What Entering The Moderate Category Of Coronavirus Transmission Means For Arizona
MARK BRODIE: [As of Aug. 28], the Arizona Department of Health Services has reported 519 new cases of COVID-19 in our state. Total cases since the start of the pandemic exceeded 200,000 this week. And 49 more deaths are being reported today. 4,978 Arizonans have died due to the pandemic. Maricopa County, as well as several other counties across Arizona, have met the benchmarks set by the state to move from substantial transmission to moderate transmission of COVID-19. That generally allows more businesses to reopen as long as they agree to follow certain health guidelines. The number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona has been on the decline for a few weeks now, as are metrics related to hospitalizations. So as more of the state is set to reopen, we spoke earlier with Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, and started the conversation by asking now that much of the state has moved into this moderate category. What does this tell us? What does it mean?
CARA CHRIST: So by reaching the moderate threshold, what that is telling us is that we are seeing reduced cases that are being reported. We are seeing less transmission in the county that has reached moderate and we're seeing less hospital utilization due to COVID-like illness. So all of these are really good signs for us determining, you know, where this state is in the COVID pandemic.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Dr. Christ, does this mean that the practices that have been put into place, certainly the last number of weeks, whether it's masks or thinking more about social distancing or just maybe raising the consciousness —what do you think have been the factors to lead to some of these better numbers?
CHRIST: I think the major factor has been Arizonans who have really embraced these mitigation strategies and put them into practice. So wearing masks, whenever you are out in public, you know, staying 6 feet away from others, and staying home when you're sick and then practicing really good hand hygiene, either with washing your hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer.
BRODIE: So with more businesses now likely opening, especially here in Maricopa County, how do you try to make sure that the trends keep going in the right direction — that we don't see what happened last time we reopened a lot of the economy in which the numbers kind of got out of control a little bit?
CHRIST: So this time we've built into the benchmarks kind of guide rails. And so there are metrics that we will be monitoring, and a county can go back into substantial category or it can go, it can continue to get better and go into a minimal category. As businesses are opening, there are delays. The counties, in order to move into another category, need to be there for two weeks. And so that will allow us one, to kind of monitor the progression of the pandemic. And two, they've attested to the fact that if we go back into a substantial category, they will comply with much more restrictive requirements and lower capacities.
GOLDSTEIN: What have you made so far of the business response? Because we have seen some businesses that have filed lawsuits and there's been a fight back and forth as to whether the standards have been laid out properly enough or in detailed enough ways. Do you think overall people are getting what is expected of them by your department, by the governor as well in terms of what the expectations are for them to reopen and reopen safely?
CHRIST: A lot of the businesses have been really cooperative with it, and have you know, they've either called and asked questions. If they didn't know what would allow them to open during the substantial [category], they talked to the department we gave them advice. A lot of them were more than happy to establish a lower occupancy and much more strict requirements in order to be able to operate. And I think they see that they know what happened back in June and they're trying to prevent that from happening again and resulting in another shutdown.
BRODIE: In announcing that Maricopa County and a few other counties in the state would be moving into this moderate category, you wrote that businesses would be subject to strict enforcement to make sure that they are following the rules that they're supposed to be following. What does that look like? And who's going to be doing it?
CHRIST: So there's multiple entities that can take enforcement action against a business that is not following the COVID-19 prevention requirements. And that can be local law enforcement, it can be the state or county health department or if they have a liquor license, the Department of Liquor. And so what we have done [is set] up a hotline and or a website where people can go and file a complaint about a business that is not, you know, maintaining these requirements. If it comes through ours, public health will go out, and public health regulates a lot of entities. People are going to be very familiar that we regulate child care centers and hospitals and restaurants, but we also regulate [the] Smoke Free Arizona act. So compliance with that. And those are our restaurant inspectors, our sanitarians, our licensing surveyors. They're going to be going out and doing the inspections on behalf of public health.
BRODIE: Will this be entirely complaint-driven? I mean, are your inspectors or from any other agencies able to just go out and randomly make a surprise check to see if businesses are doing what they should be doing?
CHRIST: Yes. So as we've been providing approvals for people to operate, especially when we, when several of the counties were still in substantial category, we actually were sending out some of our staff to go ensure that, you know, masks were being enforced, that physical distancing was being enforced, that places that had not been open weren't opening without approval. So we have been doing that. We do have that mechanism — the executive order and the emergency measure give us quite broad authority to be able to enforce these activities.
GOLDSTEIN: Dr. Christ, two-part question for you. As the universities get back on campus, to some extent at least, there's concern that college students will behave differently than people who are a little bit more experienced. Their social activities are different. Does that concern you? And part two, what is the communication like between your department and ASU, for example, in terms of reporting cases in numbers?
CHRIST: So as our students return back to campus at our universities, our universities have developed really good plans that include testing, contact tracing. They will be piloting a contact tracing app that will allow the users to identify if they've come into contact with anybody who's been diagnosed with COVID-19, and they've got the ability to isolate students that do come down or quarantine those that have been exposed to COVID-19. So they have very extensive plans that they have reviewed with the health department — I mean, with us at the Department of Health Services. We work very closely, so we actually have contracts already in place with the U of A and ASU. Our partnership with ASU allows for them to provide the saliva testing free to Arizonans who want to get tested for COVID-19. There are reporting requirements in that, but then there are also requirements in statute and administrative code that requires health care providers and laboratories that diagnose COVID-19 to report it to the health department as well. So we are working with them to ensure that we are getting all of the results, both positive and negative as we move forward.
BRODIE: All right. That is Dr. Cara Christ, director of the State Department of Health Services. Dr. Christ, thanks a lot for your time. We appreciate it.
CHRIST: Thank you.
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