Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Your Southern AZ COVID-19 AM Roundup for Tuesday, July 14: Cases Climb To 128K; Ducey's Popularity Craters As Coronavirus Continues Spread; Will Schools Reopen for Classes or Just Go Digital?; More Testing Available

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2020 at 8:59 AM

The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Arizona climbed past 128K as of Tuesday, July 14, after the state reported 4,273 new cases this morning, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Pima County had seen 12,114 of the state's 128,097 confirmed cases.

A total of 2,337 people have died after contracting the virus.

Maricopa County has 84,233 of the state's cases.

Hospitals remain under pressure. The report shows that 3,517 COVID patients were hospitalized yesterday in the state.

A total of 1,553 people visited ERs yesterday.

A total of 970 COVID-19 patients were in ICU beds yesterday.

In response to the rising cases, Gov. Doug Ducey said last week that restaurants would be limited to 50 percent capacity, though he took no other steps to reduce the spread of the virus other than announcing that the state would be stepping up its testing program in the weeks to come.

Ducey said the state was reaching a plateau since local officials had begun requiring masks in some communities but stopped short of mandating the wearing of masks himself. Ducey said it would be better if Arizonans decided to do that without his mandate.

Democrats in the Arizona Senate released a joint statement saying they were "profoundly disappointed" in Ducey's failure to take further action.

"The newest actions to curb COVID-19 in Arizona are reactionary, piecemeal half measures that are inadequate to substantially slow the spread of the virus." the lawmakers wrote. "We have urged, and continue to urge, the governor to take swift and preemptive actions to curtail the virus’s spread, especially in light of Arizona being reported as the worst in the world for the COVID-19 pandemic. If we truly care about the health and economy of the state, then we need another statewide stay at home order. Only limiting indoor dining to less than 50 percent is woefully inadequate to significantly curb the spread of COVID-19 in Arizona. This fragmented approach has clear economic consequences–consequences that could have been avoided had we taken the pandemic seriously earlier. Taking more aggressive action now will allow us to safely open schools in the future."

Ducey's handling of the virus has caused a steep drop in his job approval numbers, according to a poll released yesterday by OH Predictive Insights. Pollster Mike Noble noted that in his latest survey of 600 likely 2020 voters, conducted July 6-7, showed that voters had sharply turned on Ducey's handling of the coronavirus, with his approval dropping to 35 percent with 63 percent disapproval. In a similar June poll, 59 percent of Arizonans approved of Ducey's handling of the coronavirus and only 37 disapproved.
“As goes the coronavirus so goes Doug Ducey’s fortunes among Arizona voters,” said OHPI Chief of Research Mike Noble in a prepared statement. “When the outbreak was being contained, Ducey was popular. Now that cases are on the rise, his disapproval rating is too.”

Those numbers echo a survey by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public's Policy Preferences Across States, which showed that Ducey had gone from 57 percent approval in early May to 32 percent in late June.

Meanwhile, concern continues to mount about opening schools next month. Despite pressure from the Trump administration to open schools to all students on their regular schedule, some local school districts have announced that they will only offer "distance learning" or online instruction when school starts next month. Unlike in spring, when schools moved online following spring break, districts are planning stricter instructional time designed to mirror traditional in-person classes.

Tucson Unified School District and Sunnyside School District have announced that they would move to an online-only model, while Catalina Foothills is moving forward with a plan that blends in-person classes and distance learning. Amphi School District announced last week that it would start online-only instruction on Aug. 10 and could return to the traditional classroom as soon as Aug. 17, but students will be able to continue with online classes if they choose to do so.

TUSD will launch online classes for all students starting Aug. 10, with in-person classroom instruction delayed until "when it is deemed safe," according to a letter to parents from TUSD Superintendent Gabrielle Trujillo.

Likewise, Sunnyside School District Superintendent Steve Holmes told parents that the district would start online classes on Aug. 5.

"While starting school completely online is not ideal, I am confident that we are prepared for a remote learning environment given our track record of using technology as an essential instructional tool for the past 10 years," Holmes said. "We are committed to offering your child a quality uninterrupted learning experience. Our teachers and curriculum staff have been working all summer to ensure that we can remotely deliver the same rigorous curriculum that would have been offered in person."

Catalina Foothills Superintendent Mary Kamerzell said their district is “working 24/7” to create two reopening options for families: full-time in-person learning and full-time remote learning.

“While we adapt to new guidance from the State of Arizona, our priority is to design plans for school re-entry that continue our tradition of academic excellence and create a safe environment for students and staff,” Kamerzell said in a message to parents. “Our primary sources for guidance are the CDC's Considerations for Schools and the American Academy of Pediatrics' COVID-19 Planning Considerations.”

If the governor’s start date gets pushed back again, Kamerzell said the district will be 100 percent ready to begin remote learning for all students on Aug. 17.

Catalina Foothills launched a website with more details about their reopening plans yesterday.

As the districts announce their plans, some public health experts expect it will remain unsafe for in-person classes next month.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said last week that while states that have taken more aggressive steps earlier to slow the spread of the virus will be able to reopen schools, he can’t see the same thing happening in Arizona.

“We just have too much community spread,” Humble said.

Humble, who headed up the Arizona Department of Health Services in the administration of former Gov. Jan Brewer, said there are two main factors to consider when opening schools in the fall: mitigation measures alongside the level of community spread within a school district.

“School districts have some really creative folks and I think they could put some effective mitigation measures in place that would make it safe to open schools if we didn’t have so much community spread,” Humble said. “Because we have the level of community spread that we have, I just don’t see that mitigation measures, which help but don’t eliminate transmission, are going to be adequate to make it a safe environment for teachers and schools and families.”

The state needs a much lower percentage of positive tests and much more hospital capacity before schools can safely reopen, Humble said.

“The decisions that were made or not made in May or June will impact what’s happening in August and September around schools,” Humble said.

Speaking of testing: Pima County has launched a new testing site at Kino Event Center. After the registration portal opened, this week's slots filled up in 10 minutes, according to a memo from Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. The testing and lab costs are estimated to reach $30 million to $40 million, which will come out of the county's portion of the federal CARES Act.

Huckelberry noted that while Ducey announced last week that he would expend testing in the Phoenix area, the Governor's Office has not made any plans to support further testing in Pima County.

In other testing news, Pima County announced last week that officials have contracted Maximus Health & Services, Inc. to boost contact tracing efforts in the region. Maximus is an outsourcing company that provides business support to government health agencies such as the Pima County Health Department. They will hire about 150 local residents to perform “extensive” contact tracing as directed by the health department, in order to “alert, educate and isolate” individuals who have come in close contact with a person who is COVID-19 positive.

Pima County said this partnership will dramatically expand its current contact tracing system, at a time when Arizona is experiencing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases.

“One of the key components of our response to this outbreak that has been difficult to ramp us has been the hours and hours of people power it takes to do this type of work and the systems it takes to support that staff,” said Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen in a statement. “We look forward to being able to quickly take advantage of the experience, capacity, and planning Maximus will be able to provide.”

Pima County will pay $10 million to Maximus for a six-month contract, which has “multiple extension options” in three-month increments that will allow the county to reduce or expand the scope of the contact tracing system as needed.

Correction: This story originally reported that Pima County's new testing system was a drive-thru site. It is indoors.