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San Tan Foothills High School closed after COVID-19 'cluster' identified

SAN TAN VALLEY — Pinal County health officials decided to close San Tan Foothills High School for more than a week after a “cluster” of COVID-19 cases was identified at the school.

The closure, which began Monday, will last until at least Wednesday, Oct. 21, according to the Pinal County Health Department.

Due to the outbreak, San Tan Foothills has suspended all in-person instruction and school activities, including athletics, through the closure.

“Therefore, all games are either being rescheduled or canceled until further notice,” Florence Unified School District athletic director Jeff Cox said in an email to PinalCentral.

The San Tan Foothills football team will not play its scheduled game against Safford on Friday, and it appears unlikely the Sabercats will play their Oct. 23 contest against Florence. Cox said the district is “working on” its options regarding schedule changes.

In a news release, the health department said a cluster was identified at the school last week. With the school’s help, new cases and potential exposures were determined late on Friday.

On Monday the health department reported only 52 new COVID-19 cases in Pinal County, but 27 of those were in San Tan Valley.

Health officials have been working closely with the school and the Florence Unified School District to evaluate the extent of the potential spread.

“After careful consideration, Pinal County Public Health has deemed the school’s onsite closure to begin contact tracing and quarantine as the most critical public health interventions to control an outbreak,” the news release said.

The school district said the decision by the health department was made due to the number of students and staff that are required to self-quarantine and not the number of positive cases reported.

Public Health staff will continue to work closely with the school, and San Tan Foothills High School staff and students who may have been exposed will be contacted and asked to quarantine for 14 days from their last exposure. The last known exposure was Oct. 7. Should new school exposures be identified after that date, the closure may be extended, officials said.

“The decision to close the school has not been taken lightly, but the primary mission of a Public Health Department is to protect the health of the community, and Pinal County Public Health believes closing onsite learning and activities at the school to be the most appropriate step in order to contain and stop the spread as quickly as possible,” the department said in the release.

Once positive cases are reported to the school, the Pinal County Health Department is notified. The health department then contacts the individual(s) who tested positive and confirms anyone they have been in close contact with or who may have been exposed.

“Through this process, it is important to understand that the Pinal County Health Department in coordination with FUSD will notify those individuals and provide direction and necessary safety precautions going forward,” FUSD said in a release. “Once the district is notified of a confirmed case(s), we will follow the guidance of the health department regarding isolation and/or quarantine protocols.

Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. For COVID-19, this means staying home or in a private room with a private bathroom for 14 days after last contact with a person who has COVID-19.

Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.

U.S. Senate candidate Kelly talks issues in Casa Grande

CASA GRANDE — Economic relief during the pandemic, water supply concerns, bridging the digital divide in schools and other issues were the topics of choice during a roundtable discussion with U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kelly and a group of local leaders Sunday afternoon in Casa Grande.

The group included Casa Grande Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Navarro Fitzgibbons and her husband, Denis, Casa Grande Elementary School District board member Judee Jackson and her husband, former Casa Grande Mayor Bob Jackson, elementary school district board member David Snider and former Casa Grande City Councilman Ralph Varela and his wife, Blanca.

Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords accompanied her husband, Kelly, to the event.

“This election is so important for our country,” Giffords told the small group, which was all wearing masks and spread out across the patio of BeDillion’s Restaurant. She pointed out her husband’s focus on science and facts in making his decisions and some of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic before turning the floor over to Kelly.

Kelly gave a brief description of his background as a U.S. Navy captain, engineer and astronaut and why he was running for office.

“I made the decision to run because I believe the trajectory that the country is on is unsustainable,” he said.

The state needs a senator who will represent the residents and their wishes and will also be willing to work across the aisle, Kelly said.

The pandemic has shown that there is a “crisis of leadership” in Washington, D.C., Kelly said. The federal government has been a step behind in responding to the pandemic. Because there was no plan on how to respond to a pandemic, the federal government was slow to respond to the need for personal protective equipment, testing, contact tracing and economic aid to businesses and unemployment benefits to workers and it’s still struggling to do so, he said.

Kelly also talked about the need to protect people who have pre-existing conditions from possible changes in health insurance and to tackle the problem of the rising cost of health care for everyone.

Climate change was also of great concern to him. He pointed out that the number of days with temperatures over 100 degrees in Phoenix continues to increase.

“As a country, we’re really good at solving problems,” he said. “We just have to decide to do it and not make it into a political fight.”

Judee Jackson asked Kelly about his plans for helping early education. She pointed out that Pinal County and the state have a long way to go in providing quality early learning and continuing that education quality through high school and into a community college or university.

She also asked if he would help schools get the funding and help they need to cover some of the shortages in technology, personal protective equipment and other needs that schools had discovered during the pandemic.

Jackson said schools still need help with the security and safety of their buildings, even though many were teaching students at home via the internet and the need to support the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program.

Kelly pointed out how important early education, before a child reaches kindergarten, is.

“There are so many career fields with openings,” he said. Those openings are there because the United States has not done a good job of encouraging early learning and getting students interested in the variety of career choices that are out there.

It is important for the federal government to address the digital divide and the need for rural broadband internet access to make sure that students and adults have access to the tools they need to succeed, he said.

Snider asked what Kelly could do about the need for more water in Pinal County and the state and effects of climate change on both water and wildfires.

Kelly pointed out that the state gets about 39% of its water from the Colorado River and that the current drought is shifting the state closer to the first stage of water reductions from the Drought Contingency Plan that was approved by the Lower Basin States in 2019.

That first level of reductions will reduce Arizona’s share of Colorado River water by about 18%, he reminded the group. That deficit will probably be covered by increasing the amount of groundwater that is being pumped.

Pinal County is in a particularly challenging position if the DCP reduction goes into effect because the largest share of the cut in water will go to agricultural users in the county, Kelly said.

The states also have to take into account the impact of climate change, he said. There needs to be a long-term solution. Everyone, the federal, state, local and tribal governments, agriculture, businesses and residents, have to get together to create a long-term national strategy to tackle the issue.

Lisa Fitzgibbons asked about additional pandemic relief aid for local governments, businesses and residents. The first economic pandemic relief bill passed by Congress, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, provided residents, local governments and businesses with some help but the money ran out fast because of the great need.

She also asked about federal aid for infrastructure projects, such as the widening of Interstate 10, and rural broadband.

“This is just an indication of how broken D.C. is,” Kelly said, referring to the number of COVID-19 relief bills that have stalled in Congress over the last several months.

He said he has heard several stories during his campaign for office from business people who were able to successfully get PPP funding, but he also heard several stories from people who tried to access the program but were unable to do so. Sometimes because they didn’t have the help they needed to fill out the application and sometimes because they didn’t have a strong enough internet signal to fill out the application before being disconnected and having to start the process over again, he said.

The Paycheck Protection Program was designed to give small business owners a forgivable loan to cover the cost of payroll for their employees while their businesses were closed due to the pandemic in order to avoid pushing employees on to unemployment rolls. The program was so popular that the first round of funding ran out before many small businesses could get an application in. It also had problems with its application process and some of the money went to larger corporations that were not supposed to be eligible for the program.

“We need an economic recovery package that points the country in the right direction and fast,” Kelly said.

“We need to get folks into office that are willing to go for common ground. Partisanship is not going to help solve our problems. These aren’t easy problems to fix,” he said, referring to each of the issues brought up during the discussion. “There is not one party that can fix all of them alone, but if (the two parties, Republican and Democrat) work together we can.”

After the event, Kelly paused to discuss filling U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacant seat and the Affordable Care Act with a reporter from PinalCentral.

Kelly did not comment on President Donald Trump’s choice to fill the seat but said that he thought that Congress should have waited until after the election to start the process to fill the seat. Filling a seat on the Supreme Court has always been taken by Congress as a serious situation, he said. And it should continue to be taken seriously regardless of who wins the presidency in November’s election.

Kelly also said that if the Supreme Court overturned the Affordable Care Act, he would be willing to work with others in Congress to help protect those with pre-existing conditions.

If elected to office, Kelly said some of the first issues he would like to tackle are getting additional pandemic relief out into the economy and making sure that federal agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, have the funding they need to develop and distribute a vaccine to the public.

Hobbs, groups agree to end Arizona registration extension Friday

PHOENIX -- Arizonans who want to vote this election may now have only through Friday to get signed up.

In an agreement filed late Tuesday, the lawyers who brought the original lawsuit challenging the state's Oct. 5 deadline and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs agreed to a legal "stay'' of a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow. He had given voters until Oct. 23.

The deal, if it is blessed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, rolls that back to 11:59 p.m. this Friday.

It also contains another provision that spells out that anyone who registered after Oct. 5 -- as Snow allowed -- will get to keep their right to vote on Nov. 3 despite missing the original deadline. The only requirement is that their registration forms must "reach county election offices by that Friday night deadline.

So far, according to data compiled Tuesday by Hobbs' office, there were 26,652 new names added to the registration list since Oct. 5. That includes 8,317 Republicans, 6,237 Democrats, 393 Libertarians and 11,705 not affiliated with any recognized political party.

On top of that, another 74,035 people used window the opportunity to update their registrations. That can include changing parties and updating addresses.

The deal, however, may not be the last word.

Late Tuesday, Attorney General Mark Brnovich told the court that he -- and not Hobbs -- represents the state.

"The secretary of state has no authority to bind either the state of Arizona nor the independently elected (and unnamed) county recorders, who would be responsible for implementing the injunction issued by the district court,'' he said. And Brnovich took a slap at Hobbs, saying her decision to settle "illustrates the secretary's representation of the state's interests is inadequate.''

He's not the only one unhappy.

Attorney Kory Langhofer representing the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, filed his own objection.

Langhofer not only wants the court to reject the deal but totally overturn Snow's ruling and declare that he had no authority to void the Oct. 5 sign-up deadline. In fact, Langhofer wants the appellate judges to rule that anyone who has signed up since cannot vote next month, even though they were relying on Snow's order.

Snow issued his ruling earlier this month following a complaint by Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Coalition for Change that the COVID-19 outbreak and the resultant travel and gathering restrictions imposed in March by Gov. Doug Ducey curtailed their ability to sign up new voters. He agreed to add an extra 2 1/2 weeks to help compensate.

At a hearing Monday, two of the appellate judges expressed doubts about the legality of Snow's ruling. But rather than decide the issue, they directed the attorneys to work out something themselves.

The question now is whether the court will accept the deal, given that the plaintiffs who brought the challenge and the secretary of state, who was the sole named defendant, have agreed.

Snow had granted Langhofer's clients legal status as "intervenors'' in the case, giving them a legal voice.

The issue with Brnovich is more complicated, as he never joined the original lawsuit when it was before Snow. It was only after that ruling that the attorney general told the appellate judges that he, too, wants to intervene, a motion that the court has yet to consider.

CDC: Masks, business limits helped curb spread of COVID-19 in Arizona

WASHINGTON — A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report credits mask mandates and business restrictions for slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Arizona, reversing an early summer spike blamed on an early easing of restrictions.

The study, in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, tracked cases in the state from Jan. 22 through their peak in June, when local and state safety mandates began to take effect.

“We have significantly reduced the cases in Arizona after the implementation of those mitigation measures,” said Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services and one of the authors of the report.

“So, after masks became required in about 85 to 90% of the population, and then the closure of some of those high-risk activities or establishments, we did see a significant reduction,” Christ said Friday.

Other health experts in Arizona said the report should serve as “a cautionary tale” to other states.

“I would say, you want to follow what we’re doing now as far as how we’re maintaining it versus allowing it to spread the way it did in the beginning,” said Dr. Ross Goldberg, president of the Arizona Medical Association and vice chairman of surgery at Valleywise Health Center.

Arizona, like most states, imposed a flurry of restrictions on travel and nonessential services in March. But Gov. Doug Ducey overrode attempts by some local governments to close salons and spas, among other businesses, drawing criticism from some quarters.

In May, the state began to ease off on many of those restrictions, leading to crowded Memorial Day gatherings that many blame for a spike in cases that made Arizona a national hot spot for coronavirus infections.

Mask mandates were implemented by county and local governments around Arizona as COVID-19 cases in the state climbed to thousands per day, and Ducey required businesses to set safety protocols. Within weeks, case rates of increase sharply declined.

Christ considers cases in Arizona “stable” now, but other health experts worry about Arizonans relaxing too soon.

“Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas,” Goldberg said.

Will Humble, executive director of Arizona Public Health Association, said the state cannot take all the credit for the turnaround, pointing to more-aggressive actions by many of the larger jurisdictions in the state.

“Don’t tie the hands of local jurisdictions because they can provide valuable interventions that help slow the spread of a virus like this,” Humble said. “When you see good, evidence-based information about the spread of an illness during a pandemic, read it and use that to inform your policy.”

Humble also emphasized the importance of compliance and enforcement of stay-at-home orders and quick test-turn-around times.

The report comes as the state has seen a recent uptick in cases. From Oct. 2 to Oct. 9, almost 5,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Arizona, up from fewer than 4,000 cases the week before, and Goldberg said there has been an increase in recent hospitalizations.

Christ said the state should continue to push safety measures such as wearing masks indoors and physical distancing whenever possible to continue combating the virus. With flu season looming and holidays just around the corner, she said getting a flu shot and celebrating holidays “safely” is key to maintaining the current trajectory of cases.

Goldberg said he realizes the need for continued vigilance “wears people down.”

“People are tired of it; they want to go back to normal. But until we’ve got a definitive cure, or a vaccine, we have to do this. It’s the best protection we have, and it’s working, we’ve proven it works,” he said.

Humble said that health officials have to do their part, too, to keep this week’s rise from being the start of a second wave.

“We know how responsive this virus is to policy changes,” Humble said. “It’s not fate. Whether or not we have a big spike this winter is dependent on the quality of the decisions that our elected officials make.”

Goldberg said Arizonans needs to keep up with mitigation strategies in order to avoid a second wave.

“If you relax, you see a spike,” Goldberg said. “We unfortunately have very clear examples, very recently, of what happens when you don’t follow those rules. All COVID needs is one patient.”