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Arizona Health Director: COVID-19 Surge 'Concerning, But It's Not A Time To Panic'

By Lauren Gilger, Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, October 22, 2020 - 12:27pm
Updated: Friday, October 23, 2020 - 9:03am

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Dr. Cara Christ
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Dr. Cara Christ explains June 4, 2020, why Arizona has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The State Department of Health Services is reporting 994 new cases of COVID-19. That brings the total confirmed cases to nearly 235,000 since the pandemic arrived in Arizona; 5,859 Arizonans have died because of COVID-related illness, including five deaths reported today.

LAUREN GILGER: Public health experts are warning the rising daily new cases mirrors what we saw in mid-June before the state experienced a massive surge. [On Thursday], ASU's Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer said the entire country is now in the middle of a new surge stemming from mid-September. We're still not testing enough, he said. And while we understand more about how the virus is spread now, we're still talking about a highly contagious disease that can be unpredictable. Last week, the state submitted its COVID-19 vaccination plan to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — it's just a draft that will have to be reviewed before it is implemented. But it's a start to what will be a long, complicated and, for some, controversial process. To learn more about that plan and what the state is seeing now in the data, we're joined now by State Health Director Dr. Cara Christ. Good morning.

CARA CHRIST: Good morning.

GILGER: All right. So I want to start with the data that we're seeing now, the sort of steady rise in cases that we're seeing in the last several weeks here. Are we headed toward another surge? Are we already in one?

CHRIST: So we are starting to see an increase in our cases and our percent positivity over the past few weeks. What this means is that we know that the virus is still being transmitted in the community. We are hoping that the mitigation strategies that we have in place are putting us in a much different place than we were back in May, June and July.

GOLDSTEIN: Dr. Christ, did we learn anything? Did you learn anything? Did the experts learn anything that you really think — talk about the mitigation techniques. Can we avoid what we saw post-Memorial Day, post-Fourth of July?

Arizona Coronavirus Cases, Deaths

CHRIST: We learned a lot during that surge. We saw how important mask wearing is — that caused a significant reduction in the number of cases and the spread of COVID-19. We also saw that businesses can safely operate. We had restaurants operating, you know, at 50% as we were declining. And so, those establishments that have those mitigation requirements, it's so important that they follow those.

GILGER: Yeah. As I mentioned in the intro, we know a little bit more now about how the virus spreads than we did back in the summer as well. So let's talk about what could be causing this kind of steady increase we're seeing now. Do you believe this has anything to do with allowing some businesses like bars and gyms to reopen? Or is this just about people getting lax?

CHRIST: So I think it's a combination of different things. We knew that as we slowly opened things back up and school in person, that we would see increased cases. We are continuing to monitor the benchmarks. All counties are currently in a moderate phase, and that is not going to change in any county this week. But that requires restaurants to be at a certain occupancy. Bars are not open unless they are serving food and acting like a restaurant, and gyms are operating at a reduced capacity as well as movie theaters. And the requirements require all of those industries — regardless of whether there's a mask mandate — to require mask use in their establishments. So it is a different environment than what it was back in May, June and July.

GOLDSTEIN: Dr. Christ, how do you make sure the message that we're talking about right now and making sure that people continue to mask up and do things like this doesn't fall on ears that are frankly worn out? We have a lot of people who've talked about seven or eight months and thinking, "I wanted to go back to normal, and now we can't." How do you make sure that people's attitudes stay keyed in like that?

CHRIST: So I think it's important that everyone knows we are seeing this increase. It's concerning, but it's not a time to panic. It is a time, though, to remain vigilant. I know everyone is tired of wearing masks and staying away from loved ones who are more vulnerable. I'm tired of wearing the mask, but I know that I protect other people by wearing my mask. And so I know how important it is. And we just need everybody to continue doing this until there's a vaccine and until there are great therapeutics that can prevent people from dying from the disease.

GILGER: Let's talk a little bit more about that possibility. The state, as I said, submitted its draft vaccination plan to the CDC last week. Can you give us a brief summary of what's in that plan? Who gets priority when and if a vaccine comes out and why?

CHRIST: So the plan that we submitted is the plan that Arizona is going to use to distribute and allocate vaccine around the state, so that those that are prioritized have access to the vaccine. We know that vaccine is going to be very limited when it first comes out because it takes a while to produce the vaccine in sufficient quantities. We are waiting for our federal advisory committees, the ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices), to make the recommendations on who's prioritized. But we know that in the highest priority, it's initially going to go to those that are our frontline health care workers, those that work in skilled nursing facilities and those that have high risk. And then it'll move down to essential businesses and then eventually the general public.

GOLDSTEIN: How confident are you we will have a vaccine in the near future, shall we say, the end of a year or six months? Do you have a timeline on it?

CHRIST: So we are still working with our federal partners to identify when that date is. What we would caution people is even when the vaccine available, it is going to be limited. We likely will not have ample supplies of vaccine for the first, you know, four to six months of 2021. So it will be that prioritization and getting it out to those most at risk of the disease and bad outcomes.

GILGER: So how long do you think it might take then before the vaccine reaches the general population? And what does that sort of mean for the kind of herd immunity that we're looking for?

CHRIST: So we're probably looking at the second quarter of 2021. Probably before we start getting vaccine that's, that's more readily available. And that's going to require, you know, the mask use, making sure that we're following those COVID-19 mitigation strategies and really making sure that you're staying home when you're sick, you're staying 6 feet away from people that do not live in your household. So we anticipate that that's going to make the holidays look a little bit different. But I think we've got an advantage here in Arizona, whereas in June and July, we were forced indoors where we know it's more easily transmitted. We're getting to our beautiful weather, which is going to allow us to eat outdoors more, spend more time outdoors, and we know that that reduces the transmission.

GILGER: All right. That is State Health Director Dr. Cara Christ joining us this morning. Dr. Christ, thank you so much for the time.

CHRIST: Thank you.

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