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Doctor: Schools ignoring benchmarks may trigger another COVID-19 spike

(AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

PHOENIX — A pediatric infectious disease specialist encourages Arizona school districts to meet all the health benchmarks recommended by state health officials before bringing students back on campus.

“A school district that ignores the benchmarks and decides to open regardless, they have to be prepared to accept that they may be triggering a third surge,” said Dr. Sean Elliot, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and a professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “There’s a social responsibility here, and I would hope they’re considering that.”

For schools that decide to reopen despite not meeting all the benchmarks, Elliot said he hopes they’re “being quite robust in their preparation efforts.” That includes increasing ventilation in buildings, limiting school activities and reducing class sizes.

He said the health benchmarks released last week by the state’s health department are meant to guide schools on when “it may be appropriate to reopen for in-person learning.”

State health officials recommend three benchmarks be reached in the county where the schools are located.

Those benchmarks are a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 7% or less for two consecutive weeks, a two-week decline in the number of new cases and less than 10% of hospital visits related to the coronavirus.

None of the state’s counties meet all of those benchmarks, which Elliott said are not as “conservative” as in other states.

He noted that while state health officials are recommending a 7% positivity rate for COVID-19 tests before schools can reopen, other states are recommending 5%. New York City is using 3% as its benchmark.

Similarly, other states are setting a 5% benchmark for hospital visits related to COVID-19 illnesses while Arizona health officials are recommending 10%.

“The real key, though, is a steady decrease in the number of new cases for at least two seven-day periods,” Elliott said. “This means it becomes safer and safer as we do a better and better job of limiting our spread of disease in Arizona.”

He added it’s important to keep in mind that the benchmarks are recommendations and are not mandatory. The final decision on when to reopen will be up to school district leaders with consultation from their county health departments.

“I’m hoping that they’re thoroughly intending to abide by those benchmarks,” he said.

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