Q&A with top Arizona health official on schools opening, testing backlog
PHOENIX — Arizona’s top public health official said Friday that the state is experiencing a COVID-19 testing backlog.
Dr. Cara Christ, director for the Arizona Department of Public Health, said the state is seeing a backlog of coronavirus tests that can range anywhere from 7 to 10 days depending on the lab.
Christ spoke with KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show to discuss the state’s COVID-19 testing backlog, when schools should reopen and why gym closures were extended.
Here is a sampling of questions and answers from Christ’s interview:
What should parents be looking for and talking to their school districts about to deem things safe?
Christ: We’re going to be allowing the local jurisdiction, the school districts, the local public health departments to work together to determine whether or not they meet the benchmarks because they’re going to know their communities the best. As a parent of three school-age kids, the things I would want to know is: What does it look like in my community? How does the number of cases look in my community? And what type of like what type of population is being impacted? Because that can play a different role. If it’s the 20 to 44-year-old, that might be different than if we’re seeing an increase in the kids in that in that area. The other thing is as a parent I’m going to want to know is what are my school’s plans for physical distancing, for ensuring the kids have masks, but then have time to play outside without the masks? What type of infection control policies are they going to be putting in place at the school?
Some preschools and daycares have been open in Arizona all this time. If those facilities are open for families, why such a big concern about schools opening?
Christ: We know that schools play a large role in the lives of our kids, not just for education — that is significantly important — but the social and emotional impacts that it has as well. Sometimes that’s the safest place for kids. That’s where the kids get some of their most nutritious meals per day. And so we really want to see kids back in the classroom because of a whole host of public health issues. We’ve been working very closely with our child care facilities and our preschools. They have been doing well and they’ve been doing a great job with social distancing and airplane arms and temperature checks and making sure the kids are staying away from each other. What we’ve seen in the data is that transmission is extremely low in kids that are 10 and under. So it’s less of a concern for child-to-child transmission or child-to-adult transmission. But as those kids get older, the likelihood that they’re able to transmit it does increase.
Do you believe schools will be ready to open by Aug. 17? Should each individual family make their own decision?
Christ: I think that is a very personal decision for families. I know that some families have kids or have members that are high risk. Those families should think very seriously about sending a child into a group setting. For families that don’t have a high-risk condition or an elderly individual living with them who need to go to work and who are afraid that their kids are going to have an educational gap or require some kind of assistance, school may be the safer place. And so that’s really why we wanted to give it to the local jurisdictions to determine if it was appropriate for them to open up. I think that the plan has built-in flexibility. If parents want their children in school and the data is showing in that area, they should be able to go to school.
How long is the backlog? When are cases recorded compared to when they are reported?
Christ: that’s what it’s looking as the potential backlog. So about 7 to 10 days after people are having their tests collected, they’re getting the results. Some labs are turning it around in two or three days, so it’s going to depend on which lab that you’re at. We’re hoping that Sonora Quest will be able to clear out that backlog and bring on that additional equipment so that starting July 31 there won’t be any backlog anymore. What we do is the cases that get reported, they’re not counted on the day that they’re reported. They’re actually counted on the day that the patient had the specimen taken because that’s when they were symptomatic so it could get backfilled. If you do look at our epi curve or the confirmed cases by day, you will see that some were reported yesterday and the day before. So it’s just going to depend on which lab and when it’s turning in but somewhere between 7 to 14 days in the past.
What was it that you saw going on in gyms specifically that shut them down and what metrics do you need to see in order to allow those businesses to open back up again?
Christ: We know that when people exercise, when they sing, when they breathe heavily or when they’re shouting, that that actually increases the transmissibility of COVID-19. It concentrates the infectious particles as well as makes it travel farther. So we know that gyms are high risk and are frequented by our highest demographic. We know that young people are asymptomatic. They don’t feel any symptoms for the most part — we do have some that do get hospitalized — but that’s what we believe the spread is. So as we’re continuing to see positive trends in our data, we will continue to review on what type of high-risk activities can open back up. But again, we’re going to want to see a consistent decrease in cases, a consistent decrease in the percent positivity and we want to see our hospital metrics continue to come down.
What happens should a case arise in a high-risk, long-term care facility such as a nursing home?
Christ: Public health works very closely with our long-term care and assisted living. So if they get cases, the local public health departments will reach out to that facility, offer technical assistance. We will help with testing — like of the contacts and the workers around that. We’re also currently working with our federal partners for our long-term care facilities to get them testing machines and kits so that they can do the ongoing routine testing of their employees and their patients.