PHOENIX — It is something Maricopa County public health leaders say they have never seen throughout the pandemic. The number of COVID outbreaks in schools, doubling week to week, fueling concerns about the delta variant's impact on children.
The new data comes the same day the U.S. Department of Education announced it's launching civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states that are currently banning mask mandates in schools. Arizona is not currently on the list due to ongoing litigation and the fact that the ban does not take effect until the end of September.
Still, the call from local public health leaders for more masking is only getting louder.
"It dramatically shot up as soon as kids went back to school," Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine told the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors during a county health update Monday.
She made a clear connection between our state's rise in coronavirus cases and what is happening inside our schools.
"There is something about the delta strain that it affects children just as much as other people," she said.
Other key takeaways include startling statistics that show the increasing spread among children.
Dr. Sunenshine says 1 in 6 COVID cases in the county now involves children under 12. 6% of hospitalizations are children, with the number doubling monthly. Healthcare providers are seeing a mix of otherwise healthy patients and those with underlying chronic conditions.
The county health department is currently monitoring 166 ongoing school outbreaks and found a clear difference in those with and without mask requirements.
"Schools that do not have a mask requirement are twice as likely to have an outbreak than schools that do," Sunenshine said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman calls this new data concerning but also validating.
"It's devastating," she said. "I've been hearing about this from our school leaders time and time again."
Hoffman hopes these developments will give communities and local lawmakers more perspective on how the divisive debate over masks is impacting the classroom.
"I see a lot of pandemic fatigue in our communities," said Hoffman. "From the department's perspective we'll continue to keep educating, putting out reliable, reputable information, we'll just keep doing everything we can."
ABC15 reached out to Governor Ducey's staff several times Monday, to get his take on the latest Maricopa County data and the federal actions happening in other states banning mask mandates in schools.
So far, we have not heard back.