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This Week in COVID: Downward Trend Continues, 803 Cases Hit ASU

Octane CrossFit in Phoenix has been holding workouts in their parking lot. They planned to reopen their main space on Monday.EXPAND
Octane CrossFit in Phoenix has been holding workouts in their parking lot. They planned to reopen their main space on Monday.
Courtesy of Justin Pilch

It's Tuesday, September 1. More than 200,000 Arizonans have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 5,000 have died from it. Here's the latest on how the virus is affecting the state:

The average number of new cases is at its lowest since the end of May. As of Friday, Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute was reporting a trailing weekly average of 485 cases. The last time the institute reported a lower average was May 30, with 459. The interim has seen 182,032 new cases in the state.

The decrease may be slowing slightly. This time last week, Arizona's R-number, the average number of new people each COVID-positive person infects, was 0.76 and the lowest on the nation. Arizona's R-number remains the lowest in the nation but has climbed back up to an estimated 0.85.

It's no time to get complacent. While the number of new cases is dropping, the virus is still present in the community and spreading. The Arizona Department of Health Services added 174 new cases to its total on Monday, but Mondays generally have lower case counts than other weekdays. Experts warn that if mask wearing and other measures are relaxed, the spread of the virus will speed back up. Numbers are already projected to increase in late fall as flu season hits and snowbirds return. At a press conference today, Governor Doug Ducey urged people to get a flu shot and said the state is expanding the availability of flu shots for people without insurance.

The governor also defended his inconsistent mask-wearing at President Donald Trump's packed and potentially illegal Republican National Convention speech. Ducey pointed out that he has previously defended people's rights to assemble under the First Amendment during the pandemic, and noted that he was outdoors. When he's indoors and can't physically distance, or masks are required, he wears one, Ducey said.

Arizona has passed a grim milestone in the meantime, totaling over 5,000 dead from COVID-19 as of Saturday. That toll is greater than the number of Arizonans lost from the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, World War 2, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, combined.

Some gyms, bars, and tubing operations are grinding back into action thanks to the lowering case counts. On Thursday, Maricopa County reached what the Arizona Department of Health Services defines as "moderate" spread of COVID-19 in the community, meaning gyms can open at 25 percent capacity, and theaters, water parks and bars with food and seating can open at 50 percent capacity. Mountainside Fitness, which spearheaded the lawsuit that forced the state to develop the benchmarks, saw a good turnout of customers on Thursday, while some other gyms opted to wait to open.

Octane CrossFit in Phoenix has been limited to holding workouts in the morning and evenings due to the lack of shade.EXPAND
Octane CrossFit in Phoenix has been limited to holding workouts in the morning and evenings due to the lack of shade.
Courtesy of Justin Pilch

As of Friday, 274 bars, 366 gyms, 41 theaters and four water parks in Maricopa County had submitted the necessary paperwork to open. The paperwork requires businesses to attest that they will follow physical-distancing procedures, mask mandates and any other state requirements. The DHS has enrolled local health departments to help investigate complaints, and by the end of Friday had received 563 complaints in Maricopa County. DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ told the press that around a quarter of the complaints were bogus and another quarter were for businesses not covered under the order. She said the agency is prioritizing which complaints they respond to.

Over the weekend, the state closed down three bars for allegedly not following the guidelines and suspended the establishments' liquor licenses. Two of the bars, Bottled Blonde and Casa Amigos, were in Scottsdale; another, Glow Shots & Cocktails, was in Tempe. Christ said some of the violations were related to dancing and not staying at tables as required under the order.

The state posted notice that it was closing Bottled Blonde in Scottsdale for allegedly not following reopening guidelines.EXPAND
The state posted notice that it was closing Bottled Blonde in Scottsdale for allegedly not following reopening guidelines.
AZDHS

Despite the improving numbers, no new County school districts have met the benchmarks for in-person learning. The Mobile, Paloma and Sentinel elementary school districts remain the only ones currently meeting county benchmarks to resume traditional instruction. While Maricopa County as a whole does not meet the guidelines, Yavapai County has been joined by La Paz, Greenlee and Apache counties in meeting the recommendations countywide.

The J.O. Combs school district, which had to cancel plans to resume in-person instruction after teachers staged a "sick out," reported on Monday that two custodians and a teacher had been infected. The Arizona Republic is tracking COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

On Monday night, ASU disclosed that it had 775 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and 28 confirmed cases among faculty and staff. That's an increase of 323 students cases from Friday. The university had initially said that, unlike other state universities, it would not release information about associated cases. But it has since been trickling out intermittent updates.

The jump in case numbers could be a result of ASU's mandatory testing regimen getting going and testing more students, but over 100 new students were put in isolation on the Tempe campus over the weekend. There are now 323 students in isolation due to COVID-19. The university is now moving to "mode 3" of on-campus housing which includes restricting visitors to one per room and spreading out students in housing.

Some have criticized the conditions exposed students are supposed to isolate in. ASU admitted to 12 News (KPNX-TV) that due to an error, students had been only receiving two meal deliveries a day. Two students made a TikTok about their experience in the dorms after testing positive for COVID-19: 

The ASU outbreak follows several weeks in which dorm employees said students have been holding crowded parties and not wearing masks. Six of the student employees, known as community assistants, told New Times that they feel the university wasn't properly prepared for students to return and they feel trapped in an unsafe situation. Some said that confusion around policies meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly regarding dorm visitors, has stopped them from enforcing them effectively.

Even as case numbers have increased, ASU has prohibited instructors from informing students if one of their peers tests positive for COVID-19. A university spokesperson cited federal privacy laws for the policy, but also said instructors couldn't inform other students even if the student who tested positive waives that privacy right. Instead, contact tracers with the university are supposed to reach out to students who came in "close contact" with them. However, a student told New Times that she was never informed by the school after she worked in a small group with a classmate who tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. After someone who said they were an instructor posted about the policy on Reddit, Athena Salman, a state representative whose district, includes ASU's Tempe campus said she would look into the issue.

Tempe is looking at poop to track COVID-19 cases. With researchers at ASU, the city is measuring the amount of COVID-19 present in sewage in seven areas of the city. Currently, the virus is present in the zones covering ASU's campus and to the east and north of it. While the exact value of the tracking method is still uncertain, in a smaller program, the University of Arizona was able to locate two asymptomatic cases in a dorm last week by tracking wastewater.

The City of Tempe's dashboard indicates the prevalence of COVID-19 in wastewater.EXPAND
The City of Tempe's dashboard indicates the prevalence of COVID-19 in wastewater.
Screenshot

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