Coronavirus

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Navajo County now has at least two people infected by the COVID-19 virus on the Navajo Nation, with both cases linked to travel.

Both Apache and Navajo counties continue meeting with state and federal officials to decide whether to declare a public health emergency, which would allow local officials to take drastic steps like closing bars and restaurants.

Navajo County health officials in a press released said health workers have contacted people the two travelers came in contact with on the Navajo Nation – so if you haven’t been contacted you have most likely not been exposed.

The two Navajo County cases boosted the state total to 27, with no deaths reported so far. Another 102 tests for the virus are pending in Arizona.

Nationally as of Wednesday morning, the virus has been reported in all 50 states with 5,879 laboratory-confirmed cases and 107 deaths.

Navajo County health officials declined any comment beyond the press release.

Navajo Nation officials told the Arizona Republic that the first local case involved a 46-year-old tribal member from Chilchinbeto with a recent travel history. The second case involved a 40-year-old man who had also been traveling.

Neighboring Graham County has also reported one case. However, no cases have been reported in the rest of the state’s rural counties.

Maricopa County has 11 cases, Pinal County has eight and Pima County has five, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services website on Wednesday.

However, experience suggests that 80 percent of people infected have only mild symptoms and may not get tested at all. So the lab-confirmed cases remain the tip of the iceberg. Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties have already reported “community transmission,” which means infections not linked to travel to areas where the infection is widespread. Nationally, health officials have been reporting hundreds of new cases every day.

Apache County Health Director Preston Rabin said county, city, state and federal officials are conferring almost daily to keep up with the epidemic and determine whether to take the weighty step of declaring a local emergency, which could lead to the shutdown of businesses.

“We are completely swimming in the deep end of the pool for the first time with many aspects of this epidemic. Because of what we’ve learned, there are a lot of scenarios you just couldn’t have prepared for. I’ve been very impressed with how we’ve been able to come together and share resources across the board and get things taken care of,” he said.

He noted that health officials still have a very limited capacity to test for the virus. That’s worrisome with confirmed cases of the virus next door in Navajo County.

He said people with serious symptoms and people with exposure to someone who has tested positive for the virus can still get free tests. Local healthcare workers can take a throat swab and send it to the state lab in Phoenix. However, the tests can involve a delay of two days or more to get results.

Despite federal promises to make test kits much more widely available, most people who want a test can’t get it. Rabin noted that two local labs have stepped up to run the tests for people who don’t meet the still-strict federal requirements. However, they can’t get enough approved test kits to meet the demand, resulting in a backlog for people who don’t meet the federal criteria but want to get tested.

The shortage of test kits has required the system to make judgements about who needs the test most urgently.

“We’re trying to get the people showing symptoms up front, rather than someone not showing any symptoms.”

He noted that doctors who have taken samples have sometimes called, seeking a test to rule out corona virus. The early symptoms include a fever, a cough and even a runny nose – all similar to the flu, which continues to circulate in the county although at lower levels than last year.

“If somebody called and said we’d like to rule this out, I’d need to know where the person has been. If they haven’t been out of the country, haven’t traveled anywhere,” then the case might not qualify for the sample to go down to the state lab.

In the meantime, local officials continue to confer about whether to call a state of emergency to further limit spread. The state has already shut down schools until at least March 30, but not daycare centers. The emergency declaration would give cities the power to further limit public gatherings and shut down things like bars and restaurants. The county would have the same authority in unincorporated areas.

Phoenix and Tucson have already declared emergencies and ordered many businesses to temporarily close. In California’s bay area, cities and counties have ordered people to stay in their homes unless they meet certain exceptions.

The point of such restrictions is to slow the spread of the virus to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. Nationally, hospitals have about 1 million beds and only about 100,000 intensive care unit beds.

Some worst-case scenario projections suggest the virus could infect half the population in the next 12-18 months. If that happens, it could ultimately kill 1-2 million Americans, if you accept the rough estimate of a death rate of perhaps 1 percent. The experience of other countries like Italy suggests some 80 percent of those infected will have mild, flu-like symptoms and not need much treatment. However, 20 percent could have more serious symptoms and 6 percent could have potentially life-threatening symptoms. This would produce some 9 million people in potential need of hospitalization. When it comes to the capacity of the healthcare system, it makes a big difference whether those cases come in a rush or end up spread out over 18 months.

Fortunately, Apache County so far has no cases and health officials are moving quickly to track, test and isolate the people who were in contact with the two confirmed cases on the Navajo Reservation.

Health officials believe an infected person can pass the virus along for two to seven days before symptoms develop.

The Navajo County Health Department “has been collaborating with healthcare organizations and community partners has been collaborating with healthcare organizations and community partners for several seeks in preparation for such an event. We encourage the public to stay calm, stay up-to-date with recommendations and to do their best to help slow the spread. We ask everyone to routinely check for the Co-Vid-19 dashboard for the most recent communication,” said Health Director Jeffrey Lee in a release posed to the county’s website (https://www.navajocountyaz.gov/Press-Release).

Lee urged residents to follow the CDC guidelines to avoid spreading the virus.

He concluded: If you have recently traveled to an area where COVID-19 is circulating and have developed fever with cough or shortness of breath within 14 days of your travel or have had contact with someone who is suspected to have 2019 novel coronavirus, please stay home. Most people with COVID-19 develop mild symptoms. If you have mild symptoms, please do not seek medical care, but do stay home and practice social distancing from others in the household if possible. If shortness of breath or other symptoms begin to escalate, call your healthcare provider. If you do not have a healthcare provider, you may need to be seen at your local hospital emergency room or urgent care center. Please call the emergency room or urgent care center for instructions before going in.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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