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Gov. Ducey lays out schedule for COVID-19 vaccination disbursement in Arizona

In this file photo, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at an event in Mesa. The governor said earlier this week that Arizona could be “back to normal’’ by this summer once Arizonans get vaccinated for COVID-19.  (Ross D. Franklin/AP file)

In this file photo, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at an event in Mesa. The governor said earlier this week that Arizona could be “back to normal’’ by this summer once Arizonans get vaccinated for COVID-19. (Ross D. Franklin/AP file)

Gov. Doug Ducey said earlier this week that Arizona could be “back to normal’’ by this summer once Arizonans get vaccinated for COVID-19.

In a conference call Tuesday, Nov. 24, the governor laid out a schedule for business leaders that he said should make the vaccine available for “prioritized groups’’ in the middle of December. He also said that essential workers would be next.

And the general public? That, Ducey figures, would be “in the spring, in March or April

State Health Director Cara Christ, also in on the conference call, said her department already is looking to qualify providers who could actually administer the vaccine.

But the governor said the key is getting Arizona from where it is now to the point when those vaccines are widely available.

Christ said there is a “concerning’’ increase in COVID-19 infections. And Ducey has conceded Arizona has a “stressed’’ hospital system.

Still, the governor said he has no plans for any new restrictions beyond those which remain in place, including occupancy limits at bars, restaurants, movie theaters and fitness centers.

Separately, Ducey press aide Patrick Ptak brushed aside questions about the decision by the Pima County Health Department, which on Monday implemented a voluntary nightly curfew designed to keep people home as much as possible between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. through the end of the year.

Ducey himself had issued a stay-at-home order earlier this year during the first wave of the virus surge. But after lifting that, he refused to empower local governments to impose any restrictions of their own.

That left Pima County with its effort to convince people to curb their activities.

Ptak said county health officials already have things they can enforce, like those business occupancy limits, requiring face masks for patrons and staff, and even prohibitions on large public gatherings, suggesting that should be their focus.

“We need all levels working together on this and taking steps to ensure public health guidance is being implemented and enforced,’’ he said.

In the meantime, that left Ducey and Christ on Tuesday talking about the vaccine — when it arrives — and urging businesses to do what they can in the interim.

The timing of the call was not by coincidence. Ducey and Christ noted it comes not just with the approaching Thanksgiving holiday, with its own possibility of spreading the virus, but also Black Friday, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year. And with no additional restrictions anticipated, they said this will depend on steps to minimize the spread of the virus.

For example, Christ said, businesses can increase the use of “touchless’’ payment systems and insist that customers wear masks.

“We know that these can be difficult to implement and everybody wants to get back to normal,’’ said Christ, who also was on the call with business leaders. “But at this time this is how we can control the spread, help reduce the risk of increased cases after the holiday and help avoid additional mitigation measures.’’

The governor emphasized the message.

“Right now businesses are open,’’ he said. “They’re open because businesses have been responsible and worked with health officials to implement smart mitigation measures.’’

And Ducey said he wants businesses open.

“But I need them open safely,’’ he told the owners and managers. “And to do that, we need your help today.’’

The call came as the state added another 4,544 new cases of the virus, with 51 new deaths, bringing the total here to 6,515.

Christ said all 15 Arizona counties have infection rates greater than 100 for every 100,000 residents. And in all but two, more than 10% of the tests are coming back positive.

The only thing that is keeping her agency from listing those counties at “substantial’’ risk of spread is that hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses have remained below 10%.

But that measurement, Christ cautioned, is on the upswing.

“This indicates increased visits to the emergency room and admission to the hospital for COVID-19,’’ she said. “The number of in-patient and ICU beds in use has not been this high since June or July.’’

For the moment, Ducey and Christ are limiting their effort to encouraging more voluntary compliance. That, said the health director, starts with masks — and not just while shopping.

“This includes every setting where you will be around people who do not live with you,’’ she said, even in private homes.

And for businesses, Christ recommended limiting the number of people indoors, even to the point of having customers wait outside.

The governor also pointed out that some restrictions enacted earlier this year remain in place. These include occupancy restrictions in restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters and fitness centers.

“I think that’s going to allow us to get through to the vaccines,’’ Ducey said.

But he remains opposed to anything new.

“The plan is to stay open in a safe and healthy way,’’ Ducey said.

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