PHOENIX — Arizona’s rate of COVID-19 spread was the highest in the nation on Thursday, according to a state-by-state metric.
And three counties in the state now have substantial transmission of the virus, as defined by Gov. Doug Ducey’s benchmarks.
But a press aide for the governor said Ducey is not going to order any businesses closed, saying there’s no need for that.
Yavapai, Apache and Navajo counties all have two consecutive weeks where all three indicators of viral spread have gone into the “red zone,” shows new data Thursday from the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Under Ducey’s own orders, that should require shuttering all movie theaters, fitness centers, gyms and bars, even those that agree to operate like restaurants.
During a pandemic order earlier this year, none of these was permitted to operate at all until the risk of spread in all three categories was reduced to the “moderate” level.
Those include the rate of cases per 100,000 residents, the percentage of residents testing positive for the virus, and the number of patients showing up at hospitals with COVID-like symptoms.
Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s health chief, said Thursday that the rate of infection in the entire state for the past week reached 500 per 100,000.
“This far exceeds the benchmark for substantial transmission, which is far above the 100 per 100,000 people,” she said.
But Ducey press aide C.J. Karamargin said evidence shows the spike is coming not from businesses that the state can control, but instead from things the state cannot, like family gatherings.
And he said Ducey believes it makes no sense to close down businesses because of rising infections, even if that is what is called for in his own standards.
It isn’t just the benchmarks set by Ducey and the Health Department that show a substantial risk of spread in Arizona.
A separate state-by-state analysis looks at what researchers call the “R-naught” number, essentially an indicator of how fast the virus is growing. Anything above 1.0 shows spread.
On Thursday, Arizona hit 1.22. That’s not only the highest in the nation but the highest for Arizona since the middle of May, before Ducey ordered many businesses to close their doors.
Ducey’s decision not to shut businesses now as the standards require is no surprise, as he has taken the position that his focus is on economic health and keeping Arizona open for business.
Other counties are potentially just a week away from hitting the same levels as the three rural counties.
The benchmarks established by the governor and his health chief set up a system designed to show the risk level based on two weeks’ worth of data. That is designed to keep an unusual spike from throwing a county into a different category.
Pima County currently has all three categories in the substantial range. But only the case rate and percent positivity have been above the threshold for two weeks; a second week of COVID-19 hospital visits will put it in the same category.
The situation is the same in Cochise County with two weeks of high cases and positive test results but just one week in the substantial range of that touchstone for hospital visits.
Other counties are a bit farther away from the designation, with just two out of three measurements — cases per 100,000 and test positivity — in the red zone in Maricopa and Pinal counties but hospital visits still in the moderate range.
Yavapai, Apache and Navajo counties have more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents for at least two weeks.
The rate in Yavapai County now is pegged at 423 people per 100,000. It is 667 in Apache County and 418 in Navajo County.
And all the numbers are at least a week old, with Christ warning Thursday that things are getting worse even as Arizona waits for the rollout of a vaccine.
The second test for substantial spread is when more than 10% of people tested show positive for the virus.
Here, too, all three counties have been in that range for two weeks, with the current figure of 20.7% for Yavapai and 16.5% for both Apache and Navajo counties.
The third standard is based on more than 10% of people seeking hospital care have a COVID-like illness. All three counties logged in at 13.8%.
“There’s no question about it, Arizona’s numbers are headed in the wrong direction,” said Karamargin. “And what we’re seeing in increased cases certainly are having an impact on communities across the state.”
But he said it’s not a simple matter of saying that counties categorized as having substantial spread should automatically trigger business closures.
“Most of the spread we’re seeing cannot be traced to restaurants or small businesses,” Karamargin said.
“Most of this traces to small gatherings of family and friends like the Thanksgiving holiday which was just two weeks ago,” he said, adding that is not a surprise.
“People have been dealing with this the past nine months and are starting to let their guard down,” he said.
“This is completely understandable,” Karamargin said. “Nine months is a very long time.”
He also said rules that govern how business operate during the pandemic remain in place, including requirements for masks and social distancing.
And Karamargin said the state has a “two-strike” rule: Businesses found to have violated those standards twice are shut down automatically and cannot reopen without permission of the Health Department.