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Tucson Public Health Professors: COVID-19 danger is not over

Tucson Public Health Professors: COVID-19 danger is not over

How to prevent a dire coronavirus pandemic health crisis

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

We urge Gov. Doug Ducey to take additional measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease. Since May 4, he has gradually eased physical distancing restrictions throughout Arizona. Too little guidance has been provided to Arizonans regarding measures they should take to reduce viral spread. Accordingly, cases have continued to climb, reaching an all-time high last week.

Six weeks has not been enough time to reduce case counts to manageable levels to allow robust case identification, contact tracing and isolation, testing and guidance into place. Despite the best efforts of our state and local health departments, years of budget cuts have left them under-resourced, understaffed and overwhelmed. As public health scientists, we support the reopening of businesses, workplaces and other organizations but only if the tools, resources, and information needed to prevent transmission are readily available.

Ducey appears to have rejected evidence-based public health measures that are known to protect Arizonans health. On June 4, he tweeted a picture of a staff lunch during which only one person was wearing a mask and none were employing appropriate physical distancing measures. This communicates to Arizonans that the COVID-19 risk is not serious enough to warrant any effort to protect themselves. Given his status and influence, failing to take reasonable precautions undermines the public health messages that are critical to protecting Arizonans’ health.

Ducey has stated that Arizona has enough hospital capacity to manage COVID-19. However, as of June 5 Banner Health announced that their Maricopa County ICUs were nearing capacity and on June 6 they announced having no more ECMO machines needed for the most acute cases of COVID-19. The situation requires immediate attention as it will take several weeks for any interventions to turn the tide.

While the state-funded “Testing Blitz” may have identified additional cases of mild disease, it does not explain rising hospitalizations or deaths. While identifying true trends is difficult, increasing hospitalizations are a strong signal that true increases in community transmission are occurring. We strongly urge the governor to strategically deploy more testing and to address reporting delays that threaten contact tracing efforts.

Additionally, more must be done to protect Arizona’s most vulnerable including those in long-term care facilities. The virus causing COVID-19 can enter these facilities without notice and quickly spread with devastating consequences. While families and non-essential service providers are asking to visit these facilities, doing so has the potential to ignite an epidemiological inferno.

Decades of structural inequities has placed African American, Latinx and Indigenous individuals at great risk as well. The populations are more vulnerable owing to a higher prevalence of chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Most starkly, Indigenous people make up 5.1% of Arizona’s population but 19% of its hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 disease. Failing to protect Arizona’s most vulnerable, including the Navajo Nation, from the extraordinary burden of COVID-19 will only perpetuate these inequities.

Disappointingly, the governor’s willingness to order curfews to protect Arizonan’s property but not mandate physical distancing measures to protect their lives should give us all great pause.

We implore him to value the public’s health as much or more as their property. The science is clear. COVID-19 is not over; in fact, it is just getting started. Without more definitive action, a dire public health crisis is looming.

Elizabeth T. Jacobs and co-authors Paloma I. Beamer, Stephanie R. Carroll, Joe K. Gerald and Bonnie LaFleur are public health professors.

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