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Maricopa County School COVID-19 Outbreaks Up Dramatically

Health officials in Arizona's most populous county are sounding the alarm about a growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and a rising number of children and teens infected with the coronavirus.

Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, told the county Board of Supervisors on Monday that her department tracked almost three times the number of school outbreaks in August as it did during the virus's peak in February.

She said that of 188 outbreaks this month, 166 are ongoing — far more than at any other point during the pandemic, and they are rising “exponentially.” A small number of schools may have more than one outbreak.

In addition, more than one in four COVID-19 cases in the county are now among children, a rate “never seen before," Sunenshine said. One in six of those cases are among children under 12, while 6% of all hospitalizations are of children, with 120 hospitalized for COVID-19 this month.

The hospitalization rate is a major change. Statewide, people under age 20 made up just 3.6% of hospitalized COVID-19 cases since the pandemic took hold in early 2020, according to Arizona Health Services Department data.

The increases in Maricopa County, home to nearly 60% of Arizona's residents, began after schools started reopening in July. That is also when the county saw the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus become dominant. Children rarely became seriously ill with earlier strains of the virus.

“There's something about the delta strain that it affects children just as much as older people, and so what we're seeing is a dramatic rise in children," Sunenshine said. “That was slowly happening, but really started when delta started. And it dramatically shot up when kids went back to school.”

There are other factors driving the increase, Sunenshine said in her presentation to the board. One is that many schools were still in hybrid learning last winter and so fewer students were in class; now, school is mainly in person. There also were mask mandates last year, and many schools do not have them now. On the plus side, many teachers and staff are vaccinated, as are some students 12 and older. No COVID-19 vaccine is yet approved for children under 12.

Schools without mask mandates are twice as likely to have an outbreak, Sunenshine said.

Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County chief medical officer, is seeing similar trends in his county. School districts such as Marana, Tucson Unified, Catalina Foothills that are requiring masks right now have a lower infection rate, Garcia told reporters at a Tuesday press conference.

"Numerically (they) may have a lot of cases but proportionately are having a smaller percentage," he said. "So we do believe that mask mandates in schools actually have an impact and it's a really important and critical tool that our school districts and our schools have to be able to keep children and families safe."

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation in June barring schools from requiring masks, but a judge ruled this month that the law does not take effect until Sept. 29. Ducey said any school with a mask mandate will not be eligible for additional federal funding that he controls.

At least 29 public school districts in Arizona have used that court ruling to enact or maintain mask requirements. The districts account for more than 334,000 students and nearly 500 schools, and most are in the Phoenix and Tucson areas.

In addition to the school outbreaks, Sunenshine said increased hospitalizations among all age groups are squeezing medical facilities. One hospital chain in metro Phoenix has a major nurse shortage, she said.

County Supervisor Clint Hickman said much of the rise in cases “is self-inflicted” because of low vaccination rates. The vast majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated.

“I think most of us in this room understood the seriousness of this and have gotten our shots ... so we can continue to come to work,” Hickman said. “But I just cannot believe the self-infliction that goes on with this.”

The state hit 1 million confirmed infections last week. State health officials on Monday reported 3,247 new COVID-19 cases but no new deaths. As of Sunday, there were 1,983 virus-related hospitalizations.

Arizona has had 18,787 known COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began.

The state’s latest data shows that more than 3.5 million people in the eligible population are fully vaccinated. More than 4 million — or 55.9% — have received at least one vaccine dose.

Last week, the leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson took the extraordinary step of telling local priests not to give out religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine requirements or mask mandates.

Bishop Edward Weisenburger sent a letter to his clergy, saying the Catholic faith cannot be used as an excuse for vaccine or mask hesitancy, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

KJZZ's Rocio Hernandez contributed to this report.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.