Health experts have worried that the flu on top of COVID could overwhelm hospital systems this fall and winter.
Arizona’s number of COVID-19 cases is once again on the rise.
And with more cases come more deaths. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME) projects Arizona will start seeing an increase in daily deaths in November, the state’s first since July.
But Gov. Doug Ducey has said even if the risk level returns to “substantial,” he won’t close down businesses again.
Measuring the Spread
In previous months when he did weekly press briefings, Ducey cited a mathematical term called an Rt, or “R-Naught,” that indicates the contagiousness of a disease.
When the number is below 1, infections are slowing. If it is above 1, infections are spreading.
As of Wednesday, Arizona’s Rt was 1.16.
When the state’s stay-at-home order went into place in late March, the Rt was 1.08. During the order, it dropped down to 0.92, but was back up to 1.25 in late May after businesses began reopening May 8.
Once Ducey allowed cities and counties in June to require mask-wearing in public—something he has continued to refuse to do at a state level—cases dipped. The Rt hit a low point of 0.81 in mid-July.
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Going into the fall, the Rt rose to a 1 on Sept. 9 and has been steadily rising ever since.
The dropping numbers led some cities—including Bullhead City, Lake Havasu City, and on Tuesday, Kingman—to repeal their mask orders, even though the virus remains easily spreadable.
The IHME points out how important masks can be to keep COVID numbers down. In its projections, Arizona could reach about 26 daily deaths by February with universal mask-wearing. With an ease on mask restrictions, that number is closer to 62 daily deaths.
“All the #COVID-19 dashboard indicators including Rt are on the rise,” former state health department director Will Humble tweeted Monday. “Simple high ROI interventions are just sitting on the sidelines like a statewide mask mandate & better mitigation enforcement in bars & restaurants. Why create another crisis?”
Promise to Remain Open
Despite the turnaround in the numbers, it looks like statewide business closures to manage COVID-19 spread are not in Arizona’s future.
“Arizona’s open,” Ducey said in a late September press briefing. “Arizona’s economy is open, Arizona’s educational institutions are open, Arizona’s tourism institutions are open. The expectation is they are going to remain open.”
Ducey’s chief of staff told KJZZ the governor believes it’s possible to keep the state operating due to wider access to faster tests and improvements in contact tracing.
Dr. Cara Christ, director of the state health department, added that Arizona will try to avoid another shutdown by targeting local outbreaks.
But Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director for Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, said at his own press conference Wednesday the state still isn’t doing enough testing.
Ducey has wanted to avoid closing businesses as much as possible from the start of the pandemic. He allowed some businesses to start opening May 8 and lifted the state’s stay-at-home order May 15 despite not yet meeting the White House’s reopening criteria.
The governor was accused of combining data points to paint a rosier picture of the virus in Arizona and of making decisions based on politics rather than health.
Where the Numbers Stand
The health department reported 975 new cases Wednesday, drawing the state close to a pandemic total of 234,000. The day before, the state reported over 1,000 new cases for the second time in a week.
The worst day on record for new cases in Arizona was June 29, which saw 5,643 confirmed.
As of Oct. 15, all of the counties showed moderate transmission of COVID-19 except for Greenlee, where transmission was minimal.
Health experts have worried about states’ healthcare systems keeping up with patients in the fall and winter due to the annual influenza season hitting on top of the virus.
Intensive care unit (ICU) bed usage in Arizona peaked in early July, when COVID and non-COVID patients combined took up 92% of the state’s total capacity.
Overall ICU bed usage was 73% on Tuesday, but COVID patients only made up 10% of the total.
Nearly 6,000 Arizonans have died from the virus, peaking July 17 with 100 deaths in one day.