Some Arizona counties may return to higher rates of COVID-19, but Ducey says restrictions won't follow

Andrew Oxford ,  Stephanie Innes   | Arizona Republic [embedded content]Some Arizona counties l

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Andrew Oxford Stephanie Innes   | Arizona Republic

Some Arizona counties likely will return to the category of "substantial spread" of COVID-19, but officials want to avoid another shutdown, the state's governor and health director said Thursday.

Under the state's guidelines, that level of virus spread could trigger restrictions on businesses, but Gov. Doug Ducey said that wouldn't happen barring a dramatic increase.

State data shows at least two counties surpassed the state's 'moderate' benchmark of cases per 100,000 individuals for business reopening for one week — Pima and Coconino.

On the state's business operations dashboard, having more than 100 cases per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks constitutes 'substantial' spread.

"So, we’re starting to work with those county health departments to identify if there are targeted areas where we could work specifically with those business owners," said Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ, though she did not name specific counties. "We want to avoid closing down. If we can implement mitigation strategies, that would be preferable.”

Immediately after Christ finished that statement, Ducey took to the microphone and emphatically said the state will remain open.

“There are things we can do, just like we have been doing — socially distancing, wearing masks, washing hands — but Arizona’s open and we’re going to remain open in a safe and healthy way," he said.

While Arizona has loosened restrictions on many businesses and other institutions, the health precautions that remain have prompted a flurry of lawsuits from business owners and a firestorm of criticism from conservatives in the governor’s own party.

Several Republican legislators have signed a petition to call a special session and end the current state of emergency altogether.

Still, Ducey has received praise from President Trump for his handling of the pandemic so far.

'We should expect a rise in cases'

The percent of positive COVID-19 tests statewide has declined significantly since a surge in July and statewide the percentage is down to 4% to 5% over the past few weeks. But in some individual counties the percent positivity has crept up.

Coconino County went from a 2% positive COVID-19 test rate the week of Aug. 30 to 4% the following week and 6% the week of Sept. 13.

In Yuma County, the percent of positive tests was at 3% the week of Aug. 16, jumped to 10% the following week and since then has ranged between 5% and 7%, the state data shows.

The state has tied its guidelines for reopening schools and other institutions directly to these numbers measured over two consecutive weeks. A positivity rate of 5% is considered a good benchmark that the spread of the disease is under control.

Under the state’s requirements, businesses such as gyms, fitness centers and indoor theaters, cannot operate in counties with substantial spread of COVID-19.

And schools in communities with substantial spread of COVID-19 are advised to keep classes online while only schools in communities with moderate spread should resume some teaching on campuses. Those are only guidelines, however. 

But Ducey emphasized that "Arizona is open" and he does not expect to shut the state down again.

“Arizona’s open. Arizona’s economy is open, Arizona’s educational institutions are open, Arizona’s tourism institutions are open," he said.

"The expectation is they are going to remain open. We are not going to be — due to a gradual rise in cases — be making any dramatic changes.”

Instead, the governor said Arizonans should "expect a rise in cases," pointing to improvements in testing.

“What you should look at is our positivity rate, our hospital capacity, our ICU capacity, which are all at all time lows — low being the positive number that we want.”

Money for universities

Ducey also announced he will allocate $14 million in federal CARES Act COVID-19 relief funding to Arizona's universities — $8 million for enhanced testing and surveillance and $6 million earmarked specifically to Arizona State University, which is developing a fast-response saliva test for COVID-19 that will allow people like first responders, health care workers and those in congregate care settings to get test results within minutes.

ASU President Michael Crow said ASU researchers will develop what he called its "point of need" test over the next six months.

Ducey said partnerships with universities are important and that they have made key creative contributions to the COVID-19 response in the state.

Examples of those innovations include free drive-up Wi-Fi Northern Arizona University is offering in rural parts of the state to help students learn remotely, wastewater testing for the virus being conducted at the University of Arizona and 3D printing of personal protective equipment at ASU.

No statewide mask mandate

When asked whether Arizona would impose a statewide mask mandate, Ducey replied that Arizonans are "common sense people" and he's counting on them to make the right decision.

The governor’s comments came after Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane issued a proclamation lifting his city’s mask requirement.

Ducey allowed local governments to enact such policies in mid-June amid mounting calls from mayors around the state.

Now, health officials are concerned about the double whammy of flu season this winter coinciding with COVID-19.

While Ducey has not imposed a mask requirement, he noted the role of local measures in preventing the spread of the coronavirus over the summer.

"You can see since we put the mitigation efforts in place and municipalities acted on it, our numbers have gone in the right direction for 10 consecutive weeks," Ducey said. "I do think it’s this personal responsibility, public education, and ownership of behavior — washing hands, socially distancing, staying home when sick and wearing a mask. I’m counting on Arizonans to make the right decision.”

State health officials reported 566 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday along with 34 new known deaths and a stable number of hospitalizations that remain well below the peak of the state's surge in July.

The state has reported 5,559 deaths from the virus so far.

The COVID-19 death rate in Arizona was 76 per 100,000 people as of Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That is the 10th highest rate in the country in a state ranking that separates New York City and New York state. The U.S. average is 61 deaths per 100,000 people, the CDC says.

Contact Andrew Oxford at or on Twitter at @andrewboxford.
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