FLORENCE — Pinal County is failing the benchmarks recommended by the state for reopening schools and businesses, and a lot of that is likely due to what is happening in Florence.
According to an update from the Arizona Department of Health Services, Pinal is the only county not to see either a two-week decline in the number of cases, or two weeks of a positivity rate less than 7%. That makes it the only county to fail two of the three benchmarks for reopening schools. The third, which concerns the percentage of hospital visits that are due to COVID-19, is currently met by all counties. Apache, Greenlee, La Paz and Yavapai counties are the only ones to meet all three.
Meanwhile, Pinal is one of six counties in the state that is in poor enough shape in dealing with COVID-19 that some of its businesses are not allowed to enter Phase 1 of reopening. These include gyms and fitness centers, indoor theaters, water parks and bars. Instead, those businesses must submit an application with the state, which can approve or deny reopening.
Pinal remains an area of “substantial” transmission, according to ADHS, and only minimal and moderate counties can start to reopen. Some of Pinal’s neighbors, Maricopa and Pima, are in the moderate category and can thus reopen on a limited basis. Greenlee County is the only one considered “minimal.”
As for the culprit of why Pinal is lagging behind other counties, all eyes are turning to Florence. A week after breaking the county’s record for a single-day jump in COVID-19 cases in one ZIP code, Florence’s 85132 shattered the mark again. It increased by 170 cases — or a quarter of the state's total Thursday — and is now at a total of 1,344. Its previous record was 113.
As always, it is unclear how much of this is due to Florence’s prison population. According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, the number of cases has not risen dramatically of late in either the Arizona State Prison’s Florence or Eyman complexes, where there have been a total of 103 and 220 cases, respectively. However, ADC lists 1,983 inmate tests as pending in the Florence complex, which could be a sign of things to come.
Arizona Health Director Dr. Cara Christ acknowledged that test results from inmates are included in the county's tallies. But she doubted that these infections are what has kept the county from moving into the "moderate'' category.
"They've had a pretty steady rate over the last three weeks,'' she told Capitol Media Services, with no spike.
"My guess is that final bump was not related to the prisons,'' Christ said. "It was likely related to something in the community.''
But Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, is questioning why inmates who test positive are even being considered.
"Presumably the inmates with COVID are properly quarantined and employees who interact with them have proper protection,'' he said. "So it doesn't make sense to use these cases to prevent Arizona children from attending school in person or, for that matter, businesses from reopening.''
Christ, however, said it's not that simple.
"COVID is highly contagious,'' she said.
"So if it is at a prison, the correctional officers are at risk of getting it and taking it out into the community and bringing it back into the prisons, especially if you're going with things like restaurants and bars and gyms where they may go when they are off,'' Christ continued. "There are people that work in the prisons that do things in the community.''
Positive cases have dropped dramatically in previous hot spots such as San Tan Valley, Casa Grande and Eloy in recent weeks. However, the spikes in Florence have continued to keep the county as a whole up.
As a whole, Arizona had 680 new cases, which means Florence made up 25% of the state's total. That was enough for Arizona to pass the 200,000 case mark. It also added 33 deaths, bringing the state's total to 4,929.