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Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine of Maricopa County public health changed her position on masks this summer. Now, the county is recommending they be worn indefinitely.EXPAND
Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine of Maricopa County public health changed her position on masks this summer. Now, the county is recommending they be worn indefinitely.
Erasmus Baxter

This Week in COVID: Maricopa County Says Masks Can Come Off When Virus Is Gone

As of August 17, 194,920 Arizonans have been infected by COVID-19, and 4,529 have died from it. Here's what you need to know from the last week:

The rate at which COVID-19 cases are spreading appears to be continuing to slow. The state this morning added 915 new confirmed cases to the total and 23 new deaths. Just a week earlier, the state added 1,214 new cases and 45 new deaths to the total. Those numbers are reported as tests and deaths get processed, not necessarily the day they occur, but the downward trend appears to be holding. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases peaked on July 6 and we're now only seeing about a quarter as many new cases each day on average, according to Arizona State University data.

The downward trend is projected to continue. The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation currently predicts new infections and deaths will continue to drop through mid-October, reaching as few as 10 deaths a day, before climbing back up into flu season. Those numbers assume that current social distancing requirements stay in place and that 50 percent of school districts only do virtual learning.

Mask mandates may be here to stay locally. In the county's Friday COVID-19 newsletter, Maricopa County Public Health recommends mask-wearing rules remain in place until either 40 percent of the population is vaccinated against the virus, or there are no new confirmed cases for 28 days. Scottsdale's mayor said on August 17 that he is considering removing the end date from the city's mask requirement.

Currently, no Arizona county meets the state Department of Health Services recommendations for resuming in-person instruction, but the governor has left the decision up to individual school districts. Some have decided to open anyway. In the Valley, the Queen Creek and J.O. Combs school districts and American Leadership Academy charter schools all decided to reopen schools. While some parents advocated for the schools to open, others have responded by pulling their kids out of classes. J.O. Combs schools remain closed through Wednesday after teachers refused to return to the classroom. Maricopa County has also released its own more localized guidelines for school reopening, which Queen Creek schools do not qualify under, either.

Arizona State University is resuming classes this week. The university expects more than 13,000 students to move into university housing after confirming they're negative for COVID-19. Students living off-campus do not have present a negative test to begin attending class, however. President Michael Crow told the student paper The State Press that students must self-report any symptoms through an app each day and will not be allowed into class until they get tested. The university told the paper it will not be publicly releasing information on cases associated with the campus. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 Conference, which includes ASU, has canceled all sports games through at least January.

Speaking of benchmarks, last Monday the DHS announced county-level metrics for reopening bars, gyms, and other group settings ordered closed by the governor. The metrics came after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomason ruled that the state had to provide some specifics to Governor Doug Ducey's order. Unlike the benchmarks for schools, they are legally binding. The metrics measure three levels of how prevalent COVID-19 is in the community and offer restrictions depending on the level. Here they are:

Counties must meet all three benchmarks — number of confirmed cases per capita, percent of tests returning positive and percentage of hospital admissions related to COVID — for two weeks to move to the lower stage.
Counties must meet all three benchmarks — number of confirmed cases per capita, percent of tests returning positive and percentage of hospital admissions related to COVID — for two weeks to move to the lower stage.
AZDHS
Even once counties reach "minimal" spread, bars will remain closed until test positivity drops below 3 percent.
Even once counties reach "minimal" spread, bars will remain closed until test positivity drops below 3 percent.
AZDHS

There are some questions about the accuracy of the state's "percent positivity" metric. In theory, it measures what percentage of all COVID-19 tests are coming back positive for the disease. However, the state is excluding data from labs that don't report results electronically. The Arizona Republic reports that constitutes around a quarter of positive results. The state says it's a data-entry issue to log all the negative and positive results reported manually, and that looking at three-quarters of the results provides a fair picture. The number of people seeking COVID-19 tests has also dropped by more than half since late June, according to DHS data.

While Maricopa County is at least two weeks away from reaching the benchmark to begin reopening if current trends hold, some gyms are opening already through a special agreement with the state. As part of Judge Thomason's ruling, the state also had to offer a way for individual businesses to appeal the closures. DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ told reporters last week that businesses can ask the state to consider their plans to reopen early with extra measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, such as testing employees for the virus weekly. Gym chain EōS Fitness said in a press release that it reopened all of its locations on Saturday, including over 20 in the Valley, after its plan was approved by the state.

Ducey's COVID-related executive orders are also being challenged in court by a variety of groups,  including, as of this week, a water park and a group of landlords. The water park is claiming that it is unfair to keep them closed when hotels and others are operating pools and water slides. The landlords say they're challenging the governor's eviction moratorium in-part due to the lack of promised aid renters have received. Bar owners also have an ongoing lawsuit against the governor's orders. On Thursday, a group of them plan to rally in front of the capitol building at 1:30 p.m.

With all this going on, Ducey's office decided to replace his semi-weekly media briefing with a 29-minute press conference on Thursday. A spokesperson for the governor told Phoenix ABC affiliate KNXV-TV (ABC15) that they had received feedback that the briefings were too long. The reporter whose tweet the office cited as an example of that feedback told the station he was being misrepresented. The spokesperson said they would reconsider bringing back the longer briefings in the future.

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