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Q&A with Arizona’s top health official on schools, testing and hospitals

PHOENIX – Arizona’s top health official said Friday that as the state is working to ramp up coronavirus testing access in the state, they are seeing encouraging trends in testing results.

Dr. Cara Christ, director for the Arizona Department of Health Services, told KTAR 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show that the state will be adding CDC surge testing along with adding a partnership with Arizona State University to provide additional PCR testing.

As the start of the school year nears, Christ said the health department and the Department of Education will be analyzing local trends to determine what is safe for students to return to the classroom.

Here is a sampling of questions and answers from Christ’s interview:

I know you cannot commit to that August 17th date of going back into the classroom, but I’m concerned with what you’re looking for when they say when it’s safe, what are the things you’re looking for to deem it safe?

Christ: We’re going to be looking at a number of metrics and really looking at the local level on what is going on in that community. So we would want to take a look at what the percent positivity is in that community, what the number of new cases is, if there’s new cases and their associated with an outbreak that might not be related to the school, that’s different than if there is ongoing wide community spread in an area. So we’ll be working with the Department of Education as well as our local schools and our local health partners to determine the safest way to have kids return to school.

What does that positivity rate need to be in your mind — in what area –to be safe to go back to school?

Christ: So what we would like to see is it below 10%. However, if we are on a steady decline and areas are showing reduced transmission within the community, reduced cases, it still may be an indicator that it would be safe to go back. But we’re going to be monitoring this everyday like we have been.

We’re still seeing all of these increases day-to-day on the website. What are those positive trends that you’re seeing?

Christ: So we are monitoring the data. We’re seeing some encouraging signs. So what we’re starting to see is a decrease in the percent of new cases each week, so over the last few weeks, we’ve had a decline in the percent growth. We’re also starting to see a plateau in the number of new cases reported. However, as we go back, we back fill those days. So those are not all people that became or were identified as infected yesterday. Those are just what was reported. So we continue to monitor that. We’re also starting to see a decrease and a leveling off in our percent positivity. So it’s not going up as highly as quickly as it had been. And all of these are good signs, and we’re about three weeks out from when the mask mandates took effect. These may be signs that that is, that is having an impact on our spread in the state.

ASU has announced a new type of test that’s a saliva test. The governor talked about it a little bit yesterday. How is this test going to help and is it going to help, not just accuracy, but in response time to getting results back?

Christ: We are very excited about the partnership with ASU. So this is a PCR, a diagnostic test. The department has worked with ASU. We are providing funding to ASU to provide this for free to the community. So we will be providing over the next several months between 60,000 and 100,000 tests. There’s about a three-day turnaround on that. They will be located at Ak-Chin Pavilion. This Saturday is their first today that they will be offering this test. They can do up to about 750. We will be adding capacity to that, and they will be operating with normal times and normal hours for the next few months at that site. Plus, we will be adding additional sites that people can go get tested.

As far as restaurants go, the governor yesterday said that the 50% capacity is now the new executive order. But my experience has been in the restaurants that I go to, and I go fairly often, they seem to already be doing that. Is this really a big change t what we’ve already been seen seeing?

Christ: So the big change is there now is a numerical requirement that they now have to be under. We have gotten complaints about restaurants that have — there’s a lot of good actors, but we know that there’s restaurants that weren’t following that. This gives the health department and the county health departments and law enforcement a very simple way to verify that they are under capacity, and it also gave us a much quicker and much stricter enforcement ability.

We’re seeing somewhere around 11% of hospitalization capacity available. When do you start seeing this is dangerous because it seems to be hovering around 10 or 11%. Where does it go to before your concern that we’re going to be overrunning the hospitals?

Christ: So we are concerned about the status of our hospitals. We are working with them on a daily basis. We’re identifying ways to reduce some of that pressure. You know, during flu season, hospitals will normally run at about 85-90% capacity. But COVID patients take a lot more time and a lot more staffing. So we’re trying to help give our hospitals more staffing capacity with that staffing initiative that we discussed yesterday and we’re also trying to work with our post-acute facilities so that we can move some of those patients that don’t need to be in a hospital into a different level of care.

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