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Arizona's largest employer requires COVID shots as concerns about 'Third Wave' grow

Banner Health's mandates vaccinations for all 45,000 workers. State health director says climbing COVID cases is 'pandemic of unvaccinated'

PHOENIX — People who work for Arizona's largest employer will have to get COVID-19 shots by November if they want to keep working there.

Banner Health is dangling $10,000 prizes to persuade any of its 45,000 employees who are unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves. 

"We care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and we owe it to them to take every measure possible to ensure the safest care environment," Peter Fine, president and chief executive officer of Banner Health, said in a companywide email Tuesday.

"The vaccine data has fully supported the safety and efficacy to prevent disease and reduce its severity. There is overwhelming evidence for us to act on behalf of the communities that rely on us to care for and protect them."

Banner's announcement Tuesday comes amid warnings of a "third wave" of coronavirus cases in Arizona, after the tsunamis that slammed residents last winter and summer.

RELATED: With pandemic worsening in US, surgeon general worried

Christ: 'Could Be a Third Wave'

COVID cases statewide have climbed to their highest level in four months, as masks come off, shots go unwanted and the new delta variant spreads with abandon. 

"We are seeing an increase in cases," Arizona Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said in an interview. 

"We're hoping we don't see the same increases in hospitalization and deaths due to the ability to vaccinate this time around. but we are anticipating seeing a continued increase in cases."

"It very well could be a third wave."

Cases statewide are averaging more than 1,000 a day, the highest level since March. 

For perspective, March levels had plunged from a peak of 12,000 a day in early January.

RELATED: Arizona reports 980 new COVID-19 cases after 4 days of 1K+

'A Choice To Get Infected'

Former Arizona public health director Will Humble says there's another difference between now and the dark days of early winter: People have a choice.

"You can choose to get vaccinated and protect yourself," said Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

"Or you can choose not to get vaccinated and essentially, with the delta virus around, that's a choice to get infected."

Christ echoes the federal Centers for Disease Control in labeling this summer's spike "a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

Unvaccinated COVID patients account for 90 percent of the cases in July, she said, and  99 percent of the deaths since January.

"We've got increasing cases, we've got increasing community transmission, we would highly recommend that individuals get fully vaccinated."

RELATED: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends masks in schools, but Arizona schools are barred from mask requirements

Not Encouraging Others to Follow Banner

But Christ wouldn't support other businesses following Banner's example.

"We are not encouraging people to mandate vaccines at this time," she said. 

"We are still working to educate people, to answer questions. We know that there's a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccine."

Over at the Capitol, Gov. Doug Ducey and the Republican-controlled Legislature have blocked or undone pandemic-related safety measures.

Ducey quashed Arizona State University's plan to encourage vaccinations among returning students. 

The governor has also warned two school districts their back-to-school safety measures violate state laws. The districts aren't backing down, contending they aren't breaking the law.

RELATED: Banner Health to require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID

Politics Getting in Way of Health Policy?

I asked Christ whether politics was getting in the way of public health policy.

"That's a really great question for our policymakers," Christ, a Ducey appointee, said with a laugh. 

"We can make recommendations, we can put guidance out, but once a law is made we have to follow it."

Ducey's office said Tuesday he wasn't available for an interview.

The concern now is Valley students heading back to school, starting this week. 

Ducey wants to block schools from telling students exposed to COVID to quarantine at home. Christ appeared to disagree with the governor.

"We do believe that quarantine in rare and specific cases is an appropriate tool for the mitigation of communicable disease," she said.

Christ Sending Children to School With Masks

And while the Legislature banned mask requirements by school districts, Christ isn't taking any chances when her children return to their schools Wednesday.

"Out of the three of them, only one is vaccinated, because he's old enough," she said. 

"The other two will be wearing masks. I am going to make them wear masks in school. It is an option but it is a prevention method   for those individuals that aren't vaccinated."  

RELATED: Ducey takes on COVID-19 protocols in Arizona schools

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