The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Arizona climbed past 156K as of Friday, July 24, after the state reported 3,349 new cases this morning, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Pima County had seen 14,428 of the state's 156,301 confirmed cases.
A total of 3,142 people have died after contracting the virus, including 409 in Pima County.
Maricopa County had 104,613 of the state's cases.
Hospitals remain under pressure, although they report a slight decrease in the number of Arizonans hospitalized with COVID-19-related symptoms. The report shows that 2,844 COVID patients were hospitalized yesterday in the state, down from a peak of 3,517 on July 13.
A total of 1,407 people visited ERs yesterday with COVID symptoms. That number peaked at 2,008 on July 7.
A total of 837 COVID-19 patients were in ICU beds yesterday. The number of COVID patients in ICUs peaked at 970 on July 13.
NEW SCHOOL RULES
Gov. Doug Ducey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced yesterday that while school districts have to open up schools by Aug. 17, they do not have to provide in-class instruction. Instead, the schools can open up for students who need a place to go during the day but offer all online courses, as Tucson Unified School District announced it would do earlier this month.
Ducey agreed to Hoffman’s plan to use metrics regarding the spread of the virus to determine whether schools are safe to reopen. The Arizona Department of Health Services is working with education leaders to develop the standards before Aug. 7.
Hoffman had proposed using metrics rather than a calendar date to determine whether schools could reopen safely. Her suggested metrics included a downward trajectory of confirmed new cases, a decrease in positivity rates in testing, and widespread availability of tests.
Public health experts have been warning that community transmission is too widespread to safely open the schools as planned. Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, 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.
“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,” Humble said.
The state needs a much lower percentage of positive tests and much more hospital capacity before schools can safely reopen, Humble said.
Local school districts are planning a mix of "distance learning" online instruction and in-school 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 will launch online classes for all students starting Aug. 10 but in order to avoid losing state funding, schools will open on Aug. 17 for any student who wants to attend class in person. However, students will be in "learning spaces" where they will do the same distance learning program that students who remain home will experience. Teachers may or may not be in the classroom, which may instead include a monitor to keep an eye on the students who are in the room. All TUSD families will receive laptops.
BEARING DOWN ON COVID
University of Arizona President Robert Robbins said yesterday that UA would offer a mix of in-person and online classes beginning this fall.
The university will be offering a mix of four types of classes: in-person, which will physical distancing and mandated face coverings; flex in-person, which will include both in-class and online instruction; live online, in which students virtually engage with an instructor in real-time on their computers; and iCourses, which students can complete independently through the schools D2L system.
Robbins said he anticipated that between faculty, staff and students, there would be about 20,000 people on campus, rather than the usual 60,000 that fall semester would bring.
Students, staff, and faculty will have access to a mix of tests, including PCR tests to determine if they have COVID-19 and antibody tests to determine if they have had it in the past.
"There are no risk-free options in return to our campus. Our plan is informed by international and national experts, including Dr. Carmona, who has for years had expertise in virology managing public health emergencies and other types of crises," Robbins said. "Our faculty and staff remain our greatest asset, in addition to our students, and I am confident that our broad capabilities, contributions, and resilience will enable us to weather this period and emerge even stronger than we are today."
COVID’S SPREAD MAY BE ON DECLINE
Citing a drop in the total number of cases on a week-to-week basis, Gov. Doug Ducey again said that mask-wearing and steps to reduce the interaction of people in large groups had resulted in some positive signs regarding the spread of the virus. While he once again sidestepped an opportunity to pass a statewide mask mandate, he did roll out TV commercials featuring a boxer who wears a mask.
Ducey also extended the closure of nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters, waterparks, tubing operations, and some bars. The executive order pausing the operation of those businesses is up for review every two weeks.
While coronavirus cases may be on a slight downward trend in the state, Ducey urged Arizonans to stay vigilant by staying at home and wearing masks while practicing social distancing when out in public to continue the fight against the virus.
Ducey again warned the state still had a long road ahead in the fight against COVID-19.
We need to continue to be diligent,” Ducey said. “We can’t let up.”
The Arizona Diamondbacks play their opening game of 2020 on the road tonight against the San Diego Padres. The shortened 60-game season will be played without fans in the seats. The Diamondbacks will play their home opener next Thursday, July 30, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Meanwhile, FC Tucson returns to the soccer field for its first game on Sunday, July 26, against Fort Lauderdale CF at 5 p.m. FC Tucson’s home opener will be on Saturday, Aug. 8, against Union Omaha, but as will MLB, there will be no fans in attendance. Games will be televised on ESPN Plus.
MORE COVID-19 AND ANTIBODY TESTING AVAILABLE
With Arizona's COVID-19 cases now topping 150,000, the University of Arizona and the State of Arizona have expanded their free COVID-19 antibody testing program to include 15 new categories of essential workers considered at high risk for exposure. The antibody test, developed by researchers at UA Health Sciences, determines who has been exposed to and developed an immune response against COVID-19.
In addition to healthcare workers and first responders, the following workers are eligible for antibody testing:
-Child care workers
-Agriculture, grocery and foodservice workers
-Solid waste collection workers
-Transportation services workers
-Members of the National Guard
More information and registration for the test is available at covid19antibodytesting.arizona.edu.
Along with the expanded testing, UA is also launching a $7.7 million yearlong study funded by the CDC to identify "patterns of COVID-19 immunity over time in previously and newly infected individuals." The research team is seeking 4,000 health care workers, first responders, and other frontline workers as participants in the study, who will participate in weekly COVID-19 surveillance and quarterly antibody testing.
Pima County is now running a free COVID-19 testing site at Kino Event Center. You can register for a test here.
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.
Pima County has also contracted with 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. 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.
DUCEY TO DC: EXTEND UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE
As Senate Republicans and the Trump White House debate the provisions of a new federal aid package, Ducey this week asked Arizona's congressional delegation to consider a number of provisions to help Arizona in the latest coronavirus package, including an extension of the extra $600 a week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation that out-of-work Arizonans are receiving. Those additional dollars are set to run out this week.
"We understand the concerns from businesses that are having difficulty rehiring employees when the government pays more in unemployment benefits compared to what they were paying their former employees before the pandemic," Ducey wrote. "We are advocating that, at a minimum, individuals who continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, be eligible to receive at least 100% of their weekly earnings that they were making prior to government intervention in their employers’ ability to stay open. It is by no fault of their own that certain businesses have a higher risk of transmission of COVID-19 and therefore are being required to close by the government, and we would advocate that those individuals continue to have extra support from the FPUC."
Ducey also asked the federal government to provide more money to Arizona's unemployment insurance fund; extend the December deadline for the state's tribes to spend their pandemic aid dollars; more funding for a program that helps low-income Arizonans pay utility bills that climb in the summer thanks to triple-digit temperatures; and special liability protection to shield healthcare workers, businesses and schools from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
MANY ARIZONANS OUT OF WORK, BUT STATE BUDGET HOLDS UP OK
For the week ending July 18, more than 22,000 Arizonans filed initial jobless claims, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
More unhappy numbers show that nearly 350,000 Arizonans were unemployed in June, down from a high of 473,000 in April but still enough to put the state’s unemployment rate at 10 percent.
That’s a loss of nearly a quarter-million jobs compared to June 2019, according to the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity.
The sectors hit hardest between April and June were restaurants, bars, hotels, and amusement attractions like movie theaters. Compared to 2019 tax collections in the final quarter of the fiscal year, restaurant and bar tax collections were down by 32 percent, lodging tax collections dropped by nearly 63 percent and amusement tax collections dropped by nearly 67 percent.
Despite those woeful numbers, state revenues have weathered the outbreak much better than anticipated.
Based on preliminary data assembled by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the state collected $10.97 billion over the fiscal year that ended June 30. That’s a drop of just 2.3 percent over the previous fiscal year. But between the state’s additional spending in response to the virus and an influx of new federal dollars to offset some of those expenses, the state’s final balance has yet to be calculated. Still, state budget forecasters believe that when all is added in, the state will finish fiscal year 2020 with a surplus.
That’s a bit of surprise, given that state budget forecasters had previously expected the pandemic to hammer tax collections. But while restaurants and bars and hotels saw huge losses, other sectors held up just fine. Taxes on construction activity grew by 16.2 percent over the entire fiscal year and had double-digit growth between April and June. And retail tax collections remained strong; over the course of the entire fiscal year, that sector saw 4.3 percent growth over the previous year.
Income tax collections declined by 9.6 percent compared to the previous fiscal year, but those numbers are also skewed by the delay of the tax deadline to July 15.
Research Professor George Hammond, the director of the UA Eller College of Management Economic and Business Research Center, said he believed the state was performing better than he had originally forecast when the pandemic first hit for three main reason.
“First the outbreak was not as severe here initially as it was in the Northeast, so it did not have as much of a negative impact on consumer/worker behavior as initially feared,” Hammond said. “Second, the stay-at-home order was lifted earlier than assumed in the early projections, which assumed it would last through the summer. Third, the CARES Act, particularly the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, had a bigger than expected positive impact on household incomes and consumer spending.”