Arizona’s coronavirus outbreak has reached a benchmark where it is safe for two largely rural counties to reopen schools for partial in-person learning, state health officials said Thursday.
The counties given the green light to reopen schools for a mix of virtual and in-person instruction were Apache and Yavapai. The Department of Health Services said it made an error when it first posted the data Thursday and incorrectly included Cochise and Coconino counties as meeting the benchmarks. They do not, the department said later.
Apache County includes the county seat of St. Johns and parts of the Navajo Nation, which had been a national virus hotspot in the spring. Prescott is the largest city in Yavapai County.
Arizona’s other 13 counties, including Maricopa, which includes Phoenix, Pima, where Tucson is located, and Flagstaff in Coconino County still haven’t cleared benchmarks based on case numbers, testing and hospital visits.
Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday that the state’s data on percentages of positive tests, hospital visits for virus-like illnesses and hospital capacity continues to trend down, but now is not the time to ease up on restrictions that include local mask ordinances, social distancing, limits on large gatherings and bar and nightclub closures.
“This is all good data that’s good reason for people to be hopeful and optimistic about the future,” Ducey said. “At the same time, we want to remain cautious and keep doing what’s working. Keep applying these steps.”
Arizona became a national hotspot in June and July, with new infections rampant, hospitals nearing capacity and deaths soaring.
The sharp rise in cases started about two weeks after Ducey allowed stay-at-home orders to expire on May 15, and bars, nightclubs and other large venues became packed with patrons.
In mid-June, Ducey relented and allowed local governments to require people to wear masks in public. On June 29, he ordered bars, nightclubs and water parks to close as daily case counts neared 5,000 a day.
Those actions appeared to have a major effect, with new cases dropping quickly.
The Department of Health Services on Thursday reported 723 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 50 additional deaths, increasing the state’s totals to 196,280 cases and 4,684 deaths.
COVID-19-related hospitalization metrics posted by the Department of Health Services have returned to levels last reported in early June.
While the COVID-19 burden on hospitals “has been decreasing, it is important for everyone to continue working to prevent a new surge,” the department said on Twitter. “Wear a mask, stay home if you are sick, and physically distance while in public.”
Meanwhile, according to Johns Hopkins University data, seven-day rolling averages of cases and deaths in Arizona continued to decline over the past two weeks.
The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases dropped from 1,990 on Aug. 5 to 873 on Aug. 19, and the rolling average of deaths per day dropped from 68 on Aug. 5 to 41 on Aug. 19.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Only a few Arizona school districts have reopened for general in-person learning. One that tried to do so was blocked by a teacher sickout and has resumed virtual instruction for now.
The J.O. Combs Unified School District board voted 4-1 Wednesday night to resume remote learning starting Thursday. The district’s board will meet again on Aug. 27 to review updated state coronavirus metrics on reopening schools to again consider whether to resume in-person instruction while continuing remote learning, Superintendent Gregory Wyman said.
Wyman said the Pinal County community on the southeastern outskirts of metro Phoenix was deeply divided about reopening schools.
Ducey said school openings should be done cautiously, but he noted that many districts are feeling competing pressure on whether to open or remain closed. That’s one of the reasons behind the hybrid model of some in-person and some virtual learning.
“There are some parents that want as soon as its possible to get their children back into a classroom. And there are parents that we all know that are not putting their child back in a classroom,” Ducey said. “So what we’ve tried to do is provide options for both these parents, for both these families.
“We’ve also had some teachers that are in a vulnerable category or have underlying conditions, and we will meet online in this hybrid model,” he said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.