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Pima County's September spike in coronavirus cases grows as UA antigen test results added
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Pima County's September spike in coronavirus cases grows as UA antigen test results added

UA Dorm Move-In Day

Students and family walk past a COVID-19 testing sign outside of McKale Center at the University of Arizona. Before students can occupy their dorms, they must first get a negative result from a COVID-19 test at McKale Center.

The long-anticipated addition of antigen tests to the state’s health department database shows new cases of the coronavirus were significantly higher in early September after University of Arizona students returned to Tucson.

New cases added to the Arizona Department of Health Services dashboard were higher than usual this week because of the addition of the back-filled antigen tests, according to a blog post from Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health director. Both UA and Arizona State University have leaned heavily on the tests to determine the scope of campus outbreaks .

The “bolus” of the antigen tests — about 85% — that were added to the database for Pima County came from the UA, said Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County’s chief medical officer.

The updated totals show that 852 cases of the coronavirus were detected during the week that ended Sept. 5, representing a 55% increase from the week prior — the highest week-to-week jump since mid-June, shortly before the county implemented a mask requirement. New cases totaled 1,049 during the week that ended Sept. 12, the highest weekly total since late-July.

The UA, in conjunction with the health department, announced a 14-day recommended quarantine for a large subset of students both on-and-off campus this week. The school has announced 2,031 total positives through antigen and antibody tests since July 31, including 1,319 from Sept. 9 to Sept. 18, the last day of updates.

Garcia said it’s too early to tell what impact the quarantine will have, adding that included the county’s closure of pools, gyms and common areas at some of the off-campus housing complexes. It otherwise recommends the restriction of movement, limiting travel to work, class or to obtain food, medical care or other supplies.

“One thing that I wonder about is at what point do they put everyone on virtual because, to me, this is very concerning and is going to continue to be an issue,” Garcia said. “If they indeed respond well to the voluntary self-quarantine … I think we should be in good shape. But the jury’s out and it’ll take us a while to make that assessment.”

With the growth of cases primarily in the student demographic, the overwhelmingly majority of whom are relatively young and healthy, the state’s hospitalizations and deaths have continued their two-month downslopes.

But Garcia emphasized that while the students might not die, there is still little known about the long-term implications of the virus, and that initial scientific studies have suggested that a subset of folks may have long-term consequences. Free pop-up testing was scheduled for the next few days near campus.

“Even though students may be or may feel invulnerable in the short-term, there may be long-lasting consequences to the actions that they take,” he said.

Then there’s the concern about the virus spreading to the larger Tucson community, and to subsets of the population who are more vulnerable to death or severe illness. The county has seen recent growth in census tracts surrounding the UA, suggesting there’s been a least some spread in “areas that we’re a little bit quiet,” Garcia said.

The other thing to watch, Garcia said, is the upcoming return of some public school students to in-person learning. All but three public school districts in the county have started back with hybrid learning, or have plans to in the near future.

He said he’s less worried about those students driving a spike in new cases, saying he’s confident in the systems developed by the districts and county to focus on early notification and a slow-ramp approach, as opposed to having the “spigot turned on all at once,” like at the UA.

“I believe that we will have a much better handle on it,” Garcia said.

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers.

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