COVID-19 cases continue upward spiral in Mesa The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

COVID-19 cases continue upward spiral in Mesa

COVID-19 cases continue upward spiral in Mesa

By Haillie Parker
Cronkite News

Health officials last week warned of a “staggering” death toll in Arizona as COVID-19 cases continue to rise unabated, citing fatigue over the virus and crowded holiday gatherings as potential dangers.

Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, said its team attributes a resurgence of cases in Arizona and nationwide to a potential new era in the pandemic.

That era is one in which Americans weary of eight months of isolation return to pre-COVID-19 routines of work, school and play. That could lead to a rise that surpasses even the state’s spike last summer, when nearly one out of four tests were positive, he said.

LaBaer’s alarm comes as the latest COVID-19 data, released last Thursday by the county health department, showed that cases per 100,000 people – one of the three benchmarks for measuring virus spread was at the “substantial” level.

The percentage of positive new test results in Mesa, another benchmark, was steadily creeping up in the moderate-spread category.

Hospital ER visits with COVID-like symptoms, the only benchmark in the lowest category and signifying minimum spread, remained low. Some health experts consider that metric not as reliable as the other two because it depends on the subjective assessments of hospital staffs.

The citywide average for cases per 100,000 people was 125 in the week beginning Oct. 24, the latest available from the county. That represented an increase from the 94 per 100,000 the previous week.

But numerous ZIP codes in Mesa far exceeded the latest citywide number. The highest number of cases per 100,000 was in 85206, which showed 162; 85208 recorded 150; 85204, 142 cases; and 85215 showed 148.

Positive test results in those ZIP codes also exceeded the citywide average of 7.4 percent and ranged between 8.7 percent in 85204 to 9.8 percent in 85208.

For Mesa Public Schools, the districtwide readings for the week of Oct. 24 were 124 cases per 100,000 people, 7.3 percent test positivity and 4 percent hospital visits. MPS reported last Thursday a districtwide total of 90 COVID-19 cases, 62 of them students and 86 involving school campuses.

About two weeks ago, LaBaer cautioned that cases were about to reach 1,000 a day. That estimate turned out to be conservative.

“Arizona’s moving average is now around 1,300, almost 1,400, new cases a day,” he said. “It’s not rising quite as rapidly as it did at the end of June, but it is rising consistently day-over-day and that’s a concern.”

He recommended minimal mingling during the holidays and a return to pandemic precautions of wearing masks, social distancing and frequent testing for the disease, which since January has killed more than 6,000 people in Arizona and 230,000 across the nation.

“I would suggest, for the upcoming holidays, that people really limit it to their immediate family this year. I don’t think it’s a great year for big family get-togethers,” LaBaer said.

Nearly 10 percent of tests in Arizona are positive, according to the Arizona Department of Health website, and half the 250,000 cases of the virus reported in Arizona are in Maricopa County.

LaBaer said Arizona has some confusing markers. A number of people have recovered from COVID-19 and appear to be immune for up to six months, which should mean a slowdown in the transmission of the disease. But that hasn’t happened.

“The fact that the transmission rate is as high as it was back then means that people are doing a better job of transmitting it, which is not good,” he said. “People are interacting more, and some of that may be COVID fatigue, some may be that people are back at work more often, but we really need to be attentive to reducing that sort of thing.”

As the global race for an approved COVID-19 vaccine pushes on, more people are getting the coronovirus that causes the disease.

“We’re hitting a milestone here where the seven-day average for new cases is approaching 100,000 new cases a day. To put that in some perspective, the number of new cases we saw yesterday was around 90,000. That is more than the total number of cases in the original Wuhan outbreak,” LaBaer said, referring to the industrial city in central China where COVID-19 emerged late last year.

Herd immunity has never been achieved without a vaccine, he said. Despite the widespread devastation and death toll caused by the virus, Arizona and the rest of the world are nowhere near the necessary 60 percent level to achieve herd immunity.

ASU has managed to keep the number of new cases low, LaBaer said.

Regularly aggregated data on ASU’s COVID-19 management website recorded 86 of the 91 total known positive cases, as of Nov. 2, as off-campus students. Sixteen faculty and staff members have tested positive.

“We’re lucky there,” LaBaer said. “I personally believe that part of the reason our numbers are so good is because we do such regular testing.”

ASU has tested more than 106,000 students and employees since Aug. 1, using a saliva-based test the university developed that also is available to the public. The test has since been used at Northern Arizona University.

In previous months, health officials across the country have warned against potential spikes in cases after national holidays, such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day, though LaBaer did not share the same concern over the possibility of a post-Halloween surge among ASU students.

“I think our student population has been pretty well behaved,” LaBaer said, referring to those living on campus. “The harder part, for me, is the off campus population, because those folks are in the community and it’s clear that our community numbers are rising and hard for them to escape that. I think that’s probably the likely bigger source of the issue.”

ASU shifted all classes online after Thanksgiving. LaBaer encouraged students to get tested before traveling and again before returning to campus in the spring to avoid the likelihood of spreading the coronavirus.

(The Mesa Tribune contributed to this report.)

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