Pima's Town Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday night to ask the Graham County Board of Supervisors to implement a mask mandate.

Safford's city council agreed Monday to schedule a meeting to discuss a similar resolution. Thatcher has scheduled its own special meeting for Tuesday night.

The vote in Pima came after nearly an hour of discussions about the pros and cons of a mask mandate.

In making his argument for the resolution, Pima Town Manager Sean Lewis said he isn't in favor of masks and he's not in favor of infringing upon people's rights, but he fears the State of Arizona will shut everything down again if efforts aren't made to stem the surge of COVID-19.

During Safford's meeting, Dr. Susan Jones, who works at the Gila Valley Health Clinic and Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center, spoke out strongly in favor of a mask mandate.

If the COVID-19 numbers aren't brought under control, Jones said the clinic and hospital will lose the ability to care not only for COVID-19 patients, but regular patients as well.

To make matters worse, chances are good that Tucson's hospitals soon won't even be able to take Graham County patients either because of the surge of cases there, Jones said.

On a normal day, 17 patients normally fill the beds at Mt. Graham, Jones said. On Friday, the 49-bed hospital had 17 COVID-19 patients alone.

Lately, the clinic has been testing 29-32 patients a day for the virus and 20 percent of them have it, Jones said. 

Paul David, District One supervisor, said he was against a mask mandate five months ago because he thought it was government over-reach and COVID-19 was manageable. It's no longer manageable and he will do whatever he can to sway his fellow supervisors to implement the mandate, David said.

The mandate would not be in place indefinitely; it would only be in effect for a matter of six weeks or so, David said.

Melissa Lunt, a registered nurse with the Graham County Health Department, said Graham County's positivity rate and case rate per capita are the highest in the state. In fact, on Tuesday, the health department will be announcing a one-day total of 75 new COVID-19 patients, a record, she said.

Lunt too mentioned the 17 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. She pointed out that in August, during the highest spike in cases, only seven patients were hospitalized.

Fourteen acutely ill COVID-19 patients have been transferred to other hospitals from Graham County in the last 30 days, Lunt said.

What we're doing right now isn't working "and the heartbreaking thing is we're going to lose some valuable people," Lunt said.

Lunt also cautioned that even if a mandate is implemented, it will take four to six weeks to see an improvement in numbers and even then it will "just be the tip of the iceberg."

When asked about enforcement of a mask mandate, Lewis told Pima council members the city has the ability to pull business licenses and food permits. He also reassured them that people with health conditions, if they have a note from their doctor, will not face any sanctions.

Although he understands business owners may fear losing customers over the mandate, Lewis asked which was worse - losing one customer or not being able to open up to serve the 75 customers normally served in a day if the state steps in?

Pima Mayor C.B. Fletcher said marketing posters will be hung at businesses all over the Gila Valley pointing out who endorsed the mandate and he thinks that will empower business owners.

Earlier Monday, Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center CEO Roland Knox said he has 21 staff members out due to COVID-19, some who have tested positive cases and others who are in quarantine. They've been recruiting nurses through word of mouth, but in the meantime, nurses are working extra shifts and the hospital is bringing in staff who are paid by the day.

"We have space to increase our number of beds, but are limited by the number of staff members we have," Knox said.

So far, they've not had to transfer any patients (COVID or non-COVID) due to lack of capacity, he said.

 Knox acknowledged he does get frustrated at times when people don't wear masks, but he thinks they'll soon change their minds.

"Any frustration about people not wearing masks is tempered knowing that people in our community will help fight the COVID virus when they have knowledge that their wearing of a mask has impact on the entire community, more specifically the local hospital and hospital staff that are needed to care for them in their time of need," Knox said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted predominantly by respiratory droplets generated when people cough, sneeze, sing, talk or breathe. The CDC recommends community use of masks to prevent the transmission of the virus especially since more than 50 percent of people who transmit the virus are asymptomatic or presymptomatic.

The CDC has reported that upwards of 80% blockage has been achieved in human experiments that have measured blocking of all respiratory droplets, with cloth masks in some studies performing on par with surgical masks as barriers for source control.

For more information on the benefits of masks, visit the CDC's website.

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