Arizona close to meeting COVID-19 metrics for school reopenings

Arizona’s downward trend of coronavirus cases means parts of the state could meet all three metrics the state’s health and education departments set for at least a partial reopening of schools by Labor Day, according to a former state health director.

According to Will Humble, who now leads the Arizona Public Health Association, bars and nightclubs in at least some counties could meet the parameters for reopening shortly after that.

However, caution is the word of the day, according to Humble and Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the ASU Biodesign Institute, which has been tracking the virus in Arizona.

“Arizona continues on what I would consider a positive trend, a good trend for us,” LaBaer said Wednesday at his weekly media briefing. But he said it is still difficult to predict if that decline will continue.

That’s particularly true if people ease up on social distancing and wearing face masks in public and start gathering in large groups again.

“If we go back to that, if people start deciding that everything’s great and they don’t need to take precautions anymore, we will pop right back again” Labaer said. “We have done that experiment once –- we don’t want to do it again. We really need to keep this down.”

Arizona was a COVID-19 hotspot

Arizona became a national hotspot in June and July, with new infections rampant, hospitals nearing capacity and deaths soaring. 

The sharp rise in cases started about two weeks after Gov. Doug Ducey allowed stay-home orders to expire on May 15, and bars, nightclubs and other large venues became packed with patrons. In mid-June, Ducey responded to pressure and allowed cities and counties to require people to wear masks in public. On June 29, he ordered bars, nightclubs and water parks to close as daily counts neared 5,000 new virus cases a day.

Those actions appeared to have a major effect, with cases starting to drop quickly. In the past week, new daily cases counts have fallen below 1,000 in six of seven days, and Arizona is one of the nation’s bright spots for controlling the virus.

According to Johns Hopkins University data analyzed by The Associated Press, the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Arizona decreased from 2,082 new cases per day on Aug. 4 to 883 new cases per day on Aug. 18. The rolling average of daily deaths during the same period dropped from 62 to 47.

State health officials on Wednesday reported 637 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 105 more deaths in Arizona as rolling seven-day averages for cases and deaths continued to decline over the past two weeks.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Humble credits local government officials for requiring masks and gives the Republican governor credit for closing bars. The third element in the case drop, he believes, is some level of so-called “herd immunity” that came from lots of people being infected.

“So many people got sick in May and especially June and July that there are a fair number of people that have gotten ill with this virus and recovered,” Humble said. 

The guidelines say schools can consider reopening for partial in-person learning once their county meets several criteria as measured over two weeks: fewer than 100 new cases per 100,000 people or a sustained drop in new cases; a rate of positive tests that is 7% or less; and fewer than 10% of hospital visits for COVID-like symptoms. Most Arizona counties are now meeting two of those thresholds and appear headed down.

Schools are not bound by the rules, and some have reopened already.

Reopening of bars and nightclubs

Reopening nightclubs and bars is a far different matter, both LaBaer and Humble agreed. LaBaer said the virus spread is still far too great to open bars, because the environment is too conducive to spreading.

Humble said the trick will be for Ducey to lay out rules that are enforced. Schools are different, because teachers and parents will quickly react if there is poor adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing rules. 

“That’s not the case with bars and nightclubs,” Humble said. “If we open the bars and nightclubs again and there’s no compliance system in place, I can see 20 and 30-year-olds packing those places again, and amplifying the virus, just like what happened in June and July.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Associated Press reporter Paul Davenport contributed.