Maricopa County Changes Course On Masks As Cases Skyrocket

Maricopa County Disease Control Division Medical Director Rebecca Sunenshine said she had changed her position on masks due to mounting evidence about their effectiveness.
Maricopa County Disease Control Division Medical Director Rebecca Sunenshine said she had changed her position on masks due to mounting evidence about their effectiveness. Erasmus Baxter
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are at an all-time high in Maricopa County and still growing, county officials said on Wednesday.

In a live-streamed press conference, Maricopa County Disease Control Division Medical Director Rebecca Sunenshine said more than a quarter of cases from the whole pandemic were reported in the last week, with daily new cases roughly tripling to almost 600, from only 200 just two weeks ago.

“I don’t view this increase in cases as a second wave, but rather just a continuation of the spread of disease,” Sunenshine said.

While Governor Doug Ducey had previously attributed increasing numbers to increased testing, Sunenshine said the percent of tests returning positive had also increased, indicating this was not the case.

However, Marcy Flanagan, the county's public health department executive director, said the numbers were not a surprise because officials expected them to jump with re-opening in mid-May.

Will Humble, the former head of Arizona Department of Health Services, told Phoenix New Times earlier this week that the jump is directly attributable to removing the stay-at-home order.

Mask usage has been spotty on Phoenix streets and large groups have congregated without masks at bars and restaurants throughout the Valley since the order ended. While protests are likely to also have had an impact, a two- to 14-day incubation period and a 10-day delay on reporting testing results mean it's likely any impact is only beginning to show up, as protests enter their third week.

Flanagan stressed the importance of isolating if sick, maintaining six feet of distance when possible, and wearing a cloth face mask when not.

The county is continuing to ramp up its efforts to keep the spread down, including partnering with University of Arizona and Arizona State University for contact tracing, and addressing specific outbreaks in long-term care, jails and among homeless people, Sunenshine said. Even still, "that is not enough, those focal outbreaks, to explain the large increase in numbers," she said. "We know it’s also people going back to work, people interacting, people engaging in groups of more than 10. That's why it’s so important to keep those groups down, and if you do interact within six feet, to wear that cloth face mask.”

To that end, all members at the briefing wore disposable masks for the first time. The county is now requiring all employees to wear a mask when within six feet of others, said Fields Moseley, county spokesperson.

Sunenshine said although she didn't use to wear masks routinely, she now supports their usage.

“I want everyone to know I have changed my position on wearing cloth masks, mostly because the data just wasn’t there to support them when the recommendation first came out, " she said. "Now, there is a mounting body of scientific evidence that shows that cloth facemasks, a well-fitted cloth facemask, can prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended since early April that everyone wear masks when they are unable to maintain social distancing. The recommendation is based in part on evidence that the disease can be spread without symptoms.

Ducey has been criticized for not wearing a mask at events where CDC guidelines would indicate he should, however, Flanagan said the state is working on a mask campaign that she expects next week.

While she said that the county is relying on individuals to blunt the spread of the virus, they are in constant talks with state officials, and any return to mitigation measures would have to come from the governor.

Ducey is holding a press conference with the heads of the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs today at 2 p.m.

In the meantime, here's a video on proper mask usage:

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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter