, where there are their friends, the sports and the activities.
And there’s something else at play.
Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said some districts lost more students than others because of geography.
“Gilbert is prime charter school country,” he said, giving parents who wanted their children in the classroom more options. But he, too, expects that trend to reverse as traditional schools return to in-person instruction.
Beyond that, Kotterman said charter schools just don’t have the capacity to handle that many students on a long-term basis.
Two state lawmakers are asking Attorney General Mark Brnovich to rule that expanded eviction protections approved last week by Pima County supervisors is illegal.
In a formal complaint February 9, Republicans Vince Leach of Tucson and Bret Roberts of Maricopa contend that counties have no inherent power to interfere with otherwise valid residential leases. And even if they did, they argue, what the supervisors enacted is pre-empted by state law.
Strictly speaking, the two legislators are not asking Brnovich to overrule the ordinance. In fact, he lacks the legal authority to do that.
But they are taking advantage of a state law that not only allows the attorney general to review the legality of a law but also, if he determines the action is illegal, order the state treasurer to withhold half of the county’s state aid if the measure is not rescinded.
Central to the legal battle is the decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to block evictions during the pandemic. Congress has since extended that moratorium through the end of March.
But the focus of that has to do with the inability of tenants to pay rent. It does not bar evictions for other reasons.
The February 2 vote by the Pima County supervisors is designed to plug some of what sponsor Matt Heinz told Capitol Media Services are “legal loopholes” in that CDC moratorium.
Unable to evict tenants due to nonpayment of rent due to the pandemic, Heinz said they are citing people for “material breach of contract.” That, he said could include things like failing to trim the hedges or having more pets than stated on the lease.
And the trend, Heinz said, is on the rise. He said data he got from constables shows that more than one out of every five eviction complaints now being filed claim “material breach.” Before the pandemic, Heinz said that figure was closer to one out of every 20.
The new ordinance, he said, “gives the constables an additional tool to be a decent human being.”
In their letter to Brnovich, the two GOP lawmakers say all the reasons that Pima County is citing for its moratorium ordinance are irrelevant, charging the county has no such power.
“A prerogative to dictate the permissible parameters of eviction proceedings or nullify the terms of private lease agreements is nowhere found in the functions assigned to county governments,” the complaint reads.
They acknowledge counties do have some powers to act in a state of emergency. But they point out that Gov. Doug Ducey, when he declared his own emergency, specifically precluded local governments from enacting any rules or regulations that conflict with or are in addition to those he has approved.
Even if there were not a pre-emption, Leach and Roberts contend that the county’s emergency powers do not extend to the ability to impose a moratorium.
“At most, the relevant statutes authorize counties to adopt measures urgently necessary to contain the physical spread of disease, secure health and medical services for affected individuals, supply necessary medical equipment, and otherwise ameliorate immediate threats of human life,” the complaint said. “Nothing in those provisions contemplates that a political subdivision may unilaterally conscript private property for an indefinite period without compensation, or effectively extinguish judicial enforcement of remedies guaranteed by state law.”
Heinz, however, said he believes the ordinance is on solid legal ground given the county’s ability to protect public health and prevent the spread of disease.
He said many who are evicted end up either living on the street or get crowded into shelters. In both situations, Heinz said, that creates a situation where Covid is more likely to spread.
Anyway, he noted that the ordinance is only temporary. It is set to dissolve at the end of March, the same time the CDC moratorium expires.
Health issues aside, the legislators contend that the county action directly conflicts with a provision in the Arizona Constitution which prohibits the taking of private property without just compensation.
“In essence, the moratorium converts private property into public housing, with lessors shouldering the substantial costs of sheltering defaulted tenants for as long as the Board of Supervisors dictates that they do so,” they said.
Leach and Roberts acknowledged that the tenants do remain financially liable for the accrued rents. But they called that “illusory.” They said eviction remains the only effective remedy when someone does not pay rent, as many tenants are “judgment proof,” without assets to pay.
Last year, the Arizona Multihousing Association asked the state Supreme Court to void an eviction moratorium enacted by Ducey, arguing it exceeded his emergency powers.
Attorney Kory Langhofer who prepared the legal filing argued that Ducey had created “an indefinite economic welfare and redistribution program, rather than a public health measure to contain the COVID-19 contagion.”
But a majority of the justices refused to consider the challenge, allowing the governor’s order to remain in effect until it expired in October. Only Justice Clint Bolick said the court should review Ducey’s action.
A separate action filed by Gregory Real Estate and Management fared no better, with a trial judge upholding the legality of the governor’s moratorium.
“The rational basis of mitigating the spread of COVID-19, by promoting physical distancing through the delay of evictions, exists and supports (the executive order),” wrote Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury.
After nearly four full weeks of session, none of the bills lawmakers sent to the governor’s desk deals with the Covid pandemic, a shift in emphasis that’s especially noticeable given lawmakers’ insistence to help residents and businesses survive the crisis.
Instead, the bulk of pandemic-related measures to clear committees so far seek to limit or overturn Gov. Doug Ducey’s emergency authorities.
Absent from the debate, for example, is the priority by Republican lawmakers to ensure businesses don’t face frivolous lawsuits. Also left to be tackled is House Speaker Rusty Bowers’ priority to accelerate the delivery of vaccines in the state.
Indeed, the first measure the governor signed, plus the four others awaiting his signature, tackle non-Covid issues.
The governor earlier outlined an agenda to confront the visus, which he hoped the Legislature would pass.
In his state address. Ducey focused on Covid liability protections for businesses and expanding access to broadband internet, as well as offering laptops and wi-fi to students, a problem Covid magnified.
CJ Karamargin, Ducey’s communications director said, the governor’s office is “not going to legislate ourselves out of this pandemic,” a play on Ducey’s recent comments that the state can “vaccinate our way out” of the pandemic.
“The legislative session is just getting underway. We’re confident they’re gonna deal with the governor’s agenda,” he said.
To date, the virus has claimed the lives of nearly 14,000 Arizonans and infected more than 750,000.
The only pandemic legislation to have gained any headway in the Legislature seek to chip away at the governor’s emergency authorities, which Ducey has deployed to manage the COVID-19 crisis.
Republicans and Democrats alike say they want to help Arizonans.
Democrats want to raise the unemployment assistance cap of $240 and help Arizonans avoid evictions. Arizona’s unemployment benefits are the second-lowest in the country, and it was a hot topic throughout the summer months when federal assistance first expired and Ducey made no inclination to raise the state’s cap. He instead punted to Congress to act.
Republicans, on the other hand, seek to protect businesses from lawsuits arising out of claims that an individual contracted the virus at a company’s premises, a priority for the majority party and an idea Ducey supports but which didn’t make it through last year.
Some, like Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, want to exempt businesses from following mask mandates. A measure from Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, would prevent businesses from requiring employees to get the Covid vaccine as a condition to return to work. And Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, wants to expand the definition of essential businesses to include those that sell firearms.
Ducey said in an interview in early January that there’s a reason he never called the Legislature into a special session last year.
“In a national emergency or a state emergency, action is required. And that is really not what the legislative process is famous for,” he told the ArizonaCapitol Times.
Absent legislation, Duecy’s administration is focusing on accelerating the delivery of the Covid vaccines.
The state now operates two statewide vaccination sites. The second site, which opened on Feb. 1, already added 21,000 new appointments that were scooped up in a little under an hour.
The first legislation Ducey signed this session comes from Chandler Republicans Rep. Jeff Weninger and Sen. J.D. Mesnard, who introduced mirror measures at the behest of Attorney General Mark Brnovich to crack down on workplaces discriminating against pregnant women. Mesnard and Weninger also introduced the bill last year, but it died due to the pandemic.
The other bills on the governor’s desk received bipartisan support, but none deals with the pandemic.
Among the bills lawmaker fast-tracked to Ducey’s desk is a proposal by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Scottsdale, to close a “loophole” when disciplining non-certified teachers accused of misconduct. Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale introduced the same legislation last year, but it did not make headway before the pandemic shut down the session.
The state previously had no way to track or discipline non-certified teachers accused of sexual misconduct, allowing them to remain in schools.
The three other bills from Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, Rep. Timothy Dunn, R-Yuma and Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, are also awaiting the governor’s signature.
When people ask me what I do, I tell them I do it all. I’m a salon owner, run a catering business, and attend business school. But I’m also a mom, a daughter, and a sister, so that means I’m a child care provider and a caregiver when the need arises. During the pandemic, the need arose.
During the pandemic, being a caregiver became a full-time job for me. One of my kids has Down Syndrome and was at high risk. I had to put my child’s safety first. And then, in November, my brother got Covid. My mom lives with him and she tested positive, too. Then my sister-in-law and their two kids needed support— and I am their support. While they were quarantined and recovered, I took care of them — errands, the drugstore, groceries. The whole time, I felt so scared — for them, for my family, for my business, but what could I do? They’re my family and they needed me.
For a whole month while they were sick, I could barely step foot in the salon, and things pretty much unraveled. When I launched my salon in Tempe, we went into it clear-eyed. In the business plan, we’d given ourselves a year before we were profitable, and we had just turned that corner. But that was before Covid hit and changed everything. I had to let two employees go. On top of that, my catering company had no profit at all. Nobody needed catering. All that I’d worked for, all the ways I found to turn my talents into small businesses that helped make my community strong — it was like someone dropped a bomb on them overnight.
All of a sudden, my budget shrank and my responsibilities grew. I was caring for two families on half my income. And once my mother and my brother’s family were getting healthy, my sister and her family got sick. I jumped right back in and the routine started again. I was stretched thin again for another two weeks.
Looking back, having a paid leave policy would have been a game-changer for me, for my employees, for my business, for my family. I certainly hope we never have another pandemic like this, but what I learned was that when someone in your family needs care — doesn’t matter what for — you’re on your own. That’s not right, and it’s definitely not right for small business owners like me. Nobody should have to choose between caring for themselves or a loved one and their livelihood.
When I started my business, I would have loved to have a paid leave plan — but for a small start-up like mine, it simply wasn’t possible. But I knowthe benefits— paid leave helps retain staff, which is cost effective in the long term, and it helps level the playing field between businesses like mine and bigger national competitors. And I learned that in states that have paid leave plans, it hasn’t been burdensome to businesses. And in an industry like salons, where many stylists are independent contractors, we can’t leave out sole proprietors in any plan.
And where I live, we need it. Women make up nearly half of Arizona’s labor force and more than one-quarter of its business owners. And my experience, as I saw all around me, wasn’t unique. Women, especially Black, Latina AAPI and Native American mothers, were hit hardest by pandemic closures, working in many of the most-affected industries and bearing the brunt of increased caregiving without schools or child care. At the end of 2020, Arizona’s labor force had lost 19,000 workers and nearly five times as many women were unemployed compared to one year earlier.
Those numbers are shocking, and worse, they’re unnecessary.
That’s why I’m using my voice to tell our elected leaders that paid leave must be part of the economic recovery from the pandemic. Paid leave has to be a part of any economic and jobs legislation and it has to happen now, this year. Otherwise, that recovery won’t include people like me — now or in the future. This is an opportunity to support small businesses — to make it easier for people like me in Arizona and all over the country to start small businesses that thrive, and to make caring for our families possible, too. It’s win/win, and so no wonder 70% of small business ownerssupport it. When something’s win/win, that’s where you put your money. Let’s get paid leave passed now.
Portia Jones is the co-owner of Mad Skillz Salon and founder of So Damn Good Cuisine near Phoenix, and a member of the Main Street Alliance.
So you got fired from your job for refusing to get vaccinated or wear a mask.
You also may have forfeited any right to collecting unemployment benefits.
That’s the conclusion of David Selden, a veteran labor law attorney. And he said it’s not just because Arizona is an “at-will” employment state where companies can fire workers for no reason at all.
But the Department of Economic Security, the agency that administers the benefits, said it may not be that cut and dried.
That issue has taken on increasing importance in the wake of an opinion issued last month by Attorney General Mark Brnovich. He concluded that private employers are free to require their workers to be vaccinated against Covid.
The only requirement is that company must make “reasonable accommodations” for those who cannot get vaccinated for medical or disability reasons, or have a “sincerely held religious belief.”
Selden said that pretty much anyone else who is let go — or quits — over issues like vaccination or masks has been terminated for refusing to comply with a condition of employment.
What makes that relevant is that jobless benefits generally are limited to those who are fired through no fault of their own. But refusing to comply with what a company sees as a safety measure, Selden said, is something quite different.
In fact, he said, it might even be considered necessary and good business for employers to get rid of workers that don’t comply.
Selden said that during the first round of COVID, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration began inspections and investigations in cases where they saw people working in close proximity to one another, not socially distanced and not using protective gear.
“Even in Arizona there were some reviews of working conditions on whether or not employees were being subjected to hazards based upon the adequacy or inadequacy of the preventive measures that have been adopted,” he said.
He pointed out that OSHA regulations impose a duty on employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that could cause the risk of death or serious injury.
“Working in proximity to people, or where you’re going to be exposed to customers who could potentially be Covid positive, that could be one of those conditions,” Selden said.
All that leads to the question of whether a worker fired for refusing to be vaccinated or wear a mask can collect benefits.
Tasya Peterson, spokeswoman for DES, said there are multiple factors in state and federal law to determine who is eligible.
“Losing a job because of a failure to become vaccinated will not immediately disqualify an individual from benefits in Arizona,” she said. Conversely, she said not everyone who loses a job because they cannot — or will not — become vaccinated will be eligible.
“All case-by-case reviews will include obtaining information from the individual and the former employer as part of the fact-finding process,” Peterson said.
Selden acknowledged that, for the moment, it is “an open issue” as to whether disregarding an employer’s rule would be misconduct that is contrary to the company’s interest and therefore a justified firing — one that disqualifies someone from collecting jobless benefits
“I think there’s a good argument to be made that yes, it is, because the employer is trying to provide a safe workplace for all of its employees,” he said. Selden said it’s no different than disciplining or firing a worker for violating any other safety rule.
Masks may be a bit different. Safety issues aside, he said companies are free to impose dress codes on workers.
Consider, Selden said, people who work at In-N-Out Burger have to wear those paper hats.
“Or, you walk into Walmart, there’s a guy with a blue apron, he continued. “Employers could make this a part of their dress code for whatever reasons of the company image.”
And all of that is legitimate, he said, as long as there are those reasonable accommodations, like an alternate workspace.
That might even include being allowed to work from home. And Selden noted that companies were doing that before, making it hard for them to say that that is no longer possible now.
More complicated is determining whether someone has a “sincerely held religious belief” that a company would be required to accommodate.
Selden noted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said that can be based on the religion that people follow. But he said it also can be “a set of beliefs or value systems that takes the same place in that person’s life similar to the role that recognized religions play in the lives of the people who adhere to one of the recognized religions.”
What that can mean, Selden acknowledged, is a wide-open situation where it could come down to a “do-it-yourself” set of beliefs.
“For example, you could say, ‘My Sabbath is Monday, Wednesday, Friday,’ ” he said. “That’s the bad news for employers.”
But Selden said that, in general, employers have to do “way less” to accommodate someone’s religious beliefs than they do for someone with a disability. He said companies don’t have to do anything if it involves more than what the law calls a “de minimus” cost, meaning anything more than trifling.
The governor’s chief medical adviser said November 23 Covid infections could be cut sharply if people would do more to protect themselves, including wearing masks.
But Dr. Richard Carmona refused to call out his boss for his refusal to set an example and instead appearing at various public events, including indoors, without a face covering even as he and other health officials warned that hospitals in Arizona are in danger of being overwhelmed this holiday season.
“I think everybody wearing a mask can have some incremental value,” Carmona said at a briefing involving state health officials and medical officers from hospitals around the state. But the doctor said he and all of them are staying out of what has become a political fight.
His comments came as Carmona said he and his colleagues felt it necessary to have an unusual joint news conference to point out how bad things already are in Arizona and how much worse they can get if people don’t take actions to mitigate the spread, like getting inoculated, social distancing – and wearing a mask.
It has already reached crisis point in some places.
Copper Queen Community Hospital in Bisbee shut down its operating room on late November 22, said Edward Miller, the facility’s chief medical officer. He said that became necessary to ensure there are sufficient people to staff the medical-surgical unit.
It’s not just a small-town problem.
As of November 22, there were only 114 adult intensive care beds unoccupied in the entire state out of 1,783.
“We’re reaching a point where capacity is being very, very strained,” said Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health. “And we need your help to try to reduce the influx of patients that are coming.
It’s not all Covid patients. Bessel said hospitals are being crowded by people who put off care for other conditions and now are in need of more intense treatment.
But it is Covid that is the underlying problem. She said half of the patients in her facilities on ventilators in intensive care units are being treated for Covid.
“If we didn’t have those patients, we would have more than enough room for all the other patients we’re talking about that need us today,” she said.
“They’re preventing us from taking care of all of the other patients that have medical needs that, if we don’t attend to them now, they will become those patients that get care later,” added Dr. Alyssa Chapital, hospital medical director for Mayo Clinic.
At one time the state had talked about reopening the old St. Luke’s Hospital in Phoenix and even military style “pop-up hospitals.” But Carmona said that’s not an answer.
“The problem is, where are the bodies?” he asked.
“Even if you have the physical space, you need to have a nurse, you need a respiratory therapist,” the doctor continued. “You don’t have the man or woman power.”
All that, Carmona said, comes back to the issue of preventing the spread of the virus in the first place and keeping people out of hospitals.
A lot of that, he said, involves vaccinations. But he also said people need to understand the importance of masks.
“What we tell everyone, including elected officials, is to utilize these mitigation strategies,” Carmona said. “Individuals are making some decisions we may disagree with.”
But he said the nature of living in a democracy means that he doesn’t have the authority to force anyone to do anything.
That, then, leaves the question of whether that message of wearing masks is being undermined by public officials – including Ducey – who routinely appear without a face covering.
“I see some public officials wearing masks,” Carmona said.
“And I applaud them for doing that,” he continued. “But, again, we don’t have the authority to order anybody to do anything.”
Ducey press aide C.J. Karamargin acknowledged that the governor has been to multiple public and private meetings without a face mask. But Karamargin said the governor will wear a mask if requested by whoever hosts the event, as he did when meeting in Globe this summer with people displaced by forest fires.
Carmona said it’s not like he and others have been shy about trying to get the message out.
“What we tell everyone, not just elected officials, is to utilize these mitigation strategies,” Carmona said.
He has made no secret that he disagrees with some of the decisions of his boss. That includes the question of whether a mask mandate would save lives.
“When the governor asked me to step up and help, we had those discussions,” he said. In the end, Carmona said, he agreed to take on the job because the governor promised to support what he believes is the prime strategy of getting people inoculated.
“And I said, OK, because this is a compromise solution,” Carmona said.
The governor isn’t the only problem. He noted the Republican-controlled Legislature also sought to put curbs on what could be mandated, though some of what lawmakers approved has since been voided by the Arizona Supreme Court.
What that left, said Carmona, is messaging.
“The issue here is that we must save lives,” he said. “Every one of us are committed to reaching every single Arizonan to get them the information they need to inspire them to make the right decisions.”
Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general, said he recognizes there are political realities.
“Often, the most contentious issues are ones about the rights of the individuals versus the collective rights of society,” he said. “People say, ‘I’m an American, you can’t tell me what to do.”
But Carmona said it’s not that simple.
“What we’re doing today is pleading with that American, that it’s not about you, it’s about you, your family, your community, our state, the nation and the world,” he said. “Because if we cannot achieve herd immunity globally, this virus will continue.”
Chapital of Mayo Clinic said there’s another strategy to keep people out of intensive care units even after they contract the virus: monoclonal antibodies. She said that treatment can enhance the immune system and block the virus from replicating.
But Chapital said that requires treatment early in the process. And it still has to be administered at a hospital.
What’s next, she said, are some oral medications being developed.
“You may be able to get treated at home,” Chapital said.
By all accounts, Arizona has had a rough time through the Covid pandemic. A staggering loss of more than 15,000 Arizonans, punctuated by devastating economic and mental health impacts, left our state reeling.
Vaccinations mean that hope is here, and Arizona’s recovery has been jumpstarted with one of the highest-volume, 24/7 vaccination sites in the country at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. With more than 8,000 vaccines administered every day…about one every 10 seconds…Arizonans have come together in a colossal act of love.
This is exactly why, when state leaders called on Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona to get involved in early January, we said “yes.” In less than two weeks, we mobilized our team to join the single largest and most important public health effort our nation has seen during the pandemic. We mobilized to assist. We mobilized to serve. And most importantly, we mobilized to deliver hope.
We anticipated the huge effort, and are humbled to be part of this highly effective public-private partnership. What we did not anticipate was how much we would be touched by witnessing the absolute best of humanity in action. Thousands of individuals, most of whom are volunteers, have worked around the clock to help administer a dose of hope to more than 300,000 Arizonans in less than six weeks.
Working nine-hour shifts, some overnight, on their feet in the rain, sun, cold, and even desert hailstorms, these volunteers tell us how honored they are to serve in a role that has so much purpose. They experience words of thanks and tears of joy and relief every day, along with being witnesses to a monumental time in our country’s history.
President Biden and Vice President Harris recently took a virtual tour of the vaccination operations at State Farm Stadium. Calling the 24/7 vaccination operation “amazing,” President Biden and Vice President Harris pointed to the teamwork as an example of unity, saying, “We have never failed as a country when we’ve done things together.” Administering more than 20% of all Covid vaccines in Arizona, the impressive vaccination results at State Farm Stadium to-date would not have been possible without a tireless team.
Together with federal partners, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard, along with state leadership from the Governor’s Office, the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, and the Arizona Department of Health Services, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona employees and their families and friends have volunteered to help make this a national model of an efficient and streamlined vaccination clinic. We joined hospitals, the Arizona Cardinals, Arizona State University, Walgreens, the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation, the City of Glendale, and more with the shared goal of working together to win the COVID battle.
A true testament to the grit and resilience of our community, Arizona has managed to move from a time of hopelessness and uncertainty to becoming a role model of strength and unity. While we need to stay vigilant and still have a long road ahead, standing shoulder to shoulder against an enemy we cannot even see will lead us to victory. This is genuine, authentic love in action, and it changes us all for the better.
Pam Kehaly is president and Chief Executive Officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona (BCBSAZ).
What happens to 51 schools and their after-school 3rd grade literacy programs when there’s no after-school? This was the prospect faced by schools in 10 different districts in Maricopa and Pinal counties and their partner Read Better Be Better (RBBB) in March 2020 when the Covid pandemic shuttered schools across Arizona. Suddenly, the only program in the state that pairs third-grade students with sixth to eighth grade volunteers to improve both literacy and leadership skills was forced to cease its twice-weekly sessions in the middle of the semester.
Like all of Arizona’s students, RBBB’s participants were instantly homebound; their caregivers tasked with simultaneously juggling work and managing their children’s education in the home; while school staff scrambled to continue providing what once was part of a normal day including homework packets, meals, and access to school social workers. Teachers were especially hard-hit and immediately had to figure out how to adapt their lesson plans to remote teaching, learn digital technology to conduct classes and, once distance learning began, not only teach students but monitor their in-class virtual behavior, work individually with students who needed more support, and maintain communication with students and their families online and by phone. The demands of the job and the accompanying stress were high, and remain so.
Building the Foundation for All Learning
“We did not want to add to that pressure but we knew that it was imperative to adapt our program to the new circumstances so that we could continue filling the need for additional reading intervention,” said Sophie Allen-Etchart, RBBB CEO, who founded the organization in 2014 in response to Arizona’s literacy crisis and the state’s goal that by 2030, 72% of all third graders will be reading at or above grade level.
Much work remains. Currently only 34% of third graders from low-income families in the state read at grade level and often are unable to make the pivotal transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” by fourth grade, which is the foundational skill for all future learning. However, on average, in just one 10-week session, RBBB third graders score 20% higher on standardized reading tests than their nonparticipating peers. Better yet, the students themselves recognize that they’ve improved: 88% of third graders agree that they are better at reading after a semester of RBBB than they were before and 87% of middle school volunteers state that they have what it takes to be a good leader after participating in RBBB.
Without the availability of the schools to facilitate in-person sessions, RBBB had no program. But superintendents and teachers from the partner school districts soon began contacting Allen-Etchart and RBBB staff members to discuss adapting the program to the new circumstances. The stakes were high—literacy is critical not only for a child’s future academic success but for the long-term quality of their life. Students who do not read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. With proper reading intervention, however, there is an 89% chance that students who can read at grade level by the end of third grade will graduate from high school, irrespective of socio-economic status.
“Read Better Be Better has always been innovative,” said Dr. Betsy Hargrove, superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, an RBBB partner for the past five years. “And last spring, RBBB shifted with us as we faced the greatest challenge education has ever experienced.”
“In the midst of having to figure out so much at once, our partner superintendents and teachers never wavered in their focus of putting the best interests of the children first. They reached out and asked for help, which spurred our response,” added Allen-Etchart. “Flimsy collaborations fall apart under stress but our collaboration with the public schools was forged under this fire.”
Transitioning from After-School to At-Home
Allen-Etchart designed RBBB’s traditional after-school programming model to be simple and straightforward, which allows for quick and efficient replication in schools in order to reach as many students as possible. RBBB Program Coaches oversee each after-school session, but it is the older students who are responsible for applying the curriculum. The middle school volunteers guide the third graders through an evidence-based process that starts with the students taking turns reading aloud a story from RBBB’s library, the older students then model how to write down thoughts and insights about the story, and finally the pairs discuss the story together, all of which improves both the third graders’ reading skills and the middle school volunteers’ leadership skills.
In adapting the curriculum, RBBB’s team capitalized on the program’s uncomplicated framework to transition to a remote format—Read Better Be Better At Home—by the time schools resumed in the fall. The new iteration pairs a second to fourth grade student with an older sibling or other family member in the home. Over the course of six weeks, students partner twice a week for 30 minutes each session. They work through a simplified version of the same curriculum as the after-school program, but they also receive books for their home and have an online library available to them upon request. Additionally, Program Coaches contact caregivers weekly to answer questions, receive updates about student progress, and serve as a resource for additional support. The Fall 2020 semester saw 136 Leaders and 152 Readers participate and the families’ responses to the program have been overwhelmingly positive.
“My third grader can now explain to me what she has read,” one Buckeye Elementary School parent said. “She has gone from dreading reading to asking if she can! Instead of playing video games right after school, now my kids want to read together and talk about what character they would be in the book.”
Expanding to Early Learning
Additionally, in conjunction with Avondale teachers, RBBB is developing a K-1 curriculum to help tackle the issue earlier so that children are reading at grade level, and beyond, before they reach third grade. “Read Better Be Better has served second and third grade students as well as middle school students during the past five years,” said Hargrove. “Now the program is positively impacting parents and caregivers as well as other children in the home, especially the youngest ones. We’re able to reach the whole continuum of family members.”
This continuum is evidenced by a parent from Inca Elementary School in the Buckeye Elementary School District who said: “Without Read Better Be Better we wouldn’t have started family reading nights. Now we all are reading more and talking about what we read.”
The pandemic has devastated lives, the economy, and most semblances of “normal life.” Additionally—and with a white-hot light—it has exposed societal inequities that have existed for generations. But within the narrow confines of life during Covid there exists a new latitude for creative solutions that are leading to long-needed changes.
“Rather than hang onto the hope of going back to normal, we’ve embraced the new normal,” said Hargrove. “We’ve taken the opportunity to respond nimbly to this situation to make improvements that will create opportunities for our students to be even more successful beyond the pandemic.”
Offering A Menu of Options
With the start of the Spring 2021 semester, the schools, which now number 67, and their families have a menu of program options to choose from: Literacy Kits, which contain an RBBB curriculum guide, sticky notes, a book, and other reading materials for a self-directed program; RBBB At Home; and the traditional after-school program, once it’s safe to do so. Also, with support from the Arizona Community Foundation, RBBB will soon reach students throughout the state thanks to new partnerships with community-based organizations, including domestic violence shelters, youth centers, and food banks.
“When a community commits to prioritizing children, the potential benefits are limitless,” said Allen-Etchart.
What began last March as the shutting of thousands of doors at schools across the state ended up being the beginning of new doors opening for Read Better Be Better and its partner schools because of their collaborative efforts. As hundreds and hundreds of students and their families have started reading together, yes, comprehension has improved, concentration has been boosted but even more—in the midst of an isolating pandemic—the magic of reading has brought these families closer together. Said one Alta Loma Elementary School parent, “I love how my girls sit and read together, doing something meaningful and educational.”
Written by Wendy White, RBBB Advocate, in collaboration with Dr. Betsy Hargrove, Superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, and Dawn Wallace, Vice President of the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and RBBB Governing Board Member.
Arizona corrections officials cited staffing and resource demands of the pandemic in trying to fend off a contempt of court fine against the state that could reach as high as $17 million for failing to follow through on promises in a legal settlement to improve health care for inmates.
Lawyers for corrections officials said in a court filing Friday that the pandemic forced people working in prisons to take on more duties, caused employees who were infected to miss work and resources to be spent on trying to guard against the coronavirus. They said the focus on protecting prisoners and staff members from the virus came at the expense of compliance with the 6-year-old settlement.
While acknowledging their clients’ noncompliance on many provisions of the settlement, the lawyers said corrections officials still made their best efforts to comply in a challenging situation. Compliance declined during periods when the state experienced spikes, when mass testing was done inside prisons and when providing care to inmates with the virus, the attorneys said.
“The pandemic diverted and dwindled precious, finite resources,” the attorneys wrote. “It required health care staff to prioritize and treat infected patients and focus their efforts on mitigating the virus’ spread.”
The state has already been the subject of two contempt fines totaling $2.5 million for noncompliance with the settlement.
U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver, who had threatened the third round of fines, has warned the state against offering any of its past excuses for noncompliance.
In an order earlier this month, Silver wrote that coronavirus restrictions may provide a valid basis for noncompliance but emphasized that the virus can’t be used as a complete shield against noncompliance, noting health care didn’t cease during the pandemic and that the state was noncompliant on requirements within the settlement on which it was noncompliant before Covid.
The judge also has said the state couldn’t avoid the fine by blaming it on a problem in a given month that negatively affected compliance and instead must show that such a problem stemmed from conditions that officials didn’t or couldn’t have anticipated during the previous six years of the settlement.
Over the last several years, corrections officials have been dogged by complaints that they have dragged their feet in fulfilling the state’s promises made in the settlement, which now covers 30,000 inmates in Arizona’s 10 state-run prisons.
In 2018, a magistrate judge imposed a $1.4 million contempt fine for noncompliance against the state, which paid the penalty but was later reimbursed for that amount by the company that at the time was providing health services inside prisons. In late February, Silver issued a $1.1 million contempt fine.
Attorneys representing prisoners say the third fine could be as high as $17 million.
The settlement arose out of a lawsuit that alleged the state’s prisons didn’t meet the basic requirements for providing adequate medical and mental health care for prisoners. The lawsuit said some prisoners complained that their cancer went undetected or that they were told to pray to be cured after begging for treatment.
It also said the failure of the medical staff at one prison to diagnose an inmate’s metastasized cancer resulted in his liver enlarging so much that his stomach swelled to the size of a pregnant woman at full term. Another inmate who had a history of prostate cancer had to wait more than two years for a biopsy.
The state denied allegations that it was providing inadequate care, and the lawsuit was settled without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.
As members of the Greater Phoenix Leadership Health Sector Task Force, we are disappointed and highly concerned to learn of the retraction of virtually all COVID safety precautions in the state of Arizona, including mask mandates. Arizona’s vaccination efforts are admirable and headed in the right direction, yet still far from the 70% or more fully vaccinated needed to achieve herd immunity. We are not there yet.
It is true that we are on the road to recovery and there is reason for celebration and some relief. It is equally true that variant strains are in Arizona and causing faster spread. Even with vaccines, average daily infections are escalating, with the 7-day average rising from 480 on March 23 to 548 on March 30.
We are so close to having vaccines available for everyone who wants one and, at the rate we are able to deliver vaccines, so close to achieving herd immunity. Let’s not drop our guard just steps away from the finish line. Our community is counting on us, our businesses are counting on us, and the people we love are counting on us.
We implore you to continue to follow CDC guidelines, mask-up in public places and physically distance. If you are fully vaccinated and in a small group of others who have also been fully vaccinated, that is when you can take off your mask and enjoy each other’s smiles. Until we hit the herd immunity milestone, please continue to take the precautions that matter — lives and livelihoods still depend on it.
Let’s work together to make 2021 a happy and healthy year.
Greater Phoenix Leadership Health Sector Task Force
Lisa E. Blumling-Torosian
Accenture Operations- Health
President and CEO
President and CEO
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona
Market President, Arizona
Sr. VP Operations and CEO, Arizona
President and CEO Flinn Foundation
President and CEO
Phoenix Children’s Hospital
Dr. Jeffrey Trent
President and Research Director
Translational Genomics Research Institute
President and CEO
TriWest Healthcare Alliance
Stephen A. Purves
President and CEO
President and CEO
Vitalyst Health Foundation
Health Sector Task Force Guests:
President and CEO Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association
Dr. Susan Pepin
Managing Director, Health & Clinical Partnerships Senior Advisor to the EVP Clinical Professor Arizona State University
Every week, the United States meets another Covid milestone, for example registering more Covid cases in a single day than ever before in the early parts of January. With the hope of a new start at a new year, it seems clear that the coronavirus has also made a new year’s resolution to persevere with a vengeance and stick around and mutate. Many of us hold a sense of optimism around a miracle vaccine that could provide some gleaming hope for our communities. Yet, the actual implementation of vaccinations seems not only to be slow moving, but also to be overlooking populations in our society who should but are not, recognized as a priority. One of these groups are people who have intellectual and developmental disability, or IDD.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article, Covid-19 Is Deadlier for People With Autism, Down Syndrome. Now Families Are Pushing Hard for Vaccines, discussing studies that show, “People with such disorders, who account for one in 50 Americans, are on average more than 2½ times as likely to die from COVID-19 as the wider U.S. population.” The question of “WHY” is not definitive. Could it be attributed to the fact that people who have disabilities are more likely to also have multiple diagnoses that include high-risk Covid disorders like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes? Is this due to inadequate access to quality care because most adults who have disability rely on public health care for their medical insurance? Or is it because many of these individuals have difficulty expressing and communicating their symptoms of illness that makes it doubly hard for medical professionals to diagnose and treat them for Covid. I would argue that all of these are true.
While local and state advocacy has been able to secure our direct care workers and family members of people with disability high priority in the line to get this much anticipated vaccine; surprisingly enough, the people who have disability with whom we work and support have not. In most instances, this vulnerable population has been grouped with the general population in the lower tiers of prioritization. However, there are some exceptions. In Tennessee, public health administrators are “specifically making its entire intellectual development disorder population a priority, citing its own studies that the death rate for this group is 3½ times higher” than in the general population.
Regardless of the reason why people with disabilities have been consistently ignored and overlooked throughout this pandemic, it is something we have all too often seen firsthand in Maricopa County. Whether intentional or not; we have had to continue to advocate for our community members with disability and remind our local officials, representatives, and legislators that this population we are proud to serve are citizens and their constituents. They are struggling, and they need our support and consideration. I urge our officials to look at the numbers here in Arizona and follow suit with other states, such as Tennessee, to establish that vaccine allocation must be based equitably to include vulnerable populations. They deserve equal access to vital medical care to combat the statistic and increase their ability for survival after potential contraction of this virus. Citizens who have intellectual developmental disability must be moved forward in line to receive this vaccination.
Madison Blanton is CEO of One Step Beyond, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides comprehensive programs that empower adults who have intellectual disabilities. For more information about One Step Beyond programs and services visit https://www.osbi.org.
Over the past year, the remarkable development of Covid vaccines has shown the tremendous promise the world’s biotech industry can bring to patients everywhere. It gives me hope when thinking about the strides we can make in combating some of our most crippling diseases, and no disease has caused more devastation than cancer. But we are on the precipice of a major breakthrough in the way we are able to detect cancer – which would transform the treatment and therefore outcome of cancer diagnoses. Now we need our health and government leaders to come together and foster this potentially life-saving advancement.
Coverage for cancer screenings up until now have been limited to only a handful of detectable cancers, such as a mammography for breast cancer. The fact is, due to the lack of screenings, the vast majority of cancers are undetectable when they’re in an early stage. As a result, diagnosis occurs at a later and more complex stage. But new advancements have made it possible to detect dozens of cancers early, when they’re easier to treat. They are found through a simple blood draw that can detect trace DNA fragments from cancer cells in the blood. This breakthrough, called multi-cancer early detection (MCED), will be an important new weapon in the War on Cancer.
Cancer has hit Arizona particularly hard. We will have nearly 40,000 cases of cancer in 2021 alone, and rank in the bottom 10 when it comes to the cancer screenings. There are numerous causes, but we cannot ignore the fact that cancer screenings are the best preventative tool in our fight. MCED could help save the lives of those who are in the early stages of cancer. The five-year survival rate for cancer detected at an early stage is nearly 90%.
Now that the science is here, I ask our elected officials to provide the leadership needed to increase coverage available for seniors on Medicare. When these technologies receive Food and Drug Administration approval, at-risk patients must be able to access MCED as soon as possible. This is especially true for seniors, who will benefit greatly from these cancer screenings. Studies have shown that cancer diagnoses increase significantly at age 65. If we are able to get Medicare recipients covered for multi-cancer early detection, it will save countless lives and save Medicare funds in the long run since late-stage cancer is so costly to treat.
It is often said that if you have not been affected by cancer, you will be. We all have lost too many loved ones and now is the time that we can fight back. I hope our elected leaders will work together to get these multi-cancer early detection programs covered under Medicare so that we can start playing offense in our fight against Cancer.
Debbie DiCarlo is CEO of Cancer Support Community Arizona.
A new statewide poll suggests there may be little, if anything that Gov. Doug Ducey and his new $400-an-hour health adviser can do to convince many more Arizonans to get vaccinated against Covid than already have made that decision.
The survey conducted earlier this month by OH Predictive Insights finds an increasing number of residents are more pessimistic about what is happening with the virus. And even among those who are unwilling to take the vaccine, nearly a quarter are extremely or moderately concerned about the current state of the pandemic in Arizona, with another half saying they have at least a slight concern.
Yet about 60% of these people still say they are not willing to get inoculated. And by a virtually identical number, they say that the new more transmissible delta variant had no effect on their willingness to get inoculated.
In fact, pollster Mike Noble found 18% said the delta variant actually made them less likely to roll up their sleeves. All that, he said, undermines efforts to reach “herd immunity” in Arizona, the point at which a sufficient percentage are inoculated to make it difficult for the virus to rapidly spread.
And he pointed out that percentage of those who want to remain unvaccinated really has not changed in the last six months.
That appears to be borne out by the state’s own vaccination numbers.
Vaccinations dropped below 10,000 a day in July. And now, even with news of the delta variant, it has not hit 20,000 a day — and come close only a handful of times — and is again declining.
That compares with close to 80,000 vaccinations a day at the peak of late March and early April.
As of Tuesday, 57.4% of Arizonans had at least one dose. And fewer than 51% are fully inoculated.
It was for that reason that Ducey last month said he hired Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general, with the specific goal of boosting vaccine acceptance.
Carmona, for his part, has said he is looking at a new — and different from the past — public education campaign to address those who he believes are getting bad information about the vaccine.
The state has had a series of public service announcements urging people to get vaccinated, ranging from appeals by former Health Director Cara Christ to community leaders and even, at one point, a floating hot dog with a surgical mask as parachute.
Carmona said that there probably are up to 15% of Arizonans who, for whatever reason, simply will not get vaccinated. Still, he said herd immunity is possible if Arizona gets to that 85% level.
The doctor promised a new approach.
Details, however, have been sparse. Carmona has made some general comments about emphasizing the benefits to the economy of having a vaccinated population.
But gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin pointed out that Carmona has been on board for less than a month.
“You’re expecting instant results?” he asked.
Karamargin, whose boss signed legislation forbidding schools from imposing mask mandates and opposes mandated vaccines, said Ducey still believes that vaccines “are the best way to put Covid behind us.”
“Dr. Carmona is well-equipped to lead this effort,” Karamargin said. “And he, himself, has said that it’s going to require hard work on everyone’s part to persuade those who may be hesitant to change their views.”
State health officials, in confirming the $400-a-hour deal with Carmona, said there is no set number of hours or specific limit on his earnings, saying only this is supposed to be a part-time role for the doctor along with the work he does at the University of Arizona and other entities.
On the subject of schools, Noble said he found that 58% of those questioned support the idea that schools — and not parents — should make the decision about whether students should have to wear masks despite the governor signing legislation that bans districts from enforcing such rules. That tracks closely with a different survey released earlier this month by the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Public Health Association.
And Noble said that by a nearly 2-1 margin the people in the survey oppose Ducey’s unilateral decision to withhold certain federal Covid relief dollars from schools who have so far ignored the yet-to-take-effect law and require students to mask up.
The governor, who cannot seek a third term, has previously pronounced himself unconcerned with such numbers.
“I’m not going to pay attention to any poll as I’m trying to put out good public policy,” he said.
The online opt-in survey of 1,000 Arizonans was conducted between Sept. 7 and Sept. 12 and has a margin of error of 3.1%.
While the recent national focus has been on legislation about Covid relief, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (a.k.a., PRO Act) has flown under the radar. If you are an independent contractor or freelancer, or hire them for your company, it’s time to look at the screen and see the green blinking blip that’s headed right at your business.
When the PRO Act was introduced in May 2019, it was intended to protect workers’ rights to unionize. A few months later, legislators added the ABC Test, which uses an outdated labor standard from the 1930s to distinguish employees from independent contractors rather than the more modern IRS Test.
Does that acronym sound familiar? That’s because the ABC Test is the same tool used by California in last year’s AB5 law, which misclassified countless thousands of Californians as employees rather than independent contractors. Lost work was inflicted on a wide range of professions, from journalists and event planners to truckers; even employers outside the state were reluctant to hire freelancers that lived there. After the fact, the legislature carved out more than 100 exemptions to the appallingly flawed law.
As potential national policy, the ABC Test earns a solid F: restricting or even eliminating many types of self-employment across the country, just as we’re recovering from Covid.
Proponents sell the PRO Act under the guise of protecting workers, but that’s only part of the story. For unions, it’s about increasing dues and lobbying clout; for governments, forcing individuals into W-2 employment offers steadier tax flow. While proponents claim that the ABC Test is only applicable to labor law, they don’t tell you that this is only step one of three. The Biden administration plans to make ABC the federal standard for employment and tax laws, too.
The vast majority of self-employed individuals have chosen that path rather than corporate employment. We pay income taxes, plus self-employment tax for Social Security and Medicare. We do not need to be protected from our clients. Moreover, the harm to independent contractors extends to groups who require or desire flexibility in their work. The ABC Test would have an outsized effect on women, older workers, people with disabilities, and people of color. Both the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and NAACP fought against AB5 in California.
If you own a business, you know that independent contractors provide access to skilled talent and more flexibility than hiring W-2 employees. As California companies learned, being forced instead to hire W-2 employees increases expenses and complexity.
There is a simple fix for the PRO Act: Dump the ABC Test and replace it with the IRS standard. Governments seeking to prosecute law-evading companies already have the tool. Under commonsense IRS rules, companies and self-employed contractors could continue doing business as we have for decades.
Indicating what’s at stake, unions and well-funded groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are bombarding U.S. Senate offices with hundreds of thousands of phone calls in favor of the PRO Act. On social media, the DSA is bragging about having filled Senators’ voicemail boxes so that no one else’s voices can be heard.
Meanwhile, opposition to the act is coming from self-employed people whose very businesses are at stake—and we represent about 35% of the workforce. The most visible entity, Fight For Freelancers USA, is composed of nearly 2,000 volunteers across the country. The list of organizations against the ABC Test is growing by the day: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Society of Journalists and Authors, and Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, among many others.
Proponents of the PRO Act are fond of handwaving away our concerns. “Fine, just don’t join a union,” they say. But that’s not reality. Even if we voted against a union or chose not to join, we would still be impacted by the wages, fees, and working conditions that they negotiated.
To borrow the aphorism of ancient Greek statesman Pericles: Just because you do not take an interest in unions doesn’t mean unions won’t take an interest in you.
The current situation is dicey; if the Democrats overturn the filibuster, all bets are off. If the filibuster stands, the PRO Act has a tougher climb to 60 votes. In recent weeks, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, and Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina have been cheered by people across the political spectrum—even those who generally support unions—for arguing in favor of independent contractors’ rights. Arizona’s Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Mark Kelly will be lauded as heroes if they can persuade their colleagues to change the ABC Test to the IRS Test. Failing that, voting no would be the only way to prevent potential disaster for independent contractors in Arizona and across the country.
Freelance writer and editor Jake Poinier (Twitter: @DrFreelance, email: [email protected]) is the owner of Phoenix-based Boomvang Creative Group and the author of four books on the business of freelancing.
My name is Margo Edris and I’m a busy working mom in the field of technology, I have two little boys ages 2 and almost 4. If you are a parent or have friends with kids, you remember this age. These toddler, preschool aged adorable little ones are infatuated with the question “why?” They constantly question everything. My son loves mac n cheese – what kid doesn’t? The other night his shirt had cheese all over it, the conversation went something like this:
Me: “Let me clean your shirt.”
Me: “Because you have mac n cheese all over it.”
Me: “Because you used your shirt instead of your napkin.”
Me: “Well, I guess you think that’s easier?”
Oh, the joys and challenges of parenting.
There is so much significance in the word “why.” Many adults never stop asking why, and I find that both inspiring and empowering. When we think of the U.S. BioTech industry, it is filled with “adult toddlers” who keep asking why, as they solve some of the greatest problems facing the world. From an economic standpoint, Biotech is an $108B segment, made up of 449 public biotech companies in the US. These are the creators of intellectual property. For these modern-day discoverers, who create the things that provide tremendously positive effects into our lives, the value of their work is precious.
According to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, “Intellectual property is the lifeblood of the biotechnology industry. Strong patents, and an efficient, predictable, and objective patent system, are critical to ensuring a steady stream of capital to biotechnology companies developing innovative medicines, alternative energy sources, insect- and drought-resistant crops, and a wide range of other innovative biotechnologies that are helping to feed, fuel, and heal our planet. This quintessentially-American industry leads the world in innovation, providing the US with a global competitive advantage and spurring economic growth and the creation of high-paying jobs here at home.”
However, the Biden administration supports waiving intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, which would allow other countries to manufacture the vaccines independently, outside the labs of the vaccine creators. This consideration produces a ‘why” from adults who understand that IP protections are a source of innovation that must be preserved. There’s an eminent threat to the U.S. BioTech market if that IP is sent out of our country into foreign markets, which would be a shame after the years of effort and funding that has been poured into the innovation up to this point.
Not only is it crucial that we preserve this $108B segment of the U.S. economy, but it isn’t necessary to relinquish the IP around Covid vaccines to accomplish the goal of increasing vaccine availability. There are many ways to get that job done well while protecting IP, and the safety and security of the vaccine itself. It might be easier to just give them the information, sort of like using your shirt as a napkin, but it is a very messy way to go about things.
Margo Edris is an Account Executive for a national cloud-based software corporation, mom, wife and member of the current class of the Dodie Londen Excellence in Public Service Series.
Two school districts are telling the governor that he’s legally off base in demanding they scrap their quarantine policies.
In a letter to Kaitlin Harrier, the governor’s education policy advisor, attorneys from the Catalina Foothills School District and the Peoria Unified School District say the schools are within their legal rights to keep unvaccinated students who have been exposed to confirmed cases of Covid out of school for up to two weeks. They said the move is “the appropriate course of action except for students who can demonstrate that they have been fully vaccinated.”
More to the point, John Richardson and Denise Lowell-Britt say that Doug Ducey and his advisers are misreading a new law limiting what schools can and cannot do in cases of the virus.
“Our clients are not acting unlawfully,” they wrote.
They are not alone in that conclusion.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, after consulting with Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, is telling local districts that the county has “independent statutory authority” to enact quarantine recommendations that schools can adopt. He also called the governor’s claim that districts cannot impose those policies “a serious stretch of the imagination (that) endangers public health,” particularly when there is no approved vaccine for children younger than 12.
And Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, pointed out that what the governor is telling schools to do is directly contrary to the policies of his own health department. It specifically says that unvaccinated students who have been exposed should be quarantined.
Agency spokesman Steve Elliott said Monday he is aware of both his department policy as well as the governor’s directive but had no other comment.
And Catalina Foothills is not backing down.
“The statute is plain and we are in full compliance with it,” district spokeswoman Julie Farbarik said Monday, saying the policy follows the guidance given to schools not just by the county health department but also the state Department of Health Services and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It remains unchanged,” she said.
Meanwhile other school districts are weighing the similar policies.
For example, both the Tempe Union and Kyrene Elementary school districts have said they will implement quarantine policies if necessary.
There’s no sign, however, the governor intends to back down.
“We expect Arizona’s public schools to comply with state law and we’re not going to allow anyone to deny Arizona kids an education,” gubernatorial spokesman C.J. Karamargin said Monday.
And what of schools that refuse to conform to his directive?
“We’ll see,” said Karamargin.
The issue starts with exactly what the law says — and means.
The language, inserted by Republicans into a budget bill, says that schools “may not require the use of face coverings by students or staff during school hours and on school property.” A separate provision says that schools cannot require students or teachers to be vaccinated for Covid or wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.”
No problem here, said the lawyers for the two districts, saying their policies require none of that.
“Nothing in (the law) restricts a school district from following guidance provided by federal, state and local public health authorities with regard to students who have been exposed to COVID-19,” they wrote.
“These authorities uniformly provide that a temporary quarantine is the appropriate course of action except for students who can demonstrate that they have been fully vaccinated,” they continued. “It would not be appropriate or reasonable for school districts to ignore these public health standards, and (the law) does not mandate that they do so.”
Karamargin said the statute is specific to schools and the general public health guidelines are irrelevant.
“It takes into account that school is the safest place for kids, whether they are vaccinated or not, and that they have a right to receive in-person education,” he said. And Karamargin said that quarantine, as a “mitigation strategy” falls within the law.
“This law prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status,” he said. “The use of any mitigation strategy should comply with the law.”
The lawyers also rejected suggestions that the policies do not run afoul of the Parents’ Bill of Rights provision of Arizona law.
It declares that parents have a “fundamental right” to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health of their children. And it bars any governmental entity from infringing on those rights without demonstrating that there is a “compelling governmental interest,” that it is narrowly tailored and cannot be accomplished by less-restrictive means.
“While parents in Arizona are empowered to decide whether and when their children attend public school, they are not permitted to decide which of the school’s otherwise lawful healthy and safety policies their children will follow once the decision to attend public school has been made,” the attorneys said. And they said that students who are quarantined are not abandoned.
“Both school districts provide instruction and assistance to such students during their temporary absence from school,” they wrote.
Few need a reminder that we are in the middle of an economic contraction and a sustained public health emergency. But apparently, some Republican officials do. Communities across Arizona are in desperate need of support, with many residents struggling to find work and some still battling Covid, and yet conservatives have maintained distracting – if not entirely counterproductive – postures on a host of partisan issues.
Instead of focusing on recovery, Attorney General Mark Brnovich continues to push a partisan agenda, launching several attacks against climate change reform, immigration policies, the American Rescue Plan, and technology companies. While his constituents suffer, Brnovich is busy pushing Trump-era talking points.
Just this month, Brnovich sued President Biden over an executive order to fight the climate crisis, arguing that it was a “massive expansion” of federal regulations. Despite polls showing that the vast majority of Arizonans believe that state and federal governments need to take more action in combatting climate change, Brnovich is keen to seize on an opportunity to fight the administration’s agenda from day one.
Brnovich also recently extended a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security for its ban on deportations. He dangerously conflated immigrants with criminals in his announcement, claiming that the DHS was allowing people “that have been convicted of crimes” or “accused of crimes” to stay in our communities. But there is, of course, no evidence to support his statement. On real matters of law enforcement, including soaring violent crime rates situating Arizona among the highest in the nation, Brnovich remains predictably quiet.
Our AG has even attempted to block the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill,suing the U.S. Treasury over a state tax provision and potentially delaying much-needed relief. This is not the time to play partisan politics and lean on tired conservative positions on tax policy, and it is certainly not the time to hold up access to critical funds.
And over the past year, Brnovich has filed a number of lawsuits against technology companies, mirroring much of the anti-tech Republican posturing taking place across the country, largely fueled by Trump- and Bill Barr-driven allegations of “anti-conservative bias” online. These frivolous, taxpayer-funded lawsuits are not only a waste of time, but a waste of precious resources in our state’s top law enforcement office. One such lawsuit, being led by Brnovich’s counterpart in Texas, is costing taxpayers $43 million alone. We should be concerned that our state is wasting similar resources on issues that couldn’t be further down the priority list of hard-working families across our state.
This partisan agenda makes clear that Brnovich is more concerned with furthering a Trump-era agenda and exacting political revenge than he is with delivering real leadership for Arizonans.
Arizonans appreciate that resources and capacity are strained in government offices at all levels during this turbulent time. Using these limited resources to sue the administration and bicker with technology companies is irresponsible. As more and more residents receive their Covid vaccinations and we all continue the hard work toward recovery, policymakers must adjust their focus and address the real issues facing our communities.
Arizona voters are increasingly realizing that conservative principles no longer serve the best interests of our state, evident in an historic election for Democrats this past cycle. As new officials take up office, and other Democrats plan for critical statewide and local elections in the months and years to come, we should remember that the Brnovich playbook must be left behind. Giving credence to this partisan agenda, during a critical phase of recovery, should be avoided.
Julie Gunnigle is a lawyer and former Democratic candidate for Maricopa County attorney.
As the 2021 spring semester at the East Valley Institute of Technology gets under way, there is hope that the biggest challenge facing our campuses this year – Covid – could be coming to an end. Now that vaccines are available for our teachers and staff, we can finally see days coming soon when we will be able to take off our masks and not worry about maintaining six feet between everyone. But it will still be a while before we get there, so for now, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to keep our campuses as safe as possible from the virus that has sickened and killed so many.
We remain as committed to our safety protocols as we do to keeping our campuses open for in-person learning during the pandemic. We remain committed to preparing our students for the real world while living, learning and working in the real world. And for a year now, the real world has included Covid.
EVIT was, if not the first, then one of the first, Arizona schools to reopen for in-person on-campus learning on August 17. This was not an easy decision, but the nature of what we do at EVIT made it a necessary one. EVIT prepares students for careers and additional higher education in health care, transportation, communications, culinary, cosmetology, public safety, aviation and industrial trades.
While some aspects of some of our programs can be taught online, most cannot. For our students to be prepared to earn industry certifications and enter the workforce, they must have in-person instruction and hands-on learning in labs and workplace environments where they use the actual tools and equipment for the job.
When Covid hit Arizona, we could not just tell EVIT students who are in their final years of high school that they wouldn’t get the training they need to meet their career and education goals – critical training that is only state-funded and tuition-free to them while they are in high school. So we spent at least $1.1 million to hire additional staff to lower class sizes and to implement enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Most importantly, we asked our teachers and staff to have courage and faith as they reported to work and donned masks to continue carrying out EVIT’s mission during the pandemic – to change lives by loving our students and serving our community.
Some rightly had concerns, but the overwhelming majority of EVIT employees wanted to be in their classrooms and on our campuses serving our students. Their love for our students defeated their fear and they performed their jobs in person, even as some became ill themselves. In this year’s State of the State Address, Gov. Doug Ducey spoke of the resilience of Arizona. I can think of no better word than resilient to describe how EVIT staff – and our students and parents – have performed during these challenging, difficult times.
When we returned to in-person learning this year, we asked EVIT students and parents to be as committed to our safety protocols as our staff. They were required to self-check for symptoms every morning, stay home if they had symptoms or if they or anyone in their household tested positive for Covid, to wear masks and to practice safe distancing, hand-washing and good hygiene while on campus. For the most part, we have had little problem implementing these rules because our EVIT families were willing to do whatever they needed to do so students could come to school every day. And so far, our numbers of Covid cases bear this out. We have had 223 confirmed cases – approximately 5% of our population of 4,518 students and staff – since reopening for in-person learning in August.
The business community also embraced our return to in-person learning because they want our students to be successful and because they know better than anyone how important EVIT training is to ensuring that the East Valley and Arizona have a trained, skilled workforce. To that end, our students’ practical and clinical experiences in Valley businesses and health-care sites will continue to be offered this semester as they always are in the spring. And, some of our businesses are doing even more to help. Auto dealerships and automotive businesses have set up work-based learning environments that our diesel and automotive students are rotating through every week. This is enabling us to reduce the class sizes of these large programs on campus so our students can be spread out for safe distancing.
While things have been going well, we know there are significant challenges ahead as Covid cases rise and spread in Arizona. We know things will likely get worse before the vaccine makes them better. But EVIT is a school of choice – and we will continue to honor the choice East Valley families made to send students to EVIT for in-person learning. We will remain committed to the resilience it takes to prepare our students for the real world.
Chad Wilson is superintendent of the East Valley Institute of Technology.
A state senator accused of workplace harassment said Monday that a complaint filed against her isn’t true, and it wouldn’t violate Senate rules even if it were.
In a two-page letter sent this afternoon, Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, urged the Senate Ethics Committee to dismiss the complaint filed by her former legislative assistant. Michael Polloni, a former Rogers campaign volunteer who began working as her legislative assistant in early December, accused Rogers of repeated verbal abuse that escalated to her physically accosting him on his last day of work on Jan. 14.
“I believe the complaint against me is a complete fabrication by an outgoing, brand new employee who worked only one official day for the state of Arizona after the swearing in of senators,” Rogers wrote.
In his complaint, Polloni wrote that Rogers berated him over his weight, his lesbian sister and his liberal aunt, took his personal belongings and broke an Eagle Scout plaque. Her behavior allegedly ramped up after Polloni contracted Covid on Jan. 3 and had to stay home for 10 days.
Rogers pestered him to work each of those 10 days, Polloni said. When he was finally able to return to work on Jan. 14, she questioned whether he had ever really been sick.
“What have you been doing for the past two weeks? Sitting on your butt doing nothing?” he remembers her asking.
On Jan. 14, Polloni said Rogers pulled him into her office and yelled at him, standing so close that he could feel her spittle on his face, according to the complaint.
“We are at war, Mikey, do you not understand that? You do not understand half of what I know. You were not told what is going to be happening in the coming months,” she yelled, according to his complaint.
This scared Polloni, who tried opening the door to call for another assistant. Rogers slammed it shut, and Polloni is convinced his hand would have been crushed if he hadn’t moved it.
Hours later, the Senate told him he had the choice between being terminated or resigning. He chose to resign, to remain eligible for employment with the state in the future.
In her response, Rogers dismisses all the allegations as untrue. She also cites a procedural issue with his complaint, that Polloni didn’t name the law or Senate ethics rule he believes she violated, as proof the complaint should be dismissed.
Senate ethics rules only prohibit violating state or federal law or “any improper conduct that adversely reflects upon the Senate,” Rogers wrote, and she argues that the allegations against her don’t rise to that level.
“I believe the allegation by the Complainant alleging I created a hostile work environment is not true; therefore, the alleged, untrue allegations do not constitute improper conduct that adversely reflects upon the Senate. This alleged personnel matter is not a matter of Senate ethics,” she concluded.
Sen. Sine Kerr, the Buckeye Republican who chairs the Ethics Committee, will review the complaint and response before recommending any action by the rest of the committee.
Safely restarting in-person education in our schools is one of the most difficult and important tasks we face as we strive for normalcy in the face of Covid. One of us is a doctor specializing in infectious disease control and the medical director of HealthyVerify Certification. The other is a school superintendent specializing in successfully educating our children. Covid required us to share our knowledge base in order to safely bring children back to school in person in the Avondale Elementary School District.
And now that Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered in-person learning to resume by March 15, the issue of how to safely operate schools is more important than ever.
HealthyVerify played a critical role in helping to ensure that medical science and the art and science of educating children worked together in Avondale elementary schools to create a safe environment for learning and teaching. HealthyVerify is guided by medical professionals who have worked with private businesses and a number of public, public charter, and private schools to ensure full compliance with state and federal Covid mitigation measures.
Working with Dr. Moran and HealthyVerify, the Avondale Elementary School District established doable and effective protocols covering everything from physical distancing, and classroom sanitization and how we circulate through our schools. The school continues to benefit from having a third-party that also tracks any changes to state and federal requirements while providing the school with immediate feedback and responses to the numerous questions that arise from parents and staff.
If there is one message we would like to convey to schools that are going to return in person, it’s that they can open safely. It certainly takes patience, open communication between administrators, staff, and parents, and a commitment to do things the right way, all the time, every time.
HealthyVerify helped established the unique protocols we implemented at the Avondale Elementary School District. Other school districts that may have such resources in house could decide to develop protocols on their own. And that’s fine too.
The most important goal is to bring our kids back to the classroom in a safe and secure environment.
While we have incredible distance learning happening, most experts will agree that remote learning is no substitute for in-person learning. Kids have missed out on the benefits of the social interaction that comes with classroom learning as well as the in-person connections with adults.
Help is available from the public and private sectors. There are options for schools to open safely. The Avondale Elementary School District was fortunate enough to get the right tools and advice, thanks to HealthyVerify. They have been able to focus on learning and teaching while working alongside the experts to navigate Covid. The result is a safe learning environment for children and adults.
Ducey’s executive order means in-person learning is coming sooner than later for all schools. The school bell is about to ring statewide. We believe our schools, educators, and students can meet the challenge when they are armed with the correct resources as our experience working together in Avondale proves.
Dr. Ana Moran is an infectious disease doctor serving as medical director for HealthyVerify Certification and as faculty at Barrow Neurological Institute and Creighton University School of Medicine.
Betsy Hargrove is superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District.
Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the birth of the birth control pill, a revolutionary step that provided millions of women with greater reproductive control. Nearly two generations later, however, accessing the pill remains challenging for many.
SB1082, sponsored by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, would allow a physician at the Arizona Department of Health Services to issue a statewide standing prescription permitting a pharmacist to dispense self-administered hormonal contraceptives “without any other patient-specific prescription drug order.” In effect, this removes the need for a trip to the doctor for the sole purpose of obtaining a prescription that is then filled at the pharmacy. Last year, the same bill, branded as SB1493, was unanimously passed in the state Senate – the Legislature, however, adjourned due to the Covid shutdown before it could be heard by the House. As a medical student who will also graduate with a master’s degree in public health, I believe that this is a step in the right direction in removing barriers to care, empowering patient autonomy, and allowing evidence-based decisions for care.
It is imperative to recognize that social disparities in health directly impact patient care, and it is dangerous to assume that every patient who needs access to contraception can safely and reliably go to a physician’s office to meet that need. Recent research suggests that one-third of women in the United States who have tried to obtain prescription contraception have reported barriers to care (Grindlay & Grossman, 2014) and one-third of women say they would be more likely to use birth control if it were available without a prescription (Grossman et al., 2013). The frequency with which women encounter barriers to accessing essential medical care is due in part to barriers related to cost, insurance, and transportation. As a result of these barriers, vulnerable populations – including individuals of low socioeconomic status, uninsured or underinsured persons, or geographically-isolated individuals – can quickly find themselves unable to obtain contraceptives.
A common argument against over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives is that there are certain conditions that make the use of hormonal contraceptives unsafe. In accordance with good clinical practice, patients should be screened for contraindications to some hormonal contraceptives that could cause rare, but dangerous side effects. Studies demonstrate that patients are as, if not more, effective at self-screening compared to physicians (Xu et. al., 2014). Screening for contraindications is based only on the patient’s history and does not require a pelvic or breast exam, sexually transmitted infection screening, or a pap test.
The benefits of birth control extend beyond contraception. The recent declines in adolescent pregnancy and abortion rates in the United States have not occurred in isolation, but have been attributed to increased contraceptive use, particularly the birth control pill (Lindberg et al., 2016). In addition to being an effective method of preventing pregnancy, the pill can be used to treat heavy and irregular periods, cramps or pain, and acne (Allen, 2020). Contraceptives have been shown to improve birth outcomes, reduce the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, and support women’s educational attainment and professional advancement (Guttmacher Institute, 2013).
Oral contraceptives are popular, safe and effective, but accessing them is not always convenient. Making birth control pills available via standing prescription would eliminate the barrier of having to see a doctor to get a prescription. Though I believe that birth control should ultimately be available over the counter, SB1082’s proposal to provide a standing order prescription for Arizona women is an important first step.
SB1082 already passed out of the Senate Health Committee February 17 and awaits a vote of the full Senate. It received strong bipartisan support last year, as evidenced by its unanimous passage by the Senate on February 20, 2020. The bill should have been passed as swiftly by the House but was not voted upon due to the Covid shutdown. The bill should be among the priorities for this session as it would remove one of the barriers that prevent women from having reliable access to contraception.
Megan Sluga is a medical student at the University of Arizona.
School choice proponents contend that the pandemic has exposed flaws in the state’s existing education system and opened the door for creative solutions as students return to the physical classroom.
Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president of 50CAN, a nonprofit that looks to connect students to high quality education, regardless of their address. He joined other school choice proponents to discuss these issues during an Arizona Capitol Times Morning Scoop on March 9.
“Some things were great, but some things were not great in American K-12 education before the pandemic, and now those things are on display in a way that we can deal with them,” Bradford said.
But some education and community advocacy groups, like Save Our Schools Arizona, see the pandemic as an excuse for Republican lawmakers to push bills that the groups say would gut public school funding and deepen the divides between the haves and have nots.
“The pandemic was a good excuse, but really, it’s anger at voters paired with two guaranteed years of majority leadership,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, communications director and co-founder of Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots nonprofit organization that led the effort resulting in voters handily rejecting universalschool voucher expansion in 2018.
Save Our Schools Arizona, along with nine other organizations, signed a letter to the Arizona House this week, asking them to vote against several of the bills school choice advocates praise as innovative. Save Our Schools Arizona was joined by the Arizona Education Association, Arizona Alliance of Black Educators and Arizona School Boards Association, among others.
The pandemic has caused a shift in how Arizonans do their schooling, with a drop of about 38,550 in public school enrollment from last school year.
Janelle Wood, founder of the nonprofit Black Mother’s Forum, gave an example of the change: Her organization has started offering micro-schools during the pandemic with the help of an A for Arizona innovation grant. She said she has spoken to parents who have expressed concerns about their children’s safety, not only during the pandemic, but also when it came to racial tensions in the country.
The micro-school setting, she said, allowed for social distancing and for in-person interaction and helped students to feel safe with and learn from people who look like them.
“Traditional education is gone. That particular system – done. We can’t do it that way anymore,” Wood said.
But the Arizona Department of Education and some education groups said that the pandemic has brought a more temporary change. About 42% of the enrollment decline is in kindergarten and preschool levels, and ADE expects a fair number of those students to return, as kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Arizona. Penich-Thacker moved her own children into a charter school and a home-school setting this year.
“But at the end of this year, we are absolutely going back to our district school,” she said.
Department spokesman Richie Taylor said the pandemic has shown there are opportunities for innovation and new models in education, but it also has brought more awareness to the wraparound services public schools provide.
Bradford and Wood are both on A for Arizona’s Governing Board. During the Morning Scoop panel, they also highlighted a handful of bills moving through the Legislature that would take Arizona education in the direction they want to go. One, SB1400, narrowly passed out of the Senate on March 1 and would allow students to earn elective credit through out-of-school activities, such as organized sports, community theater or a job.
Wood said some communities had created Saturday schools to teach their children ethnic studies no longer offered at their traditional school, and that the bill would allow them to earn credit for that.
“They get no credit for that. Why not?” she said. “Those are things that are wholly beneficial for that child as they grow up to be an active participant in the up-building of their communities.”
Becky Hill, the regional director of yes. every kid, said the bill would not affect school funding, as each student would still be funded as full-time, even if they participated in off-campus activities as electives.
But the state Department of Education and others worry the bill would disincentivize funding for schools’ programs.
“The underfunding of these programs in schools has created this situation where there’s an effort to look outside of schools, but from our perspective, we should be encouraging students to take electives that are aligned with state standards and support our public education system,” Taylor said.
Penich-Thacker said the bill would disproportionately harm students who can’t afford club sports or private lessons and students in rural areas where such community programs may be limited or nonexistent.
“Every time we create these special programs that have additional fees for families and we call them opportunities, sure, some people take advantage, but only those who can afford it,” Penich-Thacker said.
Republican senators voted Wednesday to curb the emergency powers of the governor, but do it in a way he can’t veto.
SCR 1003, approved on a party-line 16-14 vote, would terminate any emergency declared by the governor in 30 days unless both the House and Senate agreed to an extension. And any extension could be for no more than 30 days, though there could be continued reauthorization.
The proposal now goes to the House.
Nothing in the measure would affect the current emergency that Gov. Doug Ducey declared in March.
That’s because the legislation requires voter approval. Sending it to the ballot skirts the normal requirement for gubernatorial approval.
But lawmakers may yet get a chance to pull the plug on the current emergency. SCR 1001, which would do just that, already has cleared two Senate committees and awaits floor debate.
Wednesday’s vote comes following months of complaints by many GOP lawmakers that the Republican governor has used his emergency powers to infringe on individual rights. That has included the closure of businesses he has declared to be “non-essential,” a moratorium on evictions, and what amounted to a stay-at-home order for people who do not need to be out.
Most of those are gone. But his orders still keep bars closed unless they operate like restaurants, with sit-down food service and no dancing. And restaurants can operate with only limited seating capacity.
“My constituents were banging down my door wanting me to do something and take action,” said Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, who crafted the plan.
Existing law does allow the legislature to terminate an emergency order with a simple majority vote.
Only thing is, with the legislature not in session, there was no way for lawmakers to do that. And with Ducey unwilling to call them into a special session to override his order, that left only the option for lawmakers to call themselves in. That, however, takes a two-thirds vote, which the Republicans did not have.
Petersen said this measure, if approved by voters, ensures that the governor has to work with lawmakers if he wants his emergency powers extended.
Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, was blunter in her belief that there needs to be legislative oversight and input, even in the case of a deadly disease.
“I hope we never again see something so fearsome that we give all power and control to one person and his bureaucrats who cannot be held accountable by the public,” she said. “There are severe consequences when we place that much power in the hands of one person indefinitely.”
Senate Democrats, who generally believe the governor has done too little with his emergency powers to curb the spread of the pandemic and its effects, found themselves in the curious position of defending the current law and speaking against efforts to allow curbs.
“The whole purpose is an attempt to remove politics from action during an emergency so that we can act swiftly to save lives,” said Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe. And he suggested Republicans were making far too much out of the gubernatorial powers.
“This isn’t Star Wars,” he said. “The Senate didn’t turn Ducey into an emperor.”
Mendez said that now that legislators are back in session, there are things they should be doing, like dealing with housing and child-care issues of those who have been affected, whether physically or financially, by the virus, “instead of taking advantage of lathered-up constituents and their fears.”
If approved by the House, the measure will be on the 2022 general election ballot.
The Senate changed its rules to allow people who have tested positive for Covid to vote from home, setting aside constitutional concerns after a Republican contracted the disease.
A single Republican absence in the 16-14 Senate prevents any partisan legislation from passing. Six weeks into the legislative session, that hadn’t been a major issue — until Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, couldn’t come to work on Monday. Multiple sources confirmed that Gowan has Covid and will be out for the whole week, if not longer.
The development threw the Senate into chaos for nearly an hour on Monday afternoon. The Senate planned to pass at least 55 bills, including several divisive election measures, and debate several dozen more. Gowan’s absence set in motion an hour of scurrying to edit agendas and draft a new rule.
Gowan did not respond to messages.
The issue last came up headed into crossover week, when a different Republican senator had passing contact over several days with someone who had Covid. That lawmaker, who tested negative, opted to vote via video call from their office to avoid potentially spreading the disease.
Since the beginning of the session, the House has allowed representatives to vote remotely. Last week, Rep. Judy Burges, R-Skull Valley, voted from her hospital bed following a car accident.
But the Senate only permitted lawmakers to vote on the floor from their offices, citing constitutional concerns. The state’s constitution indicates that lawmakers must be present on the floor to vote. This year, temporary rules adopted by the Senate describe lawmakers’ offices as an extension of the floor.
Today’s rule change allows only lawmakers in isolation after testing positive for Covid or who otherwise receive permission from both the Senate president and minority leader to vote from home.
On the last day of the legislative session, a music teacher who had spent the week stationed outside the Senate playing the flute in a solo budget vigil asked if she could come inside to fill her water bottle.
The answer she received from Senate security was the same countless other Arizonans heard this spring: the Senate was closed to the public on the orders of President Karen Fann, and no one was allowed in without her express permission – not to get water, not to use the restroom and not to watch her government work.
Months after the Senate lifted other Covid restrictions, doing away with requirements to wear masks or keep distance at meetings, the building remained locked and historically public caucus meetings continued being held behind closed doors, without even a video stream for Arizonans to see what happened.
On June 30, minutes before ending the legislative session and not long after a Democratic senator brought that music teacher water, the Senate abruptly repealed its Covid rules. The building is now open, and Fann said public access to meetings and the building will be fully restored when the Legislature returns next January.
But now that lawmakers have had a taste of legislating away from the watchful gaze of onlookers in the gallery and without the risk of reporters or lobbyists cornering them in the hallway, some who have been locked out fear that they won’t give up on secrecy.
Perkins Coie attorney Dan Barr, one of the state’s leading First Amendment lawyers, said governments at all levels have used the pandemic as an excuse to reduce transparency.
“It’s just a natural impulse among governmental officials to do things behind closed doors to the extent that they can,” Barr said. “They’ll view it as more efficient that way, but there’s also far less transparency and less of a bother for them where they’re not getting pushback from various groups or members of the public.”
In a recent interview, Fann described how every Republican lawmaker’s phone lit up with urgent pleas from county prosecutors not to pass one criminal justice bill during an end-of-session caucus meeting. But those caucus meetings, unlike ones in the House, were closed all year, despite Senate rules that explicitly stated they must be open to the public.
Democrats attempted to hold their first caucus meetings through video and shared the link with anyone who wanted to watch, but Fann told them they couldn’t. And after the Arizona Capitol Times followed a group of guests, including a teenager who founded a local chapter of a right-wing advocacy group, into one Republican caucus meeting this spring, the Senate began stationing security outside the door leading to the caucus room to block reporters from entering.
Thanks to those restrictions, only the lawmakers and staff who were in the room know whether Fann’s description of a discussion about a criminal justice bill are accurate. Supporters were caught by surprise when the bill, which passed the House 50-8, failed to get a final vote in the Senate, but they would have known and had a shot at their own last-minute lobbying if anyone had access to the caucus meeting.
Government transparency operates like a pendulum, Barr said. When a scandal occurs, such as Arizona’s real estate fraud in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there are calls for reform and new sunshine laws, but over time public attention fades and it takes another scandal to renew the push for open government.
“It’s more efficient to operate without full transparency, and then inevitably something goes wrong, people in government abuse that process and do things that they never would have done had there been transparency,” he said. “When they’re caught, there becomes a sudden call for more government transparency and certain laws get passed, and then you have a while where there is a lot more government transparency.”
As the session wore on, more people got vaccinated and state and national Covid guidelines relaxed, Fann began opening the gallery to more people. Arizonans – and a rotating cast of lawmakers from other states interested in an Arizona-style election audit – needed an in with a senator to get a seat in the gallery because only guests were allowed, but plenty of people made it in. There were family members, old friends, young activists and once even a high school marching band. But teachers, who had been a constant presence in the gallery during previous budget votes, weren’t allowed.
Sen. Christine Marsh, who is also a full-time teacher, and fellow Democrats submitted the names of teachers as their guests during budget week. After Marsh succeeded one day and Republicans saw the distinctive shirts signifying the teachers were part of the Red for Ed movement, Fann began rejecting their guest requests.
Marsh, D-Phoenix, said she frequently watched from the House gallery before she was elected this year, and religiously attended school board meetings because it’s important for policymakers to know that people are watching.
“It’s important that the gallery is opened and that opportunity is reinstated because we all know that watching something on Zoom is not anywhere close to the same,” Marsh said. “And we on the floor have no idea who’s watching, right? We don’t know if two people are watching or 2,000.”
The shuttered Senate – and, to a lesser extent, the House – also threw up roadblocks for the lobbying corps. Lobbyists are used to brief exchanges with lawmakers, and those quick asides in the hall or in a committee room as everyone gets settled are a crucial part of their work, longtime lobbyist Barry Aarons said.
“So much of what we do as lobbyists is accomplished in those 15 to 30 second chats in the hallway,” he said.
Aarons said he has cell numbers and tries to use them judiciously, but a phone call or text exchange can’t compare to in-person conversations.
And it wasn’t just interactions with lawmakers that the lobbying corps missed out on this year. In a typical year, Aarons said lobbyists often end up talking to each other and working out deals that will satisfy both their clients in impromptu meetings in the Senate’s third-floor waiting area. With access to the building granted only by appointment, and no loitering allowed, those conversations didn’t happen.
“We really didn’t have the type of casual interactions between lobbyists and lawmakers, and lawmakers and constituents, and even lobbyists and lobbyists,” he said.
Financial help may be in sight for recent high school grads who find themselves a few bucks short of what they need to go to community college.
Without dissent, the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday agreed to set aside $10 million for scholarships designed to provide what it’s sponsor calls the “last dollar” needed that will make a difference between post-secondary education and none.
But Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, said HB2638 is about more than just aiding students.
He said the Covid outbreak has sharply cut enrollment at community colleges throughout the state. And Lieberman said he figures that can be reversed by getting more students in the classroom.
Tuesday’s vote comes as the House Education Committee, without dissent, resurrected legislation designed to allow community colleges to offer some four-year degrees.
HB2523 had cleared the House last month on a 57-3 vote. But to date it has not gotten a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee where it is assigned.
The new version seeks to get around that by taking the language and stripping it on to an unrelated measure on school expenditures that already had cleared the Senate. That means if the now-revised SB 1453 is approved by the full House — and there’s no reason to expect that won’t happen, given the prior vote — it then goes back to the full Senate for up-or-down review, bypassing the ability of any committee or chairman to kill it.
The problem, said Lieberman, starts with data showing that community college attendance statewide is down by about 40,000 from pre-Covid levels.
He said this isn’t simply about putting more bodies in seats to generate revenues.
Lieberman said fewer community college graduates means fewer people getting the skills that Arizona employers want and need. And that, he said, dampens economic development.
HB2638 is targeted specifically at anyone who graduated from an Arizona high school last year or will graduate this school year who, for the moment, is not going to college anywhere “to find those missing students, get them back enrolled.”
Most importantly, he said, they would get up to $3,000 toward the total cost of a year of schooling.
To be eligible, someone would have to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. These are available to anyone with family income less than $50,000 but are generally reserved for those below $20,000.
Lieberman said these grants, with varying amounts up to about $6,500, can help with tuition. But he said what students ultimately get — Pell Grants can be less than the maximum — may not be enough to cover not just tuition but other costs, ranging from books to the cost of getting to and from school.
And that, he said, can be the difference between a student going to college or not.
Lieberman figures that $10 million is the most he can seek and get approved. But he figures it could help about 3,000 students a year and train them for the jobs Arizona employers need.
“It is really desperately needed to help fix that kind of broken pipeline,” he said.
One thing that is helping build support is that the legislature has curtailed state aid to community colleges.
Some of that was strictly to balance the budget. But Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, noted that while there are still some unrestricted dollars flowing to rural community colleges, there has been no such aid to the Pima and Maricopa systems.
Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, said she knows why.
“It all was political,” she said.
Gonzales said some Republican lawmakers were peeved because those two community college systems had agreed to let “dreamers” pay the same tuition as others who qualify for resident status.
That differential existed until the Arizona Supreme Court declared the practice illegal. But even the current budget proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey provides no operating state aid to the two largest systems.
Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, said he likes this idea better.
“It’s targeting individuals and helping them better their lives,” he said.
He said that much of the debate at the Capitol is about funding institutions.
“Well, the purpose of funding an institution is to fund the individuals to achieve that educational goal,” Pace explained. “And a bill like this specifically approaches that task.”
Boyer said the legislation could also help those who ultimately want to go on for four-year degrees but, for whatever reason, get their start at a community college. Boyer said he’s an example of that, having done a year at Pima Community College and a year at Paradise Valley Community College before going to Arizona State University.
The measure still needs approval of the full Senate.
State health officials are seeking federal help for 14 Arizona hospitals as they attempt to deal with the Covid pandemic.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has been asked to provide staff who can administer monoclonal antibodies at seven of those hospitals, all in the state’s two largest counties. Those antibodies are a treatment for individuals who already have contracted the Covid virus.
There also are what the agency calls “open requests” for staffing in emergency rooms and nursing support at the Yuma Regional Medical Center and Canyon Vista Medical Center in Sierra Vista.
And the Department of Health Services tells Capitol Media Services it also has asked for aid for hospitals in Kingman, Bullhead City, Bisbee, Douglas and Willcox.
All totaled, state health officials say the seven rural hospitals are seeking a total of 133 staffers to deal with the situation.
The requests come as hospitals across the state continue to find themselves struggling to deal with the crush of new cases of Covid even as both bed space and, more to the point here, staffing cannot keep up.
And just this past Tuesday, Dr. Majorie Bessel of Banner Health said that the trends could put the hospital chain, the largest in the state “where we will be unable to meet the care needs of all Arizonans.”
The requests come as Gov. Doug Ducey provided another $35.2 million to extend the contracts of about 300 nursing staff at Arizona hospitals, bringing the total to close to $350 million. An aide to the governor said that without the additional cash the funding for those staffers would run out by the end of the year.
Documents obtained by Capitol Media Services shows the health department is asking FEMA to give top priority to hospitals in Mohave County where the Kingman Regional Medical Center, which reported 41% of its patients have Covid, says it immediately needs additional registered nurses and respiratory therapists.
“KRMC is worried that we may have to close beds in the near future if this surge continues as expected,” the FEMA application states.
The same application details problems up the road at Western Arizona Regional Medical Center in Bullhead City.
State health officials are giving second priority to Yuma Regional Medical Center where officials say they need temporary help in the form of 20 nurses who can staff the intensive-care unit “due to surge of patients of COVID.”
And the four hospitals in Cochise County — Bisbee, Douglas, Sierra Vista and Willcox — are listed as third priority.
Those requests are separate from the bids by several hospitals to get trained personnel to administer monoclonal antibodies.
In Tucson, that includes Banner University Medical Center and Carondelet St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Help is being sought in Maricopa County by Banner Estrella Medical Center and Banner Health Center Plus in Glendale, as well as Valleywide Health Medical Center, Dignity Health’s Arizona General Hospital, and the central campus of Abrazo Community Health Network.
What makes the requests important is that there is evidence that monoclonal antibodies, which can decrease the level of virus in a patient’s blood, can reduce or potentially eliminate the need for hospitalizations.
Becky Armendariz, spokeswomen for the Banner hospital system, said its facilities are administering
roughly 170 doses of antibodies a day at its Arizona facilities.
“We are at capacity for this service at this time,” she said. Armendariz said Banner is working with both the state and county health departments “by bringing in additional staff to administer the treatment.”
All this comes as the health department reported Wednesday that of the 1,752 intensive-care beds at Arizona hospitals, only 88 are available in the entire state.
The state also reported another 81 new deaths, bringing the statewide total of 23,324. There also were 3,249 new cases reported.
FEMA spokesman Robert Barker said the requests for staffing help are part of the effort by his agency and the federal Department of Health and Human Services “to address unmet need in communities and hospitals nationwide.”
“We continue to work with our state and local partners to support their requests,” he said. But Barker
said his agency has more than Arizona to consider.
“Resource requests are up in a number of states at this time, with a lot of moving parts at the local, state and federal levels,” he said. “Nevertheless, we anticipate fulfilling the requests by the end of the month.”
Steve Elliott, a spokesman for the state health department, said the requests actually originate with each hospital and are funneled through local health departments which, in turn, route them through his agency. Those requests are then submitted to FEMA and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, part of the federal health department, “to see if resources are available.”
At that point, Elliott said, the federal agencies have a “virtual hospital assessment” with the facilities making the requests “to discuss and prioritize fulfillment if possible.”
Arizona hospitals overall saw huge increases in their profits last year despite — or more likely, because of — Covid.
New figures from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System said total profits topped $1.5 billion. That is 33 percent higher than in 2019 and far above anything reported in the past decade.
It also found nearly 75% of hospitals with a positive operating margin. While there have been higher figures in the past, that is still up 4.5 percentage points from the prior year.
And the average profitability was $13.9 million.
Still, there are vast differences — even among hospitals under the same management.
Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, for example, posted a net operating profit of more than $153 million on total revenues in excess of $802 million for a net operating margin of 19.1%. And Banner Thunderbird has a $96.7 million profit with a net operating profit of 16%.
But Banner University Medical Center in Tucson actually posted a nearly $5.5 million loss on revenues of more than $866 million. Still, the hospital is in a far better financial condition that 2019 when it lost almost $55 million.
All this comes against the backdrop of Covid.
During 2020, Gov. Doug Ducey imposed a ban on elective surgeries, at least in part to ensure that there was an adequate supply of personal protective equipment — masks, gowns and gloves — to handle the anticipated surge in the number of people hospitalized with the virus. That, however, drew some criticism from the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.
Spokeswoman Holly Ward said her members were hemorrhaging money because they’ve lost the more financially lucrative business of things like knee and hip replacements.
And then there was the cost of all that personal protective equipment.
But Marjorie Baldwin, a professor of economics at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said there is another side to all this.
It starts, she said, with the change in the mix of patients.
“Typically, hospitals treat a majority of older patients on Medicare,” said Baldwin who is a health economist. By contrast, Covid provided a larger mix of younger patients that might otherwise not be in a hospital.
More to the point, the private insurance these patients often have pays more than Medicare.
Then there’s the fact that hospitals are not racking up the same losses for “uncompensated care,” bills not paid by people without either government or private insurance and who lack the financial resources to pay their bills. That’s because the federal government agreed to pick up the cost for treating Covid for anyone without insurance.
“That’s a huge effect on profits,” Baldwin said.
On top of that there were various federal subsidies to hospitals to help deal with the costs incurred of treating Covid patients.
But potentially the biggest thing has to do with medical billing and something called “diagnosis related groups,” or DRGs.
That system, already in use by Medicare, pays hospitals based on the DRG. That is designed to both standardize payments and encourage cost containment as a hospital knows it will be getting a specific set amount to treat a specific ailment, not more.
So someone admitted for a ruptured appendix is in one DRG, versus a women undergoing standard labor.
But Baldwin said if a patient was diagnosed with Covid, there is a surcharge that hospitals are allowed to impose.
It’s even more complex.
That surcharge is built on the assumption that Covid patients will require a certain level of care.
“But some Covid patients might not require ICU care or the intense care that the subsidy was designed to cover,” she said. “And so hospitals could make a profit on those patients.”
And there’s more.
And Baldwin said a patient who actually tests positive for Covid actually might be admitted to the hospital for some other reason.
“But the hospital could still put that they have the Covid diagnosis and get the reimbursement,” she said. “And there’s strong incentives for hospitals to do that.”
There are other things that have happened on the state level, even before Covid, that have worked to improve the bottom lines of hospitals.
As governor, Jan Brewer pushed through a measure to expand eligibility for AHCCCS, the state’s Medicaid program. And she came up with a scheme to pay for it through a tax on hospitals.
But here’s the thing: It was structured so that each hospital chain would pay less in the assessment than it would make up by having fewer uninsured people coming to emergency rooms unable to pay. So hospitals all supported it.
It apparently worked.
In 2013 the average hospital had $8.9 million of uncompensated care, 6.7% of its total expenses. By 2020 that figure had dropped to $4.3 million, or 2.5%.
Ducey, state treasurer at the time with his eyes on the governor’s office, campaigned against AHCCCS expansion.
But now, with it in place, he actually expanded on Brewer’s funding method, signing legislation last year to create the Health Care Investment Fund. That is a totally new assessment that, after all is said and done, will mean a $900 million net increase for hospitals in 2021.
Baldwin said large urban hospitals already were in a better position to deal with Covid.
That is reflected in those numbers for Banner Health, the largest hospital system in the state, and, specifically, in their larger facilities.
A spokeswoman for Banner said staffers were still reviewing the numbers and declined to immediately comment on the report.
There was a similar pattern at Tucson Medical Center, where its $34.2 million profit on $613.2 million in income is a $6.7 million increase over the prior year.
Hospital spokeswoman Angela Pittenger cited some of the same issues as did Baldwin.
“The reduction of elective surgeries created a significant negative impact on our hospital’s operating margin,” she said. And without the federal aid, Pittenger said, 2020 “would have been financially devastating” to the hospital.
Those additional dollars, she said, bolstered the hospital’s bottom line and positioned it to invest in staff and other resources.
And Pittenger also cited that Health Care Investment Fund which kicked in in October 2020.
Baldwin said that, by contrast, some smaller “safety net” hospitals were not doing as well.
Copper Queen Community Hospital in Bisbee did manage to post a profit of nearly $657,000 on $42.6 million in income. But that profit is nearly $5.9 million less than the year before.
And Yavapai Regional Medical Center, found its profits shrinking by nearly $16.9 million between 2019 and 2020, though it still managed to post a $50.5 million profit on $372.7 million in income.
Hospital / 2020 Net operating profit (loss) in millions / Change from prior year
Many states already have Covid liability protection, and many other states have made it a priority for debate in this year’s session of their legislatures. Arizona has, too, and as SB1377 begins its journey through the Legislature, lawmakers should pass it at every stage with all due dispatch.
What SB1377 would do is keep small-business owners out of the crosshairs of Covid lawsuits from plaintiffs who could have contracted the virus anywhere. Like the laws already in effect around the country and the proposed legislation this year, it holds a business not liable for someone – a customer, employee, vendor – contracting Covid unless the business owner “failed to act or acted with willful misconduct or gross negligence.”
In a related court case in California challenging that state’s OSHA with regulatory overreach, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Retail Federation said of the agency, “Without a hint of irony, Defendants’ [Cal/OSHA] Opposition seemingly blames employers for the recent ‘spike’ in COVID-19 cases. … Notably, Defendants’ supporting authority states nothing about this spread being work-related. … Retail employees (and all California employees, for that matter) face the hazard of COVID-19, not because they are employees, but because they are human beings living on this planet. The threat exists wherever they are – Thanksgiving dinner, nights out with friends, holiday celebrations with families, and any number of other life activities, all of which an employer cannot control. Cal/OSHA rightfully expects employers to institute protocols to keep employees safe while they are at work. But it is wrong to impose on employers the massive costs and burdens of a global pandemic where employers can control a person’s activities only during a fraction of their day.”
Except for Utah, which correctly chose not to wait, most states were slow on the draw to get their businesses liability protection. Many state policymakers banked on Congress coming up with one national standard but that didn’t happen, something NFIB-member, small-business owners in Arizona were given an early indication would not from U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in an exclusive June conference call with them.
“Generally speaking, we don’t want Washington, D.C., overruling Arizona law. However … if stakeholders believe that we need to have a federal standard to provide liability protection, I want to make sure we fashion it in a way that doesn’t undercut state law or isn’t preemptive of laws in Arizona,” said the senator.
Well, it didn’t undercut Arizona law because Congress punted on coming up with a solution. Now, Arizona needs to step in with a law of its own, and SB1377 is the opportunity. How, in good conscience, can a state ask its small-business owners to reopen or stay open when it allows them to remain fat geese for trial attorney slaughter?
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, employment law attorney Jon Hyman estimated that defending a discrimination or other employment lawsuit case through discovery and a ruling on a motion for summary judgment could cost an employer between $75,000 and $125,000. If an employer loses summary judgment, the employer can expect to spend a total of $175,000 to $250,000 to take a case to a jury verdict at trial. Safe bet that those estimates are higher now. These amounts are impossible for any small-business owner to afford – better to shut up shop and call it quits.
It hasn’t been that long ago since many Arizona small-business owners found themselves on the receiving end of a shake-down lawsuit filed by aggressively entrepreneurial attorneys for the most miniscule violations of the American With Disabilities Act — so notorious these actions were dubbed “drive-by lawsuits.”
These actions were so outrageous that even disability advocates were aghast. Fortunately for Arizona, our s