After a heated debate about masks erupted in Arizona, where the number of coronavirus cases have been growing daily, Gov. Doug Ducey is requiring his citizens to cover their faces in public.
“Every Arizonan should wear a face mask,” he said at a Wednesday press conference. “This is an issue of personal responsibility, and we’re asking Arizonans to make responsible decisions to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”
He said local governments would determine policies, implementation and enforcement.
The Republican governor had faced much resistance for not mandating masks to slow the spread of the virus.
The state’s biggest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, has been sounding alarms and calling for action.
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Hundreds of medical professionals signed a letter this week urging Ducey to require masks.
More than 900 people in the medical field wrote the letter to the governor of the state quickly becoming a national hot spot.
“Please issue a state-wide mandate requiring universal masking in public for those 2 years old and above. There is sufficient, clear, scientific evidence that wearing masks is one way to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and thus would reduce both the wave of severely affected patients requiring ICU and ventilator resources as well as unnecessary deaths,” the Monday letter reads.
Among the signers was Dr. Natasha Bhuyan of Phoenix. The family medicine doctor said marketing campaigns and tweets from the governor’s office urging the use of masks aren’t going to cut it.
Ducey tweeted Wednesday morning, «Protect yourself. Protect others. Help contain the spread of #COVID19. Wear a mask. #MaskUpAZ.»
Bhuyan said she believes if immediate action isn’t taken, Arizona could see hospital ICUs and ventilators reach capacity as early as July.
“We’ve been educating the public this entire time, and clearly it hasn’t been effective,” Bhuyan said. “The accurate scientific information is just not reaching people. It’s a public health tenet: When you make things mandatory, you see results.”
The state reported 1,837 new cases and 20 new deaths Wednesday, and more than 2,300 cases were reported on Tuesday.
The new number brings the total confirmed cases to 40,924 and deaths to 1,239.
Hospitals were treating 1,582 patients on Tuesday, an increase of more than 500 from two weeks earlier. Emergency room visits for patients with virus symptoms soared to nearly 1,100. On June 3, hospitals reported seeing 638 patients in emergency rooms.
Statewide Tuesday, hospitals were at 85 percent of capacity. That’s well above the 80 percent rate where Ducey said they would have to halt elective surgeries to preserve space.
Ducey has encouraged people to use masks but, like President Trump, had not worn one himself during any of his news conferences until Wednesday and has rebuffed calls to issue an order requiring them. He has also resisted imposing new restrictions on businesses, attributing Arizona’s surge in cases to increased testing.
As U.S. states decide how and when to reopen parts of the economy amid surges in coronavirus cases in places like Arizona, requiring even the use of masks has become a political and cultural debate about personal freedoms, with some officials defying pleas from doctors.
Arizona has been doing more tests, which can yield more cases, but health experts say a better way to see if more people getting sick is to look at the percentage of positive tests. When that percentage rises, it means the outbreak is worsening — not just that more people are getting tested.
Arizona currently leads the nation with the highest seven-day average positive test rate: 17.7 percent, or about double the national average and well above the 10 percent threshold that health officials find worrisome. It also has the most new cases per capita in the nation in the past 14 days. The state’s leading hospital system says it is almost running out of beds, and more than 1,100 people visited emergency rooms Tuesday with positive or suspected cases.
Several restaurants and other businesses also have had to close because staff tested positive in the last week, including one sports bar chain in a hard-hit Phoenix neighborhood where staff was not required to wear masks.
CORONAVIRUS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Since the virus emerged in China late last year and spread worldwide, there have been more than 8.1 million confirmed cases and at least 443,000 deaths, according Johns Hopkins University. Experts say the true toll is much higher. The U.S. has the most infections and deaths in the world, with a toll that neared 117,000 on Wednesday.
European nations, which embarked on a wide-scale reopening this week, watched with trepidation as the Americas struggled with the pandemic and new outbreaks were reported in Asia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.