Arizona COVID-19 cases

As businesses begin to reopen, Navajo County Public Health Director Jeff Lee pleaded with residents to wear masks in public, practice social distancing and stay home if they have symptoms like a fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache or loss of taste or smell.

Apache and Navajo counties remain among the worst-hit counties in the nation, with documented infection rates of 936 per 100,000 in Navajo County and 1,040 per 100,000 in Apache County. That’s about six times the statewide average.

The cases are clustered on the Navajo Reservation, but have also risen steadily in neighboring communities.

Navajo County has steadily increased the number of tests, but remains far behind the number of tests outside health experts say the county would need to locate and isolate the close contacts of people who do test positive.

The county does do limited contact tracing, but can merely advise people with a serous exposure to the virus to seek a test from a doctor or approved facility.

Fortunately, Summit Health Care in the White Mountains has been designated as a testing facility as part of the state’s “testing blitz” every Saturday for the past two weeks. People with a doctor’s order can get a test at some Summit facilities.

Residents can get an appointment for a test by calling 928-537-6700. Health plans should pay for the cost of the test without charging a co-pay.

“Blitz testing is a great opportunity for anyone who feels they have been exposed or have COVID-19 to get tested,” said Lee.

So far since the onset of the pandemic, the county and labs Navajo County have done 3,500 swab tests for active symptoms and 122 finger-prick blood tests looking for antibodies, indicating a past infection. Some 22 percent of the swab tests have come back positive and 11 percent of the antibody tests.

As a result, the full extent of the infection in both Navajo and Apache counties remains unknown. Studies suggest somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of people infected with the virus may show few or no symptoms. However, they can still spread the infection to others.

That’s why Lee took advantage of his briefing of the board of supervisors this week to urge people to continue taking precautions, even as restaurants, bars and other businesses reopen.

“As we move forward and more businesses or services re-open, I highly encourage everyone to continue practicing the precautionary measures that have helped keep our community from the devastating effects of this virus that we have seen in other places:

• Physical distancing – keeping six feet between one another

• Staying home if you feel ill

• Hand washing, coughing or sneezing into a tissue or your bent elbow

• Disinfecting frequently touched surfaces

• Wearing a face mask covering your mouth and nose when in public.

Supervisor Jesse Thompson, whose district includes hard-hit areas of the Navajo Nation, asked Lee about the criteria for reopening businesses.

Lee said the governor relayed several trends suggesting the state had passed the peak of the pandemic.

For starters, statistics show the state still has ample hospital and intensive-care-unit beds available. A month ago, the state ordered hospitals to cancel elective surgeries to free up beds. Hospital occupancy rates dropped to about 50 percent, prompting many hospitals to actually lay off workers.

The state health website shows that people with COVID-19 symptoms account for just 3.5 percent of emergency room visits, compared to about 8 percent in late April.

On the other hand, the demand for ICU beds has remained relatively consistent, as have the number of patients with COVID-19 actually in the hospital.

Roughly 76 percent of the state’s ICU beds are in use, a figure that’s remained relatively consistent since the state started posting figures on March 27.

Moreover, the total number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has remained above 700 since late April and hit near a record high of 765 on May 11.

Another statistic that prompted the governor to lift restrictions was a decrease in the percentage of positive tests.

“Currently in Arizona, it shows 159,000 COVID tests and 6.5 percent of those have come back positive. But as long as we see that percent positive trending in a downward trajectory, that gives the governor one of his indicators that OK, it’s time to start looking at reopening things.”

Both Navajo and Apache counties have much higher percentages of positive tests – 22 percent in Navajo County and 16 percent in Apache County. This indicates that mostly people with significant symptoms or close contacts are getting tested. Even when it comes to the handful of antibody tests administered, the positive rate in Navajo county is 11 percent and in Apache County 8 percent.

Arizona reported its first confirmed case on March 6. New cases trickled in until about March 18, when they started a rapid increase. By April 5, the state was documenting 250 new cases a day. After that, the number of daily cases declined slightly. However, the number of new cases detected daily then begin to rise again, peaking at about 581 cases daily on May 8. The rate of new cases had eased in the past week, despite a big increase in testing. However, the state often updates figures as tests trickle in – so the most recent daily tally isn’t as reliable.

As of Tuesday, the state had some 12,000 cases and 562 deaths. People older than 65 account for about 80 percent of the deaths and nursing homes for about a quarter of all deaths.

Statewide, the death rate stands at about 8 per 100,000. The three hardest hit counties per 100,000 population include Navajo (38), Apache (15), and Coconino (41). No other counties even come close.

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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