Pima County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen and the county's COVID school liaison, Brian Eller, discuss the recent spike in school-related COVID-19 cases during a press briefing Friday. 

Pima County school districts reported a “significant increase” in COVID-19 cases over the last week amid a recent spike in coronavirus cases across the county.

Over 730 school-related cases were reported to the Pima County Health Department last week, which is more than three times the average of around 222 school cases from previous weeks, said Brain Eller, COVID school liaison for the health department.

Students under age 12 represented a majority of those cases, with 380 reported last week, followed by students ages 12 to 19, with 228 cases last week.

The total number of school-related COVID-19 cases has already surpassed last year’s total, with 4,251 cases so far in 2021; last year there were 4,069, Eller said.

A combination of increased community transmission, as well as the lack of mitigation strategies in some settings, have contributed to the spike, Eller said.

“The proclivity for these outbreaks to take place usually aligns with things like mitigation strategies not being implemented, like masking and things like that,” Eller said.

“We know that last year there were a lot more classroom closures, there were remote learning options, hybrid learning options, there was more limited interaction, and there was a lot more masking going on, as well...and we know through the literature that we’ve seen that masking decreases the risk of outbreaks within school settings,” Eller said, referring the study Pima County co-authored showing that schools without mask mandates are 3.5 times more likely to experience a COVID-19 outbreak than those who have one.

Increased community-level transmission could also be a factor in the spike, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department.

Over the past week, Pima County has seen an over 14 percent increase in COVID-19 cases, with a current case rate of 255 per 100,000 as of Nov. 5, according to the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker.

“If you look at the data trackers, you’ll see the Southwest lighting up right now throughout the entire state of Arizona,” Cullen said. “And we’re not unique to the situation. We are seeing increasing cases in Pinal, Maricopa and Coconino also with very marked increases.”

Cullen said that overall, the increase is a sign that the pandemic “continues to be a disease primarily of the unvaccinated.”

“The school outbreak number continues to be high, and we do hope that vaccinations will impact that and we’ll see a decrease in it,” she said.

Over the next few weeks, the health department will be hosting several mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinics at elementary and middle schools throughout Pima County to aid in the distribution of pediatric vaccines to the county’s 5- to 11 year olds.

For a complete list of vaccine sites and times, visit

Mary Glen Hatcher | 520-547-9740

Mary Glen is a North Carolina native who's excited to explore the Tucson area through her reporting with Green Valley News. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2019.

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