PHOENIX - Facing a slowing rate of Arizonans getting vaccinated, Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday tapped former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona to be his new senior health advisor on COVID matters.
But don't look for the Tucson physician and 2012 Democratic candidate for U.S. senator to challenge the Republican governor's beliefs that schools and universities should be prohibited from requiring students and staff to wear masks. Carmona said he accepts the facts as they now stand, what with the legislature banning such mandates and the governor signing them into law and now seeking to enforce those prohibitions.
"That’s probably not something that I would have supported,” he told Capitol Media Services of the legislation.
“But that's the way it is,” continued Carmona, who currently is a professor of public health at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. “My sense is the futile debate about mask mandates, anything mandates, is not helping us advance the public health of the state.”
Ditto any talk about state-mandated vaccines.
“The perils of a democracy are often trying to balance the rights of the individual versus the collective right of society,” he said. Carmona said he dealt with that as surgeon general when he was dealing with people who want to smoke “but we know it's deadly.”
He said the answer is doing “everything we can” to get people vaccinated. Carmona said it makes no sense to continue to debate about mandates and politics.
The move comes as the governor tapped Don Harrington, a 20-plus year employee of the Department of Health Services, to serve as its acting director. For the moment, he replaces Dr. Cara Christ, who resigned to take a job at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arizona.
Her last day is Friday.
It also comes amid increased criticism of both Ducey and Christ by doctors who say the state should allow school boards to mandate masks in public schools, particularly as those younger than 12 are still unable to be vaccinated.
Both the governor and his now soon-to-be-former health director have supported taking that power from school boards. Instead, they contend this instead should be an individual decision by parents.
And Ducey signed legislation which, beginning Sept. 29, makes such orders by school boards illegal, though there are legal challenges to the validity of that law.
Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said the creation of this new slot has nothing to do with the debate over masks. He said the key purpose behind Carmona's appointment is to try to boost the state’s vaccination rate.
About 55% of Arizonans have received at least one dose - a figure that according to the Mayo Clinic is about five points below the national average. Fewer than half of all Arizonans are fully inoculated.
"That number needs to go up,'' Karamargin said. “Dr. Carmona and Don Harrington are going to help us bring those numbers up.”
The problems are immediate.
Thursday the state health department reported another 3,621 new cases of COVID. There also were 13 new deaths - bringing the statewide tally to 18,661.
At the same time, hospitals statewide reported they have just 730 beds available. That's 8% of total capacity, a figure not seen since January, before the vaccine was available.
And there is now the more transmissible Delta variant.
“Given this situation, there is a new sense of urgency on everyone's part to get everyone vaccinated,” including people who have been hesitant,” Karamargin said
He said that the doctor's role won't be limited to that.
“The purpose of having someone with Dr. Carmona's experience at the table is to provide honest, informed advice,” he said. “And Richard Carmona is the best possible person for that at this time.” But that, Karamargin said, does not extend to debating the governor's belief that schools and local governments should not be allowed to require people to wear masks.
“You're making this a political discussion,” he responded.
“This is not a political discussion,” Karamargin continued. “This is a health issue.”
Carmona, for his part, said he’s content to focus on the governor's goal of getting more Arizonans vaccinated.
“Why? Because we don't want to shut down,” he said. “If we shut down like we did last year it will be even more catastrophic. The unemployment rate goes up, we’ll have lots of businesses close and not be able to reopen, we won't be able to enjoy our sports activities where large groups get together.”
That, however, leaves the question of what more he can do to get people vaccinated given the number of Arizonans who have so far refused.
Vaccination rates, which topped 78,000 a day in April, has now slowed to the neighborhood of about 15,000. And the state's lower-than-average vaccination rate comes despite efforts of Christ and her agency to both convince people that the vaccine is safe and effective as well as to set up mass vaccination sites to make the process easier.
Carmona promised a new approach.
“I don't think it's fair to sit back and just say, ‘We did the best we can, we’ll just live with this,’”he said.
“We're going to die with this,” Carmona said. “The fact is, morbidity and mortality is going to go up and we have to do something different.”
Still, the newly appointed advisor had nothing specific to offer at this point.
“I’m going to work very hard and look at every possible strategy to be able to move forward and to make sure that everybody gets vaccinated,” he said. “And, hopefully, we will prevail.”
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