Gila, Apache, Coconino and Navajo counties have all surged back into the danger zone with COVID-19 caseloads well above the state and national averages, as social distancing and mask wearing declines and people go back to work and school.

Zone chart

COVID-19 Risk Level chart. 

In the 7-day period between the last week of October and the first week of November, the Navajo County infection rate went up to 36 per 100,000, and was second only to tiny Graham County’s rate of 50 per 100,000.

The seven-day average infection rate for Gila County was 35 per 100,000 and Coconino County was 33 per 100,000. Apache County was doing a little better with an infection rate of 24 per 100,000.

By contrast, the statewide rate stood at about 19 per 100,000 last week.

Based on countywide numbers, Gila, Apache and Navajo counties no longer meet the original state benchmarks for even hybrid school schedules, which blend in-person and online classes to make it possible to social distance on campus.

However, the state last week abruptly changed the guidelines — saying counties only had to meet one of the three benchmarks. That includes hospitalizations in a multi-county area. By that measure, most of the districts in the state now qualify for in-person classes, based on the generally low regional hospitalization rates.

The state doesn’t post benchmark data based on school attendance areas and generally doesn’t even provide those numbers to the schools. That has led to confusion for some districts and parents, since the posted benchmarks lump together statistics from very different areas within the county — like Show Low and the Navajo Reservation or Payson and the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

As of Monday, Nov. 9, Arizona has reported 259,699 cases and 6,164 deaths. Last week, the rolling daily average of infections has risen 53% and the average daily death toll has risen 87%. Even the long-stable hospitalization rate has jumped, rising 23% as a daily average compared to two weeks ago.

By contrast, the average number of daily tests has remained about the same, indicating that the state’s not doing much contract tracing in the face of the rising number of cases.

Various national databases give a different snapshot of the trends, depending on how the data is reported and averaged.

Northern Arizona – including Apache, Navajo and Gila counties — all rank in the “red zone” on the Brown University School of Public Health database (https://globalepidemics.org/key-metrics-for-covid-suppression/)

That database shows a seven-day infection rate of 35 per 100,000 in Navajo County, 30/100,000 in Apache County and 34/100,000 in Gila County. Coconino, Graham and Yuma counties also rank in the red zone — the highest risk category. The website says counties in the red zone are at the tipping point, which means they should impose stay-at-home orders and undertake widespread contact tracing to contain the virus.

The rest of the Arizona ranks in the “orange zone,” which still means the virus is widespread in the community. The experts recommend stay-at-home orders and/or rigorous testing and contact tracing to contain the virus.

The Arizona Department of Health Services website presents a somewhat less alarming picture, based on daily reports. However, those reports aren’t necessarily up to date and often posted results from batches of tests on the same day.

The state website, Wednesday, Oct. 28, listed 47 new cases in Navajo County and seven deaths. The site indicated the results of 182 tests, with 12% positive. As of Monday, Nov. 9, Navajo County has reported 6,824 cases and 258 deaths so far in the pandemic, with 31,815 tests in a population of 110,000.

Apache County for the same day reported 12 new cases and 1 new death. The 102 tests conducted had a 10% positive rate. As of Monday, Nov. 9, Apache County has reported 4,127 cases and 184 deaths. The website reported 17,322 tests since the onset of the pandemic for a county with a population of about 70,000.

Gila County reported 34 new cases and one death. The 84 tests reported Oct. 29, yielded a 7.5% positive rate. Since the start of the pandemic, Gila County has reported 2,168 cases, 75 deaths and 19,000 tests in a county with 52,000 residents.

Figuring out the shifts in the state’s advisory benchmarks for school reopening can also prove challenging. The most recent numbers are based on the week ending Oct. 18. Moreover, the benchmarks posted on the state’s website present county-wide averages, which sometimes means combining numbers for things like hospital beds from adjoining counties.

The numbers posted on the state website on Thursday showed that Navajo County has moved into the “virus widespread” category when it comes to cases per 100,000. The figures showed an infection rate of 190 per 100,000 for the week ending Oct. 18. That’s nearly twice the 100 cases per 100,000 threshold the state recommends for even “hybrid” instruction, which would mingle online and in-person classes to make sure kids don’t mingle with too many other students in the course of the school day.

Navajo County was also posed to cross the moderate “hybrid” threshold when it came to the percentage of positive tests. The threshold is 10% and Navajo County is balanced right at 10%.

The county did meet the 5% threshold for hospitalizations, with COVID patients accounting for 2.7% of visits and admissions. However, that is based on hospital capacity in a three-country area.

Apache County’s in the same position. The county had 189 cases per 100,000 for the week ending Oct. 18 — double the previous week and twice the state average. Apache County also crossed the threshold for positive tests, with 10.5% of tests coming back positive.

The hospitalization rate remained low – about 2.7%, based on the same regional average as Navajo County.

Gov. Doug Ducey announced the change in the benchmarks that would allow for in-person classes if a county met just one of the three benchmarks. The original guidelines recommended counties get below “moderate” spread numbers for hybrid classes and down in the “minimal” range for full, in-person classes.

Arizona Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman and many groups representing school districts, administrators and teachers complained that they had not been consulted about the change in the state recommendations.

Hospitalization rates remain in the “minimal spread” category in most of the state, which in theory means district would meet the new state benchmarks for in-person classes almost regardless of the community infection rates — at least for now.

Hospitalization rates are on the rise, but still remain far below the July peaks for COVID patients. Currently, 71% of the state’s intensive care beds are full, but COVID patients account for just 15% of the beds. Back in July, about 90% of the ICU beds were full and COVID patients accounted for about 60%.

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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