FLORENCE — Pinal County’s rate of COVID-19 infections is poised to get worse before it gets better on some unknown date.
“Our curve is probably not going to peak straight up, but maybe will accelerate a little bit more of a hump over time, and then, as all of us so dearly hope for, will start to come down,” Tascha Spears, director of the Pinal County Public Health Services District, told the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday. As of Wednesday, the county had 6,118 cases, an increase of 173 from Tuesday.
Supervisor Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, said the data show Pinal County’s infection rate continues to go up and “we’re not flattening the curve in any way, shape or form yet.” He asked if Spears had a projection “when this could possibly level off.”
“Unfortunately, we don’t have an exact date or a projection,” Spears said, adding an epidemiologist she spoke to Tuesday said her impression was “we’re still going to see some acceleration.”
Rios asked if people wore face coverings, washed their hands frequently and maintained a “social distance” from others, could the county at least look forward to a “leveling off” in a couple of weeks. Spears said that is what experts are suggesting.
Pinal County has increased testing significantly with almost 20,000 tests in the last three or four weeks, Spears said. She continued this is mostly thanks to community partners and support from the Arizona Department of Health Services “in providing them supplies and a stipend.”
Testing will continue Saturday by Horizon Health and Wellness in Apache Junction and the Wellness Center in Maricopa.
The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,257 new cases in the state on Wednesday, down more than 1,000 from the day before. That number Tuesday was itself inflated due to delayed reporting from a lab, which kept Monday’s total low. The state’s total is now at 131,354.
Wednesday’s update came with news that hospitalizations were actually down slightly from the previous day, going from 3,517 total patients to 3,493.
However, deaths caused by COVID-19 continue to be high in Arizona, as 97 were confirmed on Wednesday. That brings the total number to 2,434.
Of those, only two deaths came from Pinal County, bringing its total to 90. There were also 173 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the county, bringing the total to 6,118. There were 1,072 new tests reported.
The San Tan Valley/Queen Creek area saw the biggest jump, increasing by 40 cases in its three ZIP codes to 1,576. Casa Grande also saw a significant jump, going up 30 in its three ZIP codes for a total of 1,267. Maricopa went up 18 for a total of 743.
Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, said he and his colleagues on the board want to ensure the health district has all the equipment and tools it needs to respond to the crisis. He also said he needs more information, including a graph that shows how much the county is increasing its testing. He said he also wants to follow the hospitalization rate, the amount of intensive care treatment and the death rate. He said these haven’t recently been available on the county website.
“I’m a little upset; I need to be able to track that. Those are the three most important things for me to watch,” House told Spears.
Spears said there has been very little difference in hospitalizations, and Pinal County hospitals have accepted patients from other jurisdictions. Supervisor Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, asked if this increases Pinal County’s reported hospital numbers. Spears said she’d have to check, but “I believe they do.”
Goodman further asked if COVID-19 patients who die have other critical illnesses. Spears said some do, but the medical examiner or the physician determines if it’s a COVID-19 death.
Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, noted the board was previously told the crisis would persist until 60% to 70% of the community is immune, either from antibodies or a vaccine. He asked what percentage of people tested are found to be positive for the virus and how many require hospitalization.
Spears replied the county’s focus has been on PCR testing to quickly identify positive cases, so those individuals will stop spreading the virus. Total tests completed in Pinal County as of Wednesday morning were 55,235. That number includes 42,681 PCR tests, of which 11.9% were found to be positive for the coronavirus. The other 12,554 were serology tests for antibodies, and 3% of those came back positive.
The positive rate of all the county’s tests is 9.9%. The 20-44 age group is the largest tested in Pinal to date, with 22,229. The second largest group is over 65, with 10,563 tested, Spears said.
Rios said he appreciates those partners that help provide testing but noted there aren’t many partners available to help in the mountain areas.
“Can we partner with some outside contractors to do some testing?” he asked. He also asked what the National Guard does.
Spears said the National Guard is available to do traffic control and can assist with specimen collection if needed. She said National Guard members are also currently training with ADHS to assist counties with contact tracing, or identifying the people an infected person has been in contact with.
Miller also said he heard in the media that 100,000 people were tested at the Ak-Chin Indian Community on Tuesday.
“I think they all came from Phoenix; I don’t think we tested one-fourth of Pinal County yesterday,” Miller said. “How are they digesting those numbers, and how does that apply to Pinal County?”
Spears replied it’s difficult to “tease apart” the data specific to Pinal County in such a situation.
As of Wednesday there had been at least 90 deaths attributable to COVID-19 in Pinal County, and the possibility of at least two others. “Our condolences go out to the families, the communities and the health care workers,” Spears said.
In other business Wednesday, the board voted to create the new position of medical director in Public Health. This individual will supervise community clinics and medical forensic services in collaboration with onsite medical personnel, establish policies and procedures for clinical aspects of care and monitor the appropriateness, timeliness and responsiveness of care and treatment.
The board also adopted the county’s new Land Use Assumptions study and Infrastructure Improvement Plan, both of which are associated with the county’s new development impact fees. Goodman said high impact fees concerned him when he first took office, and the new, lower fees, which aren’t expected to go into effect until late December, are already generating interest in his district. New retail development will help the county receive sales tax revenues that now leave Pinal County, Goodman said.
Board Chairman Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, said the new fees are well-timed and “good news for those interested in participating in the continued growth of Pinal County.”