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Tim Steller's opinion: Action needed against Arizona's COVID surge, not 'misinformation'
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Tim Steller's opinion: Action needed against Arizona's COVID surge, not 'misinformation'

The problem is the surge in cases, not the media reporting on it

You might have heard about the COVID-19 emergency in Arizona that the governor’s office acted against last week.

I don’t mean the emergency of surging coronavirus cases.

No, I’m talking about the emergency of “misinformation.” A “false narrative” was at work, you see, so Gov. Doug Ducey and his staff worked hard in a press conference Thursday and via social media to address that emergency.

For around two weeks, cases of COVID-19 have been increasing fast in Arizona, according to the state’s own data, with the upward curve turning toward exponential growth. Cases have been rising faster in Arizona than almost anywhere else in the country. Hospitals have reported they are growing fuller, with the state’s largest system, Banner, sounding the alarm June 5 that the intensive care units at its sites were nearing capacity.

After in-state news outlets like the Star and the Arizona Republic started reporting on this worrisome trend, national news outlets picked up the story, too. ABC. NBC, CBS, CNN and others all pointed to Arizona as a state where the pandemic is going in a bad direction.

Those reports were a real emergency.

So at the press conference, Gov. Ducey emphasized, “There’s been a lot of misinformation out there. It’s important we have the facts straight about hospital capacity in Arizona.”

A reporter asked, “What was the misinformation?” Ducey answered with the correct information:

“We have hospital capacity in the state of Arizona.”

True enough, it appears. For now. Overall, Arizona hospitals were at 83 percent of inpatient capacity late last week. Emergency departments and intensive care units were significantly better than that.

But what about that other emergency — the spike in cases and increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19?

On that, the governor and the state health director, Dr. Cara Christ, did not announce any new action.

In fact, Christ said: “We know that it is in the community. We are not going to be able to stop the spread, and so we can’t stop living, as well.”

At first that comment struck me as a regrettable blunder, and I felt sorry for Christ. But the comment was actually pretty reflective of state policy. Our leaders are focused on ensuring there’s hospital capacity to treat severely sick people but are not taking significant new actions to slow the accelerating spread of the virus.

Christ and Ducey announced they have continued increased testing at assisted-living facilities and prisons. They continue to recommend distancing, and hand-washing and masks. They have a public-information campaign coming out reinforcing best practices for avoiding transmissions — that’s good.

But they announced no other new action. They didn’t even wear masks symbolically, to model good behavior, when they entered the room.

Asked if he would mandate the wearing of masks in certain situations, as in indoor public facilities, Ducey stuck to his talking point.

“I want people to wear masks when they can’t socially distance,” he said.

It was a request, not a mandate. A request that a large portion of Arizonans have been ignoring, even as the resurgence of COVID-19 gathers momentum in Arizona.

New research on the outbreaks in Wuhan, New York City and Italy, published Thursday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded “mandated face covering represents the determinant in shaping the trends of the pandemic. This protective measure significantly reduces the number of infections.”

Ducey and Christ suggested Thursday that the number of cases is rising because Arizona is testing so much more than it was. That increase in testing is good, but the results are bad: An increasing percentage of those tested are testing positive. If we were making progress, the percentage of those tested who test positive would be going down.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease specialist leading the federal response, said Friday on CNN that there are two measures that mean trouble for a state: increased hospitalizations and an increasing percentage of positive results among all tests for the virus.

On both scores, Arizona is going in the wrong direction. In fact, Fauci cited Arizona, along with Texas, California and North Carolina, as states where trouble is brewing.

All that makes the lack of any significant new action troubling and puzzling. With infections rising fast, the number of hospitalizations can easily follow. And in coming days, it would not be surprising to see another surge of infections from Memorial Day gatherings and anti-police-brutality protests.

Also worrisome: Despite the increasing cases, Southern Arizona still has a huge uninfected population to burn through.

As my colleagues Justin Sayers and Jasmine Demers report in today’s paper, the UA’s antibody-testing program tested about 6,000 people and came up with surprising results: Of all those tested, just 1.26 percent were positive for antibodies, meaning they had been previously exposed to the novel coronavirus and likely have some immunity. Among health-care workers, who were a third of those tested, the number was just over 2 percent. First responders’ results were essentially the same as the general public — very low.

“We’re not close to immunity,” said Janko Nikolich-Zugich, who heads the UA’s antibody-testing program. “If we never get close to immunity in a year’s time, but then we get a vaccine, it means we’ll avoid a lot of deaths.”

We are so far from herd immunity, which occurs when 60 to 70 percent of the population has been infected, that the best course is still to try to avoid spreading the virus until effective treatments or a vaccine is available.

I asked Will Humble, the former director of the state health department, about the situation. He was dismayed. “It’s so frustrating to see the data pointing in one direction and the policies going in another.”

Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said there should be:

  • More intense testing in assisted-living and skilled-nursing environments;
  • Enforcement of pandemic-related regulations
  • Authority given back to cities and counties to deal with local upsurges in infection
  • More sweeping contact tracing to let people exposed to the virus know they could come down with it — and encourage them to stay home so they don’t spread it.

These, though, would deal with the emergency of the virus spreading. They would not solve that emergent political problem: news outlets reporting that Arizona is in trouble. Even though it is.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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