Prison infections affect county totals

These graphics show cases in correctional facilities spiking, left, as they level off in the overall community, and increasing to half of the community’s confirmed cases, right. Pinal County officials believe it’s unfair to base school and business reopenings on data that includes isolated populations such as prisons. The arrows point to the weeks of Aug. 9 and Aug. 16, just before a sharp rise in prison cases in the following two weeks.

FLORENCE — An August testing blitz for COVID-19 in Pinal County correctional facilities could result in a spike in new cases, which would hold the county back as it works to reopen schools and businesses, officials said.

Pinal County officials have repeatedly asked the state to report the prisons’ COVID-19 data separately from the general public, but so far to no avail, they said. The county's own data for the last two weeks of August shows cases sharply declining among the general public but rising sharply in prisons.

The most recent data was encouraging for Pinal County: For the first time, the county’s rate of COVID-19 infection was down enough last week to meet all three benchmarks for reopening schools. The county’s business reopening status also improved — from “substantial” transmission of the virus to “moderate.”

On Wednesday morning the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 103 new cases in the county, giving it a total of 10,086. One new death was reported in Pinal County for a total of 191.

The bulk of the new cases, 59, were reported in an Eloy ZIP code. Eloy and Florence have been reporting the most new cases in the last couple of weeks in the county. The communities are home to a number of state, federal and private detention centers and prisons.

The next ADHS update will be posted Thursday, and Pinal officials worry that data from the prisons will skew the numbers, sending benchmarks for schools and workplaces back into the red, Pinal County spokesman James Daniels said.

“Essentially the county does not want to see cases in correctional facilities impacting the reopening of schools and workplaces,” he told PinalCentral by email.

Tascha Spears, Pinal County Public Health director, said in a weekly county newsletter that the county has repeatedly asked the state to break out the prison data separately, “so far without success.”

Last week’s favorable data for Pinal County was the result of numbers from the weeks of Aug. 9 and Aug. 16. But a testing “blitz” in the prisons in the second half of August is likely to result in a different picture when the state posts its next update on Thursday, using data from the weeks of Aug. 23 and Aug. 30, Daniels said.

State health officials said as happened with the measles not long ago, what happens in a prison isn’t isolated from the rest of the community. People who work in the prisons also live in the community and have the potential to spread diseases among family members of other members of the community. For that reason, the county-level benchmarks take into account all activity within a community.

"It should be noted that the school benchmarks are recommendations," ADHS said in a statement to PinalCentral. "We encourage school districts and charter schools to work closely with their county health departments when making decisions on whether and how to offer in-person instruction."

For the business benchmarks, Pinal County is in the moderate range, meaning businesses affected by the executive order can open by attesting online that they will obey requirements on occupancy and more.

"At this time, we do not anticipate that data from the prisons will impact Pinal County's current "moderate spread" status," ADHS said.


Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at