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Higher percentage of people with COVID-19 in Tucson area report going to restaurants, bars
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Higher percentage of people with COVID-19 in Tucson area report going to restaurants, bars

Steve Keffer, retired paramedic and firefighter for the Albuquerque Fire Department, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at the Tucson Convention Center.

, 260 S. Church Ave., in Tucson, Ariz. on April 5, 2021. Pima County expanded its vaccine availability to those over the age of 16 and older with registration available at county-supported sites. The TCC is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Registration options at county-run vaccination sites, see . To register for the state-run site at the University of Arizona, see .

In recent weeks, a relatively higher percentage of people with COVID-19 have reported going to restaurants, bars and events in Pima County, according to data collected by contact tracers at Maximus, the company contracted to do contact tracing for the county.

This uptick ended a monthslong downward trend in the right direction. County officials pointed out that the uptick happened since around the time Gov. Doug Ducey lifted occupancy limits at businesses on March 5.

Since then, the percentage of people contact tracers investigated who had been to a bar or restaurant in the past 14 days increased from just over 25% to just under 30%. And the percentage of these people who had been to an event with at least 10 people increased from around 10% to just over 15%.

While these percentages have recently increased, the total number of positive cases are down in a big way from their peak this winter, as more people have gotten vaccinated.

Arizona’s top health official, Dr. Cara Christ, said the uptick that contact tracers are reporting could be due to a combination of factors that have resulted in people starting to get back to normal.

Faced with the country's highest rate of new coronavirus infections, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday urged a two-week suspension of in-person high school classes, all youth sports and indoor restaurant dining.

“So that could be that people are going back out to restaurants,” she said. “I don’t know if that had anything to do with the occupancy limits.”

We can’t know if the governor caused these metrics to trend in the wrong direction when he lifted occupancy limits, but we can look at the timing and assume his actions are associated with the uptick, said Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County’s chief medical officer.

“We can see that there’s an association at least temporarily, with what he’s doing. I do think it’s due to that,” he said.

Garcia also thinks this uptick is due to general pandemic fatigue. For example, the percentage of people who had traveled before testing positive had already started to climb before Ducey lifted occupancy limits. And the percentage of people who had attended an event, bar or restaurant had also started to creep up.

“I believe that the message that the governor has sent is that, for all intents and purposes, we’re done,” Garcia said. “And I want to make sure that the people in Pima County are aware that we have good reason to believe that we are not done yet, even though things are getting better here pretty soon. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Garcia highlighted the contract-tracing trends in a memo that County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry sent to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, which sought to justify extending Maximus’ contract-tracing contract through Jan. 5, 2022, for $5 million.

The supervisors approved extending the contract in a 4-1 vote on Tuesday.

“Kind of paradoxically, contact tracing may actually be more important as we move forward, than it has been,” said Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor with the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.

There were just too many cases weeks and months ago, he said. There was no way contact tracers could track down every lead because cases were everywhere.

He explained that there’s a greater capacity to do effective contact tracing in a timely manner as case counts decline.

“With that said, though, in the bigger picture I don’t think contact tracing and case investigations have the same public health benefit for this particular disease as for some other diseases like tuberculosis or sexually transmitted infections,” Gerald said.

Certain characteristics of COVID-19 make it inherently more difficult to trace and isolate, he said. For the virus that causes COVID-19, for example, much of the transmission risk happens before a carrier realizes they are sick and as many as half of carriers are asymptomatic.

How unsafe is it that contract tracers are reporting that a higher percentage of people with COVID-19 have gone to restaurants, bars or events?

“Well, I mean, we’ve just weathered a huge devastating outbreak and so where we are today is orders of magnitude better,” Gerald said. “I think the fact that our improvements have stalled and are maybe reversing a little bit is reason for concern, but not alarm.”

Cases have largely been flat, showing another small week-to-week increase across Arizona and in Pima County.

Statewide cases increased by 4% to 4,420 from March 21-27 to March 28-April 3. And countywide cases are up 3% to 616, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services’ online chart of COVID-19 cases by day, as of Saturday, April 10.

Weekly case counts in Arizona and Pima County are still down 93% from the winter highs.

Statewide, about 35% of people have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the ADHS chart of vaccine administration, as of Saturday.

About 41% of Pima County’s population has also been fully vaccinated, says the ADHS chart of vaccine prioritization, as of Saturday.

“There’s no clear evidence yet that we are on a trajectory that’s going to take us back to another surge or another mini-surge, something on the order of what Michigan is experiencing, one of the worst states right now,” Gerald said.

Contact reporter Alex Devoid at or 573-4417.

On Twitter: @DevoidAlex

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Data/Investigative Reporter

Alex has been with the Star since June 2019. He previously wrote about the environment for the Arizona Republic and he's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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