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Top health official does about-face on wearing masks to stem COVID spread in Arizona

Maricopa medical director admits she was wrong about not wearing masks. Now the county's requiring all employees to use them when they can't social distance.

PHOENIX —

A top public health official in Arizona’s largest county is doing an about-face on whether masks can help stem the fast-spreading coronavirus. 

Maricopa County medical director Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine confessed at a news conference Wednesday that she ignored the Centers for Disease Control guidelines on wearing masks. 

“I did not routinely wear masks in public,” Sunenshine told reporters on a teleconference. 

Sunenshine went through an elaborate display of donning a mask and cleaning her hands to confirm her conversion to mask wearer. 

“A well-fitted face mask can actually prevent COVID-19 from spreading,” Sunenshine said.

It was science that made her do it: New research showing that masks worn in public can reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The science was so persuasive that Maricopa County is requiring all employees to wear masks when they can’t social distance.

The push for wearing masks and following all COVID hygiene guidelines comes as Arizona deals with a rebound in cases since Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order expired on May 15.

It is the lone government response that’s been offered as coronavirus cases soar and infected Arizonans threaten to overwhelm hospitals. 

The governor has shunned masks. Last week, Ducey tweeted images of a luncheon buffet he hosted for 30 staffers. Just one mask was visible and there was no social distancing. 

A Ducey spokesman declined to say whether the governor would mask up.

Arizona's coronavirus surge has drawn national attention in recent days. It is one of three of four state hotspots nationwide.

Since May 15, the number of positive coronavirus cases has more than doubled - up 166%, to almost 30,000. 

The governor’s office says testing has also doubled. 

Ducey's Chief of Staff Daniel Scarpinato tweeted Wednesday, “We are not in a crisis situation.”

For the sake of perspective, the positive COVID rate dipped to about 1 in every 20 tests toward the middle of the stay-at-home period. 

Today, more than 1 in every 10 tests are coming back positive, a sign the coronavirus infection is spreading again. 

One more sign: hospitalizations are doubling.

Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital networks, said last week that its intensive care units were almost full. 

A trade group for hospitals across the state says the number of COVID inpatients has doubled every day for six straight days, from 600 to 1,200. It’s the same story in emergency rooms.

“This is a significant spike from where we were at in May,” said Ann-Marie Alameddin, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

“Hospitals are ready, but this is not a limitless capacity.”

Hospitals are using the state’s “surge line” to transfer patients to other hospitals that have space. But they might take steps to reduce the number of beds occupied by non-COVID patients for elective surgeries. 

“It’s possible we’ll call off elective surgeries. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” Alameddin said.

In recent days, hospitals have also stressed the importance of masks, social distancing and other steps to slow the infection’s spread. 

Public health experts projected a surge in hospitalizations after the stay-at-home order ended. One University of Arizona epidemiologist projects Arizona could run out of hospital beds by July.

“The data is freaking me out,” said Will Humble, a former Arizona health services director who now runs the Arizona Public Health Association.

“The problem isn’t today and it’s not this afternoon and it’s not this Friday. The data’s pointing to a problem on July 1.”

Humble gave Sunenshine credit for changing her mind about masks. 

“The evidence has evolved over time, so policy should evolve over time,” Humble said. “Plus, we see what the data is looking like, and it’s not good.”

Social media users weren’t impressed by Sunenshine’s change of heart. 

Jamie Glass summed up the reaction: “Wow. Four months late.” 

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