Expert: Reopening Arizona Depends on How Many COVID-19 Deaths We Find Acceptable

By Jessica Swarner

April 29, 2020

“Are we willing to decide that a certain number of deaths are just going to be unavoidable?” 

As Arizona awaits Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision on whether or not he will extend the stay-at-home order past Thursday’s expiration date, a University of Arizona epidemiologist says reopening businesses on Friday would be a risky move. 

“I think it really comes down to what number of deaths we consider acceptable,” Associate Professor Dr. Sydney Pettygrove told The Copper Courier. “Because going back to business as usual is going to mean an increased number of deaths.”

Pettygrove noted that, for instance, Pima County, the state’s second most populous county and where UArizona is located, does not yet meet criteria set by the White House to begin reopening. A fact sheet below from the Pima County Board of Supervisors, last updated April 24, illustrates nine criteria deficiencies.

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For example, the county has not yet seen decreasing positive cases, COVID-19-related deaths, and symptomatic cases all over a period of two weeks. There was only one day this week when there were no new confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state, but it still remains unclear how many people are dying at home.

RELATED: Arizona Reported No New COVID-19 Deaths Monday

Pima County has also not met requirements for testing all symptomatic patients, surge capacity for hospital staffing and beds, sufficient protective medical gear, timely contact tracing, testing of all symptomatic contacts within 12 hours, and the availability of facilities for patients who can’t be discharged home. 

“It’s looking like we really don’t yet have what we need in place to seriously consider opening up again,” Pettygrove said. 

The epidemiologist added that she’s concerned about how little is known about term effects of the virus, especially in the long term. For example, some people in their 30s and 40s have experienced strokes after being infected. 

“We really don’t know nearly as much about this as we’d like to see,” she said. 

Pettygrove said while economic concerns are important, reopening businesses is truly a matter of life and death. 

“I do understand the pressures that people are feeling to get back to work. They’re not able to pay their bills. They’re not able to provide for their families … but that’s one side of the balance,” she said. “And on the other side of the balance is life. Are we willing to decide that a certain number of deaths are just going to be unavoidable?” 

Some Businesses Say They Will Open Anyway

Some small business owners in the state have said they plan to resume operations Friday whether or not Ducey chooses to extend the stay-at-home order. 

Members of the Facebook group “Great 48,” which played a big role in organizing protests to reopen the state over the past two weeks, have encouraged people to advertise their businesses opening Friday and plan parties, barbecues, rallies, and other gatherings throughout the weekend. The group has over 20,000 members.

People wanting to reopen the state Friday have said they view the economic downturn and resulting loss of income for individuals and families to be more devastating than the results of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Wendy Acuna, who owns The Beauty Mark salon in Surprise and has six children, told ABC 15 she plans to open Friday.

“All of us self-employed, we also have to take care of our families,” she said. “Our bills haven’t stopped. Food still has to go in our children’s mouths.”

Not Safe to Reopen Until Summer? 

Although Arizonans are eager to open up the economy Friday, one COVID-19 model recommends Arizona not begin relaxing social distancing guidelines until July 6 – more than two months from now. 

Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington based their conclusion on when COVID-19 infections are expected to drop below the rate of one per 1 million people in a location. 

The model predicts Arizona will hit its peak resource day on Friday and peak in daily deaths on Saturday. An estimated total of 767 Arizonans are expected to die from the coronavirus by Aug. 4. 

Thus far, there are 7,202 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, including 254 new cases for Wednesday, and 304 deaths.

Local Chambers of Commerce Back a Later Opening Date

Because of the continued increase of COVID-19 cases and deaths, a coalition of East Valley chambers of commerce – made up of Apache Junction, Carefree Cave Creek, Fountain Hills, Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, Scottsdale, and Tempe – sent a letter to Ducey last week recommending that the first phase of reopening not begin until May 15. 

Kathy Tilque, president and CEO of the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce, said the date was chosen with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in mind. It would also give the state enough time to see the two-week decrease in cases and deaths that is included in the White House criteria for reopening. 

The first phase would include reopening retail stores, personal services, and large venues like movie theaters, churches, sporting venues, restaurant dining rooms, and gyms. However, the businesses would have to follow strict social distancing protocols and only invite up to half of their workforces to return to work in the first two weeks of reopening. 

The second phase, planned to begin June 1, would allow daycares and bars to reopen, again, with strict social distancing protocols. Then phase three on June 15 would allow for an unrestricted workforce and for bars to increase their standing capacity. 

The chambers recommended that schools not reopen until after July 1, well after the academic year for most will end. 

RELATED: Arizona Mayors: State Will Not Be Ready to Reopen May 1

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego has also let Ducey know she believes May 1 is too early for businesses to begin opening, although she is encouraged by the state’s efforts to ramp up testing. 

“As of [Tuesday], Arizona is not meeting the federal guidelines for a May 1 reopening,” Gallego’s spokeswoman told The Copper Courier. “Science and data must continue to lead any discussions on reopening.”

Ducey is expected to make an announcement Wednesday as to whether he will extend the stay-at-home order or allow it to expire.

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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