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Ducey's new pandemic leadership team taking over amid climbing caseloads

New interim public health director in place as governor starts search for permanent replacement. Former surgeon general will tackle lagging state's vaccinate rate.

PHOENIX — Governor Doug Ducey's new pandemic leadership team takes the helm Monday, amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and lagging efforts to protect Arizonans.

Longtime Department of Health Services manager Don Herrington will be the agency's interim director. 

Herrington is a former planning and operations director who oversaw the business side of the ADHS during the 19-month pandemic, handling contracts and other agency operations. 

Herrington acknowledged that he has no formal training in public health.

"Having the experts around me that can advise me and talk to me and walk me through things has been a great help," Herrington said in an interview.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona brings sterling public health credentials to the team.

Carmona's assignment is boosting the state's lagging vaccination rates, according to Herrington. 

"If we can get everybody on the same page that (the COVID-19 vaccine) is safe and it's necessary to curb this disease," Herrington said, "I think that's the best thing he can do and he's the best person to do that."

Carmona declined an interview request.

Less than half of all Arizonans, 49%, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That's three points below the national rate of 52%. 

Ducey announced the appointments last week as Arizona hit a grim milestone: 1 million diagnosed COVID-19 cases.

"We need to keep our efforts committed to attacking this disease," Herrington said.

How Long Will Team Be in Place?

It's unclear how long the team will be in place as the state deals with a third COVID-19 surge.

Herrington said there was a nationwide search for a permanent successor to Dr. Cara Christ. 

Christ led the ADHS for six years before leaving this month to take a private-sector job with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.

Carmona is working on a four-month contract that expires at the end of December, Herrington said. According to an ADHS spokesman, Carmona will be paid $400 an hour for his work.

Carmona has several other professional commitments - to the University of Arizona; to Tucson-based Canyon Ranch, an internationally known wellness-resort operator; and to several corporate boards.

Carmona ran as a Democrat in 2012 for the U.S. Senate from Arizona. He lost to Republican Jeff Flake.

"His national reputation as a surgeon general is going to open some doors," Herrington said.

Carmona Spoke Out About Bush

Carmona is known as someone who's not afraid to speak his mind. 

He served one four-year term as surgeon general under President George W. Bush, leaving the job in 2006. He had not been offered a second term.

Carmona told a congressional committee in July 2007 that the Bush Administration tried to water down or block health reports because of political considerations.

Herrington said Carmona and the governor had a strong relationship. 

Applauded Ducey's Performance

In an op-ed for the Arizona Republic in May, Carmona applauded the governor's handling of the pandemic:

"If the Lockdown Left is unhappy, and COVID-Denying Conservatives are unhappy, then you're probably in the right spot, and (Governor Ducey) is."

The optimistic tone of Carmona's op-ed turned out to be premature.

Since June, coronavirus cases have spiked to their highest level in eight months. The spike has been driven by the highly contagious delta variant finding its prey among a large number of unvaccinated Arizonans.

Also in early June, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed bills barring schools, universities and local governments from imposing their own mandates.

Rebellion By School Districts 

Ducey now faces a rebellion by school districts against the Legislature's ban on mask mandates. 

Several large districts have imposed their own mask mandates to quell COVID-19 outbreaks in the four weeks since students and staff returned from summer break.

The private school that Ducey's three sons have attended, Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, has given students a choice: get vaccinated or get tested twice a week for COVID-19.  

The mask-mandate ban doesn't become law until Sept. 29, but its constitutionality is being challenged in court.

Ducey has threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that require face masks.

Herrington said he had no problem with the mandate ban because parents can still send a child to school wearing a mask. 

He said the focus now should be on vaccinations.

But vaccinations have become another political flashpoint. Members of Ducey's Republican Party are claiming their right to "medical freedom" in refusing to get vaccinated. 

Latest COVID Report: Cases Easing?

A new report by Dr. Joe K. Gerald, a health services researcher at the University of Arizona, offers a hopeful sign that the steep climb in coronavirus cases might be easing:

"Arizona continues to experience high levels of community transmission. Increases in transmission have moderated over the past 2 weeks; however, temporary "pauses" have been observed in previous waves.

"With continued K-12 in-person instruction along with re-opening of our major universities, there will be continued upward pressure on community transmission among children and young adults. If transmission

in these groups spillover, then another resurgence from our current plateau remains possible."

But Gerald warns that for the first time during the pandemic, the age group with the highest case rate is children ages 10 to 14.

The message: Schools need to do more to stem the spread.

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