Will we see another holiday weekend jump? That's the question, according to Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, which tracks COVID-19 in Arizona. The spread of the disease in Arizona continues to slow, but there are signs that the slowing is itself now slowing. Going into the long Labor Day weekend, daily case numbers were only starting to get down to where they had been before Memorial Day weekend. Similar to how a stoked fire grows more quickly, LaBaer cautioned in a call to reporters last week that COVID-19 numbers could start increasing rapidly if people didn't take precautions over the three-day weekend.
While Arizona's r-number appeared to jump above 1.0 going into the weekend, current calculations show it at 0.97. That number, used as an indicator of the speed of COVID-19's spread, means that each 100 cases will only infect an additional 97 people, on average. For a few weeks, Arizona's r-number was the lowest in the nation, but the state has since dropped to the 14th lowest. Arizona Capitol Times reporter Dillon Rosenblatt noticed that the upward blip led to a downward slide for the role the number played in the daily update from Governor Doug Ducey's official Twitter account:
Something I find interesting: Every day since Aug 15, the Ninth Floor has begun a tweet thread about good Arizona COVID news with the state’s r-naught score. Each time with the message that below 1 means virus is slowing. Today it was the fourth tweet in thread and Rt is > 1. https://t.co/cMcYxruqgY— Dillon Rosenblatt (@DillonReedRose) September 5, 2020
While numbers are down across the state, the ZIP code for ASU's Tempe campus led the state in new cases for much of last week. After peaking just short of 1,000 active cases associated with the university last week, ASU reported active 825 cases as of Sunday. That includes 18 faculty and staff, 202 students on the Tempe campus, and 573 people off campus.
The ASU numbers are the result of spread among students, but also ASU's aggressive testing program. While experts have pointed to a decline in testing statewide, ASU's strategy has included mandatory random sampling among students on campus. LaBaer told reporters in the Wednesday call that while the virus is spreading among certain groups of students who have ignored social distancing, the numbers are in part due to the discovery of asymptomatic cases. As many as 40 percent of people with known COVID-19 show no symptoms, mostly younger people who are not considered high-risk for the disease, like many ASU students.
With ASU releasing limited information about case locations, some are turning to a rogue Twitter account for information. The account has raised some concerns about privacy and potentially spreading misinformation, but the ASU junior who runs it tells Phoenix New Times that the goal is to push the university to more transparent and proactive in tackling the virus.
An engineering professor at the university made headlines after requiring the students who attended his class in person to consolidate in the front two rows. Thomas Seager had been outspoken on social media about his beliefs that the impact of COVID-19 is being exaggerated and the university said students should be able to "self-select" how spaced out they are, contrary to Seager's instructions. But Seager told the student newspaper the fact that students alternated seats means that ASU's standards were met. A student told New Times two weeks ago that alternating chairs was standard in her laboratory class that met in person, and the woman who co-authored a COVID-denying essay with Seager posted images purportedly showing the rest of the lecture hall was set up to accommodate students in alternating seats.
The University of Arizona is also seeing an outbreak of cases. On Thursday, 126 people tested positive for COVID-19 in a single day. Since the end of July, 559 people have tested positive at the university.
At the primary education level, the Morristown Elementary School District became the fourth Maricopa County school district to reach benchmarks for resuming in-person instruction. Most of the county is recommended to remain with hybrid or online-only learning.
(Correction: The story originally misstated the number of ASU cases to date – it is 825.)