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COVID-19 Hospitalization Rate Flattens In Maricopa County

By Ben Giles
Published: Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 7:41am
Updated: Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 7:42am

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maricopa County is stabilizing, but health officials cautioned that doesn’t mean it’s time for a return to normal life.

For the second week in a row, Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the county’s medical director for disease control, showed that the hospitalization rate has flattened.

In fact, it’s remained relatively unchanged for almost an entire week.

“This is great news,” Sunenshine said.

But it doesn’t mean that the county is ready to pull back some of the strict social distancing measures it’s implemented — measures that Sunenshine said may have helped to flatten the curve in the first place.

“This level of hospitalization could go on for up to several weeks before it begins to decline,” Sunenshine said. “And once it begins to decline, that’s when we can start to talk about the best way to pull back on our social distancing, which we know needs to be gradual or stepwise.”

While halting a steady rise in the rate of hospitalization is good news for public health, it also means that the flattened rate could stay that way — Sunenshine called it the plateau — for several weeks.

“Because it's flatter, it may go on for a longer period of time before it slopes back down again,” she said.

That’s why Sunenshine shot down talk of opening up Maricopa County by April 30, a date roughly around the time when models of the coronavirus’ spread had predicted a peak of cases and hospitalizations in Arizona.

Maricopa County coronavirus hospitalizations
Maricopa County Department of Public Health
The rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maricopa County has flattened, and may have begun to plateau, according to Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the county’s medical director for disease control.

Sunenshine said a model such as that isn’t necessarily accurate, and makes “assumptions or best guesses,” compared to the more reliable hospitalization data.

“So that date was the date that we were going to reach the maximum,” she said. “And we've known all along that you can't pull back on these measures until well after you've reached the maximum. And you do have to do it in a gradual fashion. Because if you pull back too quickly, then you risk having a second peak or a resurgence of cases.”

State officials have also recently begun to release ZIP code-specific dates of COVID-19 cases, though even that has its flaws, Sunenshine warned.

If a patient's residency is missing, it’s protocol to use the ZIP code of the hospital the patient was treated at to track the case, Sunenshine said. That means ZIP codes that house major hospitals could be overcounted.

Residents of long-term care facilities, who are at higher risk of getting the disease, can also create clusters in certain ZIP codes.

“So… whether you see five cases or 50 cases in your ZIP code, we know that COVID-19 is circulating in the community,” Sunenshine said.

In Maricopa County, there are COVID-19 cases in all but one ZIP code.

“I can assure you that there are people even in that ZIP code with COVID-19,” Sunenshine said.

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