As Payson schools head into the second week of in-person classes, COVID cases have started to surge statewide.
Most school districts in the region have resumed in-person classes, including Payson, Tonto Basin, Winslow, Holbrook, Snowflake, Blue Ridge, Show Low and Heber-Overgaard. Schools on the Navajo and Apache reservations are considering returning to class. Many Valley schools continue in distance learning mode.
In the past two weeks, the number of new COVID cases has risen 44% in Arizona and 21% in the U.S., according to a national database maintained by the New York Times.
Navajo County Assistant Manager Brian Layton said “many” schools in that county have reported COVID cases among faculty and students since the return to in-person classes several weeks ago. Schools refer positive cases to family doctors and the county hasn’t yet adopted a comprehensive testing policy or criteria for when an on-campus outbreak merits a return to distance learning for an individual campus or district.
Health officials in Apache, Gila and Navajo counties say they have ample testing capacity, but don’t have plans to do extensive contact tracing when a case turns up on campus.
The Gila County Health Department has told Payson that it could shut down a school site or even the whole district if even a handful of students and faculty test positive.
So health officials urge people to continue wearing masks in public and avoid the kinds of crowded “super spreader” activities and events that have played a key role in the spread of the pandemic.
Those precautions will have the added advantage of cutting off a bad flu season, which normally hits younger children much harder than COVID-19.
Health officials hope that the use of masks and social distancing will hold off a fresh, surge in infections until the U.S. can approve a safe, effective vaccine. Nationally, an estimated 10% of the population has been infected, which means we’re still far from the hoped-for protection of “herd immunity.”
Nationally, the number of infections is nearing 8 million, with 216,000 deaths. The steady decline in the number of new infections nationally bottomed out in mid September. In the past two weeks, the daily tally of new cases has risen 21% nationally — driven by a surge in the Midwest and South and portions of the West.
In Arizona, the number of new cases has increased by an average of 44% per day in the past two weeks, according to the national database maintained by the New York Times.
Fortunately, the number of deaths in Arizona has declined by 59%. The trend in deaths generally lags behind the trend in new cases by three or four weeks. Moreover, doctors have also begun to lower the death rate for hospitalized patients with improved treatments, including antiviral drugs, steroids and more effective use of breathing support.
Gila County in the past week has reported 74 new cases, an infection rate of 137 per 100,000 population — more than double the statewide rate of 66 per 100,000.
In the past week, Gila County has maintained one of the highest new infection rates in the state along with Apache, Coconino and Graham counties.
The state department of health services reporting that Gila County as a whole meets just one of the three benchmarks for resuming in-person classes. However, the Payson zip code meets all three benchmarks — although the statistics are based on figures from the week ending on Oct. 8.
Nationally, the lack of consistent reporting, comprehensive studies and policies has made it difficult to assess the impact of the return to in-person classes in schools across much of the nation, according to a research review published in the journal Science.
Overall, studies suggest that the virus does not readily infect children younger than 10 — and when it does, they’re unlikely to get seriously ill. However, some studies in other countries have suggested younger children can carry and spread the virus, even if they don’t have symptoms. The virus apparently does spread readily among teenagers, although few develop fatal side effects.
One U.S. analysis of 150,000 people infected with COVID-19 found just 1.7% of those were younger than 18, according to the Science summary. On the other hand, a study of 400 infections and their 1,300 close contacts found children were just as likely to be infected as results.
In Arizona, people under 20 account for 14% of the 228,000 cases and less than 1% of the deaths — a total of nine.
A study of school closures and infections in China found that children have about three times as many close contacts in an average day as adults, but were only one-third as likely to develop an infection. The study suggested that intensive testing that enabled schools to immediately send home infected children minimized outbreaks on campus.
Many countries like China rely on the widespread availability of a spit-test for the virus that yields results in 15 minutes. Such tests are not widely available in the U.S. and few schools have access to them.
However, few of the schools in the U.S. that have reopened have done careful studies on the spread of the virus. Between 30% and 50% of those infected with the virus never show clear symptoms — especially among children. That means its difficult to figure out how far a cluster extends without testing for both screening and contact tracing.
The Navajo County health department hasn’t undertaken any large-scale screening or contact tracing efforts in the schools that have reopened. As schools have opened and positive cases have popped up on “many” campuses, average daily testing numbers in the county have actually declined.
So in the absence of widespread testing and tracking, health officials have urged residents to continue to wear masks, avoid big groups and stay home if they’re sick.