This Week in COVID: Navajo Nation in Lockdown, Surge Hits ASU Football

ASU head football coach Herm Edwards has contracted COVID-19 along with five other staff members and a unit of players.
ASU head football coach Herm Edwards has contracted COVID-19 along with five other staff members and a unit of players. ESPN screen shot
It's Tuesday, November 17. More than 276,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 6,300 have died as a result.

Arizona is averaging over 2,400 new cases of COVID-19 each day, more than double the number at the end of October, just over two weeks ago. The last time daily cases numbers were this high and rising was the end of June. Maricopa County is averaging 1,400 new cases a day. The spread of COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing either locally or statewide.

While the speed at which COVID-19 is spreading through the community is not increasing as quickly as it did in early summer, the number of people infected each day is on track to double every 2.5 weeks, said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute. "That means in a couple weeks we will be over 4,000 new cases a day, which is not really something we want to see," he told the media last Wednesday.

Rural counties are seeing larger portions of their populations infected in this third surge. While Maricopa County has the most active cases overall, Graham County in southeastern Arizona is leading the state in cases per capita, with 96.74 cases per 100,000 people, followed by Yuma County. Coming in third are Apache, Gila, Santa Cruz, and Coconino Counties, which are all seeing similar per-capita rates.

Spiking cases have led the Navajo Nation to institute a three-week lockdown as of Monday. President Jonathan Nez also vetoed a resolution from the tribal council to reopen the nation's four casinos at 50 percent capacity, the Farmington Daily Times reported. Officials have said that 1,200 people could lose their jobs if casinos stay closed through the end of the month. Meanwhile, other rural areas still lack mask mandates or have repealed them.

The increase in cases statewide continues to stretch hospital capacity. Currently, 88 percent of intensive-care beds are in use statewide, with over one-fifth of total beds in use by COVID-19 patients. Hospital capacity is a "lagging indicator," meaning that the full impact of the virus' current spread is yet to be felt.

While COVID-19 stretched hospital capacity over the summer, a winter spike is more concerning. Arizona hospitals are typically most full over the winter as snowbirds swell the population at the same time as flu season hits, LaBaer said. Additionally, the out-of-state nurses that provided needed reinforcements over the summer are now either occupied in their home states or engaged in midwestern states where the virus is even worse.

"So we're headed into a very crowded period in our hospitals, and if we add to that by adding a bunch of COVID cases, that's going to put a huge stress on the system as well," LaBaer said. He added that it may be time to reexamine how well mitigation measures are working and whether enforcement, or the measures themselves, may need to be stepped up.

Governor Doug Ducey released a video on Monday encouraging Arizonans to keep up efforts to wear masks and practice physical distancing. He also thanked businesses for helping to keep "blood safely pumping through our economy" while fighting COVID-19. Ducey released a similar video last Tuesday, before leaving the state later that week for a multi-day vacation to celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary. The governor has not directly briefed the media on the state's COVID-19 response since the end of October. His office did not respond to questions from Phoenix New Times on Monday.

Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman has come out in support of a statewide mask mandate. The Monday announcement follows a press conference last week where Hoffman said that behavior outside of schools was threatening their ability to stay open. Hoffman also called for quarantine and testing requirements for seasonal residents and a pause on winter sports statewide.
One in 10 Maricopa County residents has contracted COVID-19. That's according to antibody testing conducted on randomly selected households by the county's public health department in September. The results are considered representative, meaning they can be generalized to draw conclusions about the community as a whole. The study found that only one-quarter of COVID-19 cases have been officially reported, meaning approximately 470,000 have been infected in Maricopa County alone. Despite that huge number, Marcy Flanagan, public health executive director, emphasized in a press release that reaching herd immunity would require four to eight times as many people to contract the virus as already have.

U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Lesko is quarantining after being exposed to someone late last week who later tested positive for COVID-19. Lesko, who is not experiencing any symptoms currently, has repeatedly appeared maskless at crowded events, including a press conference with a Trump adviser who tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

As numbers in the community increase, so have numbers at ASU. After seeing numbers fall dramatically from an initial spike as students returned to campus, the number of ASU students with positive cases has jumped back up to 396. Most of the cases are off-campus and far below the peak that cases reached in early fall. Since the beginning of August, ASU has suspended 116 students and 18 student organizations for not following COVID-19 protocols, the student newspaper The State Press reported.

ASU has now canceled two football games due to members of its team testing positive for COVID-19. In a statement, the university's vice president for athletics said that the outbreak had also infected multiple members of the coaching staff, including the head coach. On Friday, ESPN journalist Matt Barrie tweeted that an entire unit of the team was infected, as were six staff members.

Meanwhile, after experiencing its own peak, the University of Arizona has reported 76 positive tests in the last 10 days.
Both universities are planning to go fully online for the rest of the quarter after Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is next week, and public health officials are warning about family gatherings. One such gathering over the summer left four dead in one Phoenix family. If you do gather, LaBaer recommends limiting the number of people and length of the visit, gathering outside, and wearing masks whenever possible.

A second COVID-19 vaccine being tested in Arizona is seeing success.
Biotech company Moderna is reporting 94.5 percent effectiveness in trials, following Pfizer's announcement of 90 percent effectiveness for its vaccine last week. While there is hope to begin distributing vaccines by the end of the year, LaBaer warned that these early results are more of a "status report" and in-depth scientific data remains to be released.

Restaurants took a hit this week after a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that Ducey's order allowing them to sell to-go alcohol was in violation of the law. Judge Pamela Gates' ruling was part of her decision in a case brought by bar owners challenging Ducey's COVID-19 restrictions on them. The judge upheld Ducey's order overall — citing the bar-type behavior that makes them a COVID-19 risk — but said Ducey couldn't single-handedly allow restaurants to begin selling to-go alcohol

If you want to get tested for COVID-19, you can find locations statewide here. ASU is offering unlimited, free, quick-turnaround COVID-19 testing at drive-thru sites across the state. You can sign-up here.
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Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.