Photo by Matt York, Associated Press Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess walks out of the overflow body storage cooler at the medical examiner's office.
Photo by Matt York, Associated Press

While health experts say social distancing measures have slowed the spread of the virus, they say the public should remain cautious.

Arizona passed 200,000 COVID-19 cases this week and the death toll from the disease topped 5,000 Saturday, but despite those somber milestones experts said the numbers are all moving in the right direction – for now.

Rates of infection and death are down sharply from just a month ago and hospital bed availability has improved, which experts attribute to tighter restrictions on congregating and mask-wearing, among other changes.

But they all warn that now is not the time to relax.

“Just because the numbers are better, does not mean we can relax on the efforts that we’ve been putting forward,” said Holly Ward, spokeswoman for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

Challenges to those practices could come soon, as improving infection rates have put eight of the state’s 15 counties in the “moderate” range for transmission and one in the “minimal” range – thresholds that let bars and restaurants start reopening.

Schools around the state are also finishing their second week of in-person classes for some students and teachers.

That has some health experts warning that state businesses and residents need to guard against easing up too much, too soon. A sudden easing of restrictions in May led to a spike in cases that made Arizona a national hot spot for COVID-19 infections.

“I think we’ve gone through several experiences now where we’ve let up on some of these things and opened a bit too quickly,” said Dr. Daniel Derksen, director of the University of Arizona Center for Rural Health. “People got relaxed and less careful about going to places like bars, the public congregating in large gatherings, or even large numbers of people not wearing masks.

“We have to continue to tend to the public health measures you see on the commercials and billboards, social distancing, wearing a mask, and being careful if you don’t have to be going out to a place where you’re exposed to the COVID-19 virus,” Derksen said.

That appears to have worked. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported that new infections fell from 386 cases per 100,000 residents for the week of June 28 to 64 cases per 100,000 people for the week of Aug. 9. The department also reported that deaths, hospitalizations and the percent of positive tests all fell during the same period.

“The numbers within the Arizona hospitals are improving,” Ward said. “We’re seeing our ICU bed usage, specifically for COVID patients down dramatically, and that’s a great thing.”

As of Thursday, 20% of intensive-care unit beds were available for use, according to state data. About 18% of those beds were being used by COVID-19 patients and 62% were being used by other patients. At one point in July, COVID-19 patients occupied 57% of ICU beds.

“Those numbers were in the 40% range back in June,” Ward said. “To give perspective, now that we’re down in ICU beds used for COVID patients, that’s a fantastic drop.”

COVID-19 numbers have improved enough that three states – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – removed Arizona from the list of states whose residents have to quarantine.

Ward and others attributed the state’s ability to “flatten the curve” of infection rates to following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including social distancing, wearing face-coverings, and monitoring symptoms.

“Most definitely social distancing that has been implemented in serious form, many more people are wearing masks,” Ward said. “As soon as cities and towns had the authority to do so, they implemented mask mandates and the pause in large social gatherings or events – all of those things have contributed. Along with every single individual’s effort to try to slow the spread.”

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said “one of the biggest reasons” for slowdown in infection rates was when local officials began mandating those rules.

“The governor finally allowed local jurisdictions to put in place face-covering ordinances, which have actually been really successful,” Humble said. “On June 24, the governor closed bars and nightclubs and that, together with the face-covering requirement, are the two biggest reasons why we’ve seen a decline in the number of new cases here in Arizona.”

The decrease means more parts of the state met benchmarks that let them enter the “moderate” transmission zone that allows some reopening, with Maricopa and Pima counties meeting the benchmarks Thursday. That means bars and nightclubs that serve food can open at 50% of capacity if unrelated customers stay 6 feet apart and employees are masked, among other requirements.

Humble worries about the dangers reopened businesses and schools could present if people do not take the restrictions seriously enough. He said that if the state hopes to continue mitigating the spread of the virus, it will be important to continue observing social distancing and following CDC guidelines – now more than ever.

“The people that will suffer first are those kids and parents that would like to be in school learning in-person this fall,” he said. “But if compliance is good, if the compliance system works, then I think there’s a chance that cases could level off. The key is going to be enforcement.”

Derksen called the total number of infections and deaths an “unfortunate milestone,” but added that “on the better side … we’ve seemed to have flattened that curve.”

Enforcement and continuing mitigation efforts will also be important as the state heads into its typical flu season, Derksen said.

“There are still areas that are of some concern, but it looks like the public health measures that have been put into place by the Arizona Department of Health Services and the governor’s office, towns and municipalities, are helping us along much better than the rise we saw in the summer,” Derksen said. “There’s still an awful lot of COVID-19 virus in the community. But we are getting better.”