Gila County this week still could not meet the state’s benchmarks for reopening schools with a hybrid in-person and online model.

However, Payson schools plan to resume in-person classes on Oct. 12, no matter what the state’s benchmark statistics show. A rise in new cases statewide in the past two weeks could complicate those plans.

Statewide, infection rates have risen by 61% in the past week — and Gila County’s rate remains about 56% above the state average, according to one nationwide database.

Gila County is close to meeting the state’s advisory benchmarks. However, the calculation is complicated by the big lag in the state’s release of statistics — with the most recent numbers lagging several weeks behind.

If you go by the numbers posted on the state’s website, Gila County still doesn’t have a steady decline in cases per 100,000 — but for the week of Aug. 23 and Aug. 30 got below the threshold of 100 cases per 100,000. For the week of Aug. 23, Gila County had 58 cases per 100,000 individuals and for Aug. 30, 82 cases per 100,000.

Meanwhile, a steady decline in the percentage of positive cases ended when the percent positive rose from 4.7% the week of Aug. 23 to 7.3% the week of Aug. 30.

The percentage of hospital visits by COVID patients in the region remained at 2%, below the benchmark of 10%.

National tracking numbers show an alarming reversal of weeks of steady decline in new cases. The rise probably reflects the resumption of school in many communities, the relaxation of restrictions on businesses and a decline in social distancing and mask wearing in public, say epidemiologists.

Arizona has about 10 deaths per day and several hundred new documented infections, despite the big improvements in the past six weeks. The rolling, weeklong average showed Arizona cases peaking at 3,800 per day in early July and dropping to a rolling, weeklong average of 394 per day on Sept. 15. However, for the two weeks ending Sept. 20, the rolling seven-day average has risen to more like 900, according to a national database maintained by The New York Times.

Health officials have urged people to keep up the fight by wearing a face mask in public, staying home when they’re sick, physically distancing and washing hands frequently.

Schools elsewhere in the region have already resumed in-person classes — including the rural Snowflake School District. After five weeks of in-person classes, the district has reported three cases among students and three cases among staff members. The district has quarantined the infected students and staff and tested their close contacts, without shutting down any school sites.

Statewide, only tiny Greenlee County met the benchmarks for full, in-person classes. Gila, Graham, Mohave and Yuma counties haven’t met the benchmarks for even hybrid, in-person classes. The rest of the state meets the benchmark recommendations for a hybrid approach. This would take advantage of distance learning and schedule changes to make sure that kids can maintain social distancing and avoid mingling with too many other students in the course of the day.

Gila County in the past seven days has reported 120 cases per 100,000 population, one of the highest infection rates in the state. The only counties with a higher infection rate in the past week are Pima (209/100,000) and Coconino (153/100,000). Statewide, the infection rate for the week of Sept. 20 has risen to 77 per 100,000. That puts the infection rate in Gila County 56% above the statewide average.

Statewide, an encouraging decline in cases has reversed itself in the past two weeks. The average daily number of new cases has increased by 61%, according to the national database. Deaths have continued to decline in that period — down 29% in the last two weeks. However, the trend in the deaths typically lags new cases by three or four weeks.

Since the onset of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders, business restrictions, social distancing and mask wearing in public have consistently reduced the tally of new cases two or three weeks after they’re imposed. However, cases inevitably rise again when people return to normal, businesses open and people become less diligent about wearing masks in public when they can’t socially distance.

Epidemiologists warn that Arizona’s testing rates remain far behind levels necessary to contain the virus. People without symptoms account for about 40% of the spread, but Arizona continues to mostly just test people with symptoms.

The Harvard Global Health Institutes says the nation should do 1.1 million COVID-19 tests daily to track the virus, but does about 700,000.

The COVID Tracking Project estimates Arizona has one of the weakest systems in the country for testing. The U.S. is doing 72% of the recommended tests, but Arizona’s doing just 54% of the recommended level. Hitting the recommended level would mean testing everyone with symptoms, plus 10 close contacts. This would allow for effective contact tracing, which would slow but not stamp out the virus.

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