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New Arizona governor’s pick for top doc hints at shift in management of COVID pandemic

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Cameron Arcand

(The Center Square) – Governor-Elect Katie Hobbs' selection of Pima County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen to lead the Arizona Department of Health Services marks another likely point in policy changes in contrast to outgoing Governor Doug Ducey's administration. 

Cullen promoted strict coronavirus measures in the county, which includes Tucson, when it came to precautions like masking, and she has become a high-profile voice in the Arizona medical community.

For example, Cullen was strongly encouraging people to continue masking into 2022, even though the state government took a more hands-off approach to pandemic management as time went on.

While Ducey temporarily ordered bars, gyms and other gathering places to close and put several COVID-19 prevention measures in place, the governor's office fought against stricter mask and vaccination mandates that other states required. In December 2020, Ducey shot back at a reporter pressuring him about his refusal to order mass shutdowns similar to California and other states. 

"We know that we can slow the spread, but when you say the word 'lockdown,' you're talking about shutting down entire industries, closing classrooms, bankrupting small businesses," Ducey said. "You're talking about putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work."

Cullen and Pima County supervisors were at odds with Ducey in March of 2021 when the governor lifted many COVID-19 mitigation measures. 

"As the governor readily admits, we are still in the midst of a public health emergency. People are still getting sick and dying. It is incumbent upon all of us to do everything we can to prevent the spread of this disease," Dr. Cullen said. "I know the restrictions on business has been very difficult and some have had to stop operating. And we're all tired of the masks and limitations. But I urge businesses to think about the safety of their customers and their own employees. We need people to keep wearing masks."

According to KOLD, the doctor acknowledged that a mandate from Pima County that ended in February 2022 was not necessarily an enforced order, but instead officials wanted to send a strong message to residents. In July, the Pima County Health Department supported students masking in class for the fall, KOLD also reported.

More recently, she told KJZZ in November that Arizonans should consider wearing a face covering to avoid catching other illnesses, like the flu and RSV.

Former ADHS head Will Humble, who served until 2015, praised the decision to choose Cullen for the job.

"Dr. Cullen is an excellent choice to lead (AZDHS) I know the county health departments - who do the public health grunt work - will be delighted to have an ADHS director who embraces the (key) role CHDs play in (Arizona's) public health system & who'll facilitate their success," he tweeted.

Cullen began working as the county's public health director in June 2020, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Previously, she served as a United States assistant surgeon general in the U.S. Public Health Service, according to the University of Arizona.