County Health Director tests positive for COVID-19; part of outbreak at the Health Department

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Pima County

County Health Director tests positive for COVID-19; part of outbreak at the Health Department

Dr. Theresa Cullen

Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen tested positive for COVID-19 Dec. 15, part of an apparent outbreak in the department. The County is offering testing to all Health Department staff who work at the headquarters building on East Ajo Way and moving them to alternative work locations or having them work from home while the affected floors are sanitized.

“This just goes to prove that when there is substantial community spread of the virus like we’re experiencing now throughout the County, the virus can get into your homes and places of work any number of ways no matter how vigilant you are being with your precautions,” said County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia. “We require mask wearing at the Health Department and staying home when sick. However, when people can spread the virus before they show symptoms or when completely asymptomatic, outbreaks can happen anywhere. That’s why we strongly encourage everyone to stay home whenever possible and it’s why the County Administrator is requiring hundreds of employees to stay home for three weeks.”

County case investigators and contact tracers are working to track down the sources of the outbreak, however Garcia said a protest at the building Dec. 10 of several dozen people, some of whom entered the lobby to protest and had close contact with security staff and other building staff, may make that tracing effort extremely difficult. Few of the protestors were wearing masks. They were there to protest Health Department COVID-19 protection and enforcement actions. Garcia also noted that there was at least one covid positive health department employee reported a few days before the protest.

“The effects of this outbreak at the Health Department will be a significant challenge but it is one we are able to handle,” Garcia said. “We have redundant capacity in staffing and facilities, and this will not affect our ability to continue to our mission protecting public health or the Health Department’s vital role in the struggle to control and end the spread of COVID-19 in Pima County.”

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Board of Supervisors this week that more than 300 of the roughly 7,000 county employees have contracted COVID-19 since the outbreak began in February, with more than 60 of them, or about 20 percent, just in the past two weeks. The Health Department outbreak involves 11 employees. Several others who had close contacts with the positive employees were asked to isolate at home for at least 10 days and were advised to get tested.

According to County testing data, there are more than 8,000 people in Pima County who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 7 days, nearly 15,000 since Dec. 1.

“Please, stay home as much as possible. Wear a mask when you’re not at home. Stay as far away from others as you possibly can. These are the most effective tools we have to get control of this outbreak until the vaccine is widely available and the majority of county residents have been inoculated, and that won’t be until much later in 2021,” Garcia said.