PHOENIX—Arizona’s rapidly rising COVID-19 infection and death rates have done more than make the state’s response a national embarrassment. The troubling trend puts more Arizonans in harm’s way and local economies at greater long-term risk.
“The level of crisis we have in Arizona is unnecessary and a direct result of poor decision-making and failed leadership,” Rep. Greg Stanton said today. “State officials can make us safer by taking urgent steps to save lives—but they have to act quickly. Time is running out.”
Background on Arizona’s COVID-19 Crisis
Arizona is a new national hotspot for COVID-19 and reported more than 4,400 new cases in the last 72 hours. The state has operated outside Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations since social distancing restrictions were lifted and businesses were permitted to reopen in early- to mid-May. Arizona has not experienced a decline in COVID-19 cases since reporting data first became public on April 9.
Per capita, Arizona’s infection rate is now more than three times higher than New York state. According to ABC News, Arizona’s 7-day rolling average for new COVID-19 infections reached 1,006 cases per day on June 9 compared to New York’s 7-day average of 920 new cases. The Empire State has triple Arizona’s population.
Johns Hopkins shows Arizona’s percentage of positive tests as one of the highest rates in the nation.
Arizona has the highest rate in the country of new cases per million residents, according to Vox.
The state’s death toll continues to rise, and experts predict that it will get much worse. A model from the University of Washington predicts Arizona will experience 4,400 COVID-related deaths by August 4.
Five Steps for a Safer Arizona
1. Mandate masks in public settings.
A mandate to wear masks should not have been necessary, but Arizona officials had refused to even recommend that residents wear masks in public until just the last 48 hours, creating a situation much more dire than it ever should have been. Only after mounting public pressure did the governor’s office even mention cloth face coverings as a way for Arizonans to “do their part.”
In April, before the governor’s decision to lift social distancing restrictions, the CDC recommended that people wear a face mask or covering when physical distancing isn’t possible. Yet the governor’s office, which previously said Arizona would adhere to CDC guidelines and boasted about making “data-driven” decisions, proactively scrubbed the CDC recommendation regarding face coverings from materials that summarize other CDC recommendations.
Evidence that supports the effectiveness of masks continues to grow. Two days ago, scientists published a peer-researched report in the Proceedings of the Nation Academy of Sciences that concluded the “wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.” [Source]
To save Arizona from this escalating crisis, masks should be required in public places and essential businesses where physical distancing isn’t possible such as grocery stores, pharmacies, retailers and public transit. Businesses should also be required to provide their employees with masks to wear while working.
2. Provide meaningful guidance for small businesses as they re-open.
When Arizona’s businesses were allowed to reopen, state officials provided minimal guidance on how business owners could keep employees and customers healthy.
Arizona should follow the lead of states such as Colorado, which have provided businesses and employers with detailed guidelines for conducting their own symptom screenings, including checking temperatures of customers and employees. Local businesses need clear, actionable guidance and they need to know how to best keep their employees and customers safe.
3. Expand testing and speed up results.
Arizona needs to test more residents. And to get a true picture of community transmission, more tests need to be made available to residents on a wider scale, regardless of present symptoms. Result turn-around needs to increase as well. Arizona is experiencing delays in test results up to a week or more, which makes it difficult to accurately account for the number of positive COVID-19 cases—and for contact tracing to take place in an adequate time period.
“We are currently experiencing delays in test results up to a week or more, which means that there may be more positive COVID-19 cases than are currently portrayed here,” said Kacey Ernst, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, to local media.
As a result, test results are a significantly lagging indicator for the seriousness of Arizona’s situation.
4. Urgently prioritize contact tracing.
As the number of cases rise, it’s critical that public health experts understand if transmission is localized or more widespread. That requires contact tracing. The CDC considers contact tracing a “core disease control measure” and a “key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19.
Arizona has been falling short. The state needs to follow CDC recommendations to scale up and train a large workforce to work across public and private agencies to stop the transmission of the disease.
In Maricopa County alone, health workers need to make about 1,800 contacts a day. In May, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved funding to hire 50 contact tracers on top of the 25 currently employed—but it’s still not enough. Some public health experts say Arizona could require as many as 4,000 contact tracers statewide to tackle the spread of COVID-19.
5. Require weekly testing for health care workers as well as nursing home and assisted living facility employees.
Arizona should mandate weekly testing of nursing-home and assisted-living facility employees and health care workers, even if they do not exhibit symptoms.
Requiring weekly testing for health care workers was proposed by Dr. Joel Kupfer, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, last month. [Source]
Nursing homes have been especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and state officials have placed a higher priority on protecting companies that operate these facilities than those in their care. One in three Arizona nursing homes has reported a case of COVID-19, and nearly one in five have experienced a COVID-related death.
Testing residents and health care workers once is insufficient. Now that all nursing home staff and residents have received a baseline test, staff and any potentially-exposed residents should receive weekly tests to stay on top of transmission.