Some Arizonans Are Tired Of COVID-19 Precautions, And That Could Cause Another Spike
LAUREN GILGER: As experts have warned, the numbers could get worse again. [Sept. 21] marks two weeks since the long Labor Day weekend. The state saw a significant spike in cases following Memorial Day weekend celebrations, prompting public health officials to brace for another resurgence as more people push the limits of safe gatherings. So are we now seeing another spike? For more on what the numbers suggest, I spoke with Saskia Popescu, epidemiologist for the University of Arizona and George Mason University.
SASKIA POPESCU: I think it's a mixture of, you know, people being really fatigued. And Labor Day is a three-day weekend, going out. And on top of it, you know, we have been opening bars. As long as they served food, they were allowed to open to 50% capacity. So I think that this is a product of all of these things compounding.
GILGER: Is this what we were expecting, these kinds of numbers? Is this better or worse in any way?
POPESCU: Well, what worries me is really, we're seeing about an average about 935-ish cases per day, which if you look at the previous two weeks, that's about a 61% increase, which is really concerning. So this 14-day change is something that I think many of us are getting a little worried about. There has definitely been an uptick. And I'm very concerned that this is a product, again — just experiencing going out in Phoenix right now and running errands, see a lot of people at restaurants, a lot of people going to bars, a lot of unmasking. So I worry that we've hit this point in Arizona's response that we feel for some reason COVID-19 is over, Arizona settled it with all of our efforts and now we don't to worry about it anymore. And especially as bars reopen, that tends to give people this impression that suddenly we don't have to worry and take any of these infection control measures.
GILGER: What are you worried might be coming? Like, are you anticipating this is going to continue as an upward trajectory because people are, as you say, just fatigued at this point with all of these restrictions?
POPESCU: It's hard to say, honestly. I'm hopeful that people will hear this on the news and think, "OK. So we really need to keep taking this seriously," because the biggest challenge we have with COVID-19 is that constant vigilance. You know, people get fatigued. This is an exhausting situation, one that we've never had to live through. But Arizona has been a prime case study, really, in what happens when you rapidly relax restrictions and give people the impression that it is safe to go out and not take any masking or distancing efforts seriously. So I am concerned that as the weeks go by and many schools do reopen for an in-person schooling, that we're going to see this potentially get worse, especially as the bars and the restaurants and even movie theaters are reopening.
GILGER: You mentioned schools. I wanted to ask about colleges reopening. Do you think these numbers could be a result of that? We're seeing numbers at ASU that are pretty high, numbers at U of A that are pretty high. Is this something that was unavoidable if you're bringing students back to campus?
POPESCU: That's a great question. I think, unfortunately, we know that when you bring students back to campus, it's going to result in additional cases. So in some ways, this is very avoidable. In other ways, I think the challenge is what can be done to safely bring some students back to campus that really need to be for things like labs. But ultimately, I think the challenge is, it's not just 100 or so students — we're talking thousands of students coming back to campus in really congregate living. And what worries me is that a lot of universities — and this isn't unique to Arizona — are saying, "Oh, look at all the things we're doing to make you coming back to campus safer." So it really does give students the impression that it's safe to have parties and interact. And then we blame the students when cases occur. So this is avoidable, but it's also something that we really need to start taking seriously in terms of the messaging and the risk communication that we're giving to people.
GILGER: What do you think the messaging should be in terms of is there a way to balance this, like from a public health point of view? Is there a way to reopen, to let people, you know, do some of the things they couldn't do before but do it in a safe way? Or is that just not realistic?
POPESCU: I think there are ways to do things safely, especially in Arizona. We're really fortunate that the winter months are the times that we get to spend outside more comfortably. So now is the time to really be encouraging people to do things safely outside, to take advantage of the weather as it gets cooler and also really looking at the high-risk environments that colleges can be. Because if you have a bunch of students moving back into a dorm, you can't be surprised when cases occur. So a lot of this is reframing the way we approach infection control in higher education, but also when we're looking at elementary schools — what is the process for the second a kid gets a sniffly nose? Are we going to send the entire classroom home? And it's hard for people to get their children tested right now. So all of these things really culminate into the challenges that we're seeing. And what I'm concerned about is as those schools go back, as the bars are reopening and people are going back to their normal life because we've given them the impression that this is the case, that's why we're seeing this increase in cases.
GILGER: Yeah. Final question for you. We're talking about spikes that have followed three-day weekends. There are many more holidays coming up, right? We're looking at Halloween, Thanksgiving is going to be a big one. Then you've got holiday gatherings around December. Are you worried about the effects those occasions may have and the sort of long-term play here and how we get people to do this over a very long period of time?
POPESCU: Definitely. I think most people in public health and infectious disease have been increasingly worried, not just about the winter months because of respiratory viruses, but because we know that's in a time where people gather together indoors, which we know is a high-risk environment. So I'm hopeful and I really think now is the time that we need to be communicating how to do these things safely, which is really going to mean changing the way we approach the holidays. You know, you can't have 20 people over, and if you have high risk family members, how can we protect them? But realistically, we have to adjust our expectations for the holidays. And, you know, we can still make them enjoyable and fun; you know, for Halloween, maybe don't do trick-or-treating. Maybe do, you know, a fun candy hunt in your own home — just your little bubble. So there are ways to do this, but we really need to start communicating them now.
GILGER: All right. That is Saskia Popescu, epidemiologist for the University of Arizona and George Mason University joining us this morning. Thank you so much for the time, Saskia.
POPESCU: Yeah, thanks for having me.