As temperatures in Arizona shot toward their summer peaks, so did the state’s coronavirus crisis. Lines for drive-up testing snaked for blocks in June. Hospitals were running out of beds, bodies were being stored in coolers, and the state’s per capita caseload topped global charts.
But by mid-August, the southwest hot spot made a remarkable reversal. Cases plummeted 75 percent.
Arizona has maintained relatively low case numbers since, but they are now creeping to levels seen just a few weeks before its summer surge. And as a conflagration engulfs the Midwest and Mountain West, public health experts and elected officials in Arizona are pleading with residents to maintain mitigation measures they say played a critical role in beating back the virus and hold lessons for other states — including mask mandates that covered 85 percent of the population.
“The mask ordinances should stay in place until we get pretty wide distribution of the vaccine,” said Will Humble, a former state health department director who now leads the Arizona Public Health Association. “The return on investment is off the charts. The only thing that it costs is political capital.”
That emphasis on face-coverings echoes intensifying calls by public health experts nationwide amid growing evidence of masks’ effectiveness in reducing transmission — and signs that a pandemic-weary population and battered economy may not tolerate widespread shutdowns.
Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, has been touring states and chiding those where mask use is low. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb have advocated for a national mask mandate. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also urged mandates, recently calling mask-wearing and social distancing simple measures that may be “the next best thing” to lockdowns that are unlikely to be repeated.
Some local governments in hard-hit red states where masks have been especially contentious are heeding the call. In recent days, mandates were passed in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and the North Dakota cities of Bismarck and Grand Forks.
In Arizona, some jurisdictions are lifting mask mandates, fraying nerves among some observers who say such loosening is premature.
“I’m becoming more of a firm believer that face masks are a truly effective intervention in this particular outbreak and should be considered our first line of defense,” said Joe K. Gerald, a University of Arizona public health researcher who tracks coronavirus trends in the state. Places without them, he said, are “shooting themselves in the foot, because wearing face masks can protect individuals but also reduce the spread to others and allow more economic activity and social activity.”
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