'Don't Repeat The Mistakes Of Memorial Day Weekend': Public Health Expert Warns Against Rise In Arizona's COVID-19 Cases

Published: Friday, September 4, 2020 - 12:58pm
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MARK BRODIE: As we head into a three-day weekend, public health experts are worried Arizona could see another spike in COVID-19, similar to what we saw following Memorial Day celebrations. More businesses, including bars, have been able to open in some capacity. Statewide testing has been on the decline. And 10 of 5 counties now meet the benchmarks to welcome students back to classrooms. To talk more about what could come next, I spoke earlier with Dr. Shad Marvasti, director of public health and prevention at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Phoenix. And we started with the news this week that Maricopa, Pima and other Arizona counties now meet the benchmarks for schools to start hybrid instruction in what he'd like to see as schools start in-person classes.

SHAD MARVASTI: Yes. Well, what I'd like to see is everyone paying very close attention to all the guidelines. When you look at the roadmap to reopen schools, we're in the yellow zone — minimal to moderate spread — so that opens up for hybrid education. So that means we have to continue to do symptom screening, physical distancing, masks, cohorting, avoiding field trips and large gatherings. I'd also like to see more extensive testing available and done for school officials, teachers and anyone coming into contact with the students, as well as some of the students and families. I think the testing is going to be critical in order to ensure minimizing the spread and identifying and isolating cases as they come up. And so that's the one ingredient that I think we're missing, which may become problematic.

BRODIE: Do you think that it's up to the schools themselves to be administering the testing?

MARVASTI: I think it should be part of a comprehensive testing strategy, which should be rolled out in collaboration with local and state public health officials and the school board in cooperation with parents and families. But I think it's something that we need to develop and mandate. So it shouldn't be something that the schools have to decide and figure out funding-wise or logistically just by themselves.

BRODIE: So we're obviously heading into a long holiday weekend with Labor Day on Monday. I'm curious about your level of concern about what we might see in the weeks following this as as the numbers from the Labor Day weekend start to trickle out?

MARVASTI: My concern is that we don't repeat the mistakes of Memorial Day weekend. The good things we have going for us in comparison to Memorial Day weekend, where we completely opened everything a couple of weeks before that, folks basically acted as if we weren't in a pandemic, no masks were worn. Now we have masks worn by, at least on paper, 85% or more of localities. And we have a, I guess a little bit more, hopefully, wisdom from the experience of this summer, which was very challenging and difficult, not only in terms of the heat, but in terms of the pandemic. So my hope is that people are more wise in their choices in terms of gatherings. But the concern is that people feel that since the numbers have improved so dramatically that it's OK to let loose, that it's OK to go into large gatherings without masks, and we're not going to take the caution that we need to take. And that will result, again, two to three weeks down the line, we will see the impact of that. And hopefully, hopefully that won't happen.

BRODIE: Well, assuming that people and businesses follow the guidelines that are in place, do you get the sense that the guidelines that are in place are what they need to be and are sufficient to not see another rise in cases and hospitalizations and positivity and all that?

MARVASTI: I think the guidelines appear to be well-written on paper, with some exceptions. I think the issue here is that we have too many things opening up at once again. Even though the benchmarks are being met, if you look at it within the last week and the next week coming, we could see — not only we've seen movie theaters, gyms and other high-risk businesses, but we're also seeing schools opening, the universities are opening. And we're seeing Tempe now, in the ZIP code there, has the highest increase with 40% increase in terms of COVID-19 infections with the university being open. My concern is that too many things are being open at the same time. And we also don't have enough testing available. And we're not doing a comprehensive testing strategy where we are looking at essential workers, public facing workers. I know that some of the universities are doing more testing, which is great, but that's not being done on a community level. And so when you have all these variables, again, up in the air, we're definitely going to see an increase in cases. But my concern is we're not looking at it holistically. And, you know, taking stock in terms of what's open and what's closed and what we may have to do is prioritize down the line if things get out of hand again. We may have to decide to close some things to keep schools open. And we have to make those types of decisions, unfortunately.

BRODIE: So obviously, you know, we've talked about what happened after Memorial Day. And we saw photos both from here in the Phoenix area and across the country of people clearly not social distancing, not wearing masks, things like that. How confident are you that we won't see those kinds of images this holiday weekend?

MARVASTI: I think, unfortunately, we probably will see some of those images. But I'm hopeful that we're going to see less because more people have been touched by the coronavirus, either directly or indirectly. And the news has done a great job of covering the facts and showing the personal stories and tragedies of individuals and families in Arizona. So I hope people are starting to take it more seriously than they did a few months ago.

BRODIE: Dr. Shad Marvasti is director of public health and prevention at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Phoenix.


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