The Pima Unified School District announced late Wednesday night that its schools would remain closed on Thursday as a precautionary measure.

The district released a statement on Facebook around 10 p.m. informing parents that it had “received a report of exposure to an unknown illness” at the Pima elementary school.

“Out of an abundance of caution, while the County health department determines if this is in fact an incidence of coronavirus, Pima Schools will be closed for Thursday, March 12,” the statement read.

District officials did not return phone calls prior to deadline Thursday afternoon.

The Pima School District works on a four-day schedule, meaning that the district will be closed a day early this week. According to the report, additional information regarding extracurricular activities will be forthcoming in additional notifications.

“I’m just concerned mostly, for the sick kids and for all our kids as a community. I’m really hoping it’s not here in our county,” said Emily Rinehart, whose sons attend the Pima School District.

Earlier Wednesday, Pima Schools Superintendent Sean Rickert had said their response to the threat of the coronavirus has been similar to what it’s been in the past with the flu or MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

“We have put on some extra hours for cleaning and provide more attention on door handles and surfaces that kids and other people are likely to be touching on a regular basis,” Rickert said. “We have increased the amount of admonishments we give to students to wash their hands. We’re also making sure that any students coming to school that look ill, to make sure that they’re sent home.”

When speaking earlier in the day Rickert said they were waiting to hear back from the county health department to see if any more drastic measures need to be taken.

“We’re (also) working with our food services provider to see what steps would have to be taken in case the school is closed to provide meals to students,” he said.

Pima schools are scheduled to be on spring break starting Monday.

No local residents have tested positive for COVID-19, but area schools, hospitals and businesses have been on high alert and are taking steps to lower the risk of the virus spreading should it arrive.

As of Thursday morning, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported two confirmed positive and seven presumptive positive patients statewide. The latter have tested positive at a public health laboratory and their status is pending confirmatory testing by the Centers for Disease Control. Five of the nine cases are from the same family.

According to ADHS, 115 individuals had been tested as of Thursday morning. Aside from the nine confirmed or presumptive positives, 82 people had been ruled out as having the virus and 24 were pending.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. The virus, which was unheard of three months ago, has spread to 121,000 people from Asia to the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Just under 4,400 people had died as a result of the virus as of Wednesday, 37 of them in the U.S.

On Wednesday, the Northern Cochise Community Hospital in Willcox released a statement dispelling some rumors.

“There is no truth to the rumor that anyone has been on the Northern Cochise Community Hospital patient floor with coronavirus (COVID-19). NCCH has tested two people for the virus, and their results were negative,” said Ainslee Wittig, community relations coordinator. “Our hospital staff continues to work with Cochise County and other healthcare providers to monitor the COVID-19 situation and stay abreast of the steady stream of new information regarding the virus.”

NCCH announced last week that the hospital will screen individuals who have been in close contact with COVID-19 patients within the past two weeks and are experiencing symptoms of the virus. Also, individuals who traveled through geographic areas that are hot zones for the virus over the past two weeks and are experiencing symptoms can also be tested.

Crystal Aroz, emergency room manager at NCCH said Thursday morning, “We have sufficient test kits for the current need. We have tested only two, but will test anyone deemed by AzDHS to have that need.”

Events and visits

Concerns over the virus have led to the cancellation of a Spring Fling hosted by First Southern Baptist Church in Thatcher. The event was scheduled for March 21 in Thatcher Park.

In addition, on Thursday, The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced all public gatherings of Church members are being temporarily suspended worldwide until further notice.

At Haven Health, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility, visitors are greeted with a sign announcing that visitations are “restricted unless absolutely necessary.” The facility has declared itself a “coronavirus-free facility” and encourages families to replace visits with video conferences and phone calls.

If an in-person visit is necessary, the facility says only immediate family members and people with a power of attorney will be permitted inside and then only after they’ve been through a basic health screening. They must also follow strict infection control procedures, the sign states.

David Voepel, chief executive officer of the Arizona Health Care Association, released a statement Wednesday praising the Arizona Department of Health Services for the actions it has taken.

“Because our senior population is especially vulnerable to severe complications of a COVID-19 infection, it is a prudent precaution to restrict visitation and to stringently apply infection control protocols. We must continue extreme vigilance since fatality rates in people over the age of 75 are estimated at around 20%,” Voepel wrote.

The travel business in Graham County has also seen some impact.

Brando Quinn, owner of Brando’s Fun N’ Sun Travel & Cruise in Safford, said sales for this time of year have been slower than the same time last year, and he believed coronavirus-related fears were responsible.

Moreover, his agency has seen around 10 to 12 cancellations from clients in the higher-risk group, ages 80 and over.

Quinn said clients are not necessarily worried about the coronavirus itself, but about being quarantined on ship.

Although few cruise ships have been affected by the coronavirus, Quinn said he believes the media coverage has made the threat seem larger.

Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas said the department was working with local medical providers, care facilities, schools and government agencies to provide updated information and guidance on the virus.

“Our goal is to mitigate and slow the spread of COVID-19 and not to overwhelm our healthcare facilities by utilizing non-pharmacological intervention practices, i.e., washing hands, staying home when sick and social distancing,” said Douglas.

Douglas said local physicians’ clinics, as well as Mount Graham Regional Medical Center, provide testing for the virus if symptomatic criteria are met, and test results are available in 48 hours.

Ryan Rapier, Mount Graham Regional Medical Center’s director of communications said the hospital “acknowledges the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus and is following every recommended process and procedure to ensure the continued strong health of our community.”

Schools

Now that spring break is ongoing, local schools are teaching taking extra precautions to decrease the germ population.

Willcox Superintendent Kevin Davis said that cleanliness is key and while the kids are away for spring break the Willcox School District is going the extra mile in cleaning the area.

“We’ve cleaned all the buildings and rooms,” said Davis. “We were trying to add additional hand sanitation stations for students to use before lunch. But it has been difficult to procure the sanitizer. Overnight custodians are coming into every room and they’re cleaning every desk. They do that anyway but we’re making more of a concerted effort. Of course we’re following the county guidelines and we’re encouraging everyone to wash their hands.”

Although Davis said that the school district would try to do the best for all the students, if the school would have to close due to a local virus update, whatever days missed will be made up at the end of the school year.

Also, although online courses through the internet may be an option for some middle and high school students, elementary schools would not be able to conduct class over the internet. At this point, Davis stressed that the Willcox school district will be following the county guidelines regarding the COVID-19 virus.

Bowie Superintendent Wendy Conger said the custodians are also cleaning the school extensively.

“We usually have the door knobs wiped down with disinfectant, but now they’re wiping down the entire doors. We’re spending all week cleaning,” said Conger. “We’re doing extra precautions and sanitized everything 110%.”

Conger said that if the school is closed temporarily there would be no possibility of internet-based classes.

“We do not have online capabilities,” said Conger. “But before in the past, we’ve had teachers tell the students to go wash their hands. Now they (the students) use soap and they scrub.”

Thatcher School Superintendent Matthew Petersen said they, too, have been working with the Graham County Health Department.

“We’ve been in contact with them, our head nurse and the Trust to determine next steps, but that’s all we’ve done at this point,” he said.

Officials at Eastern Arizona College said they are continuing to survey the situation and no events have been canceled.

SuppliesNationwide and locally, people are noticing some empty shelves as people stock up on cleaning supplies.

Staff at the Safford Walmart were unable to comment Wednesday, but a March 10 statement on the company website said Walmart had increased focus on store cleaning and was sending added cleaning supplies at registers and on shopping carts. The company also said it was pursuing easier ways to sanitize shopping carts and had plans in place for third-party sanitizing for stores impacted by the virus.

The statement also acknowledged that cleaning supplies and paper products were in high demand, and said Walmart was working to quickly restock those items. Store managers have also been given discretion to limit sales quantities of items in unusually high demand, according to the statement.

Walmart also said a new policy gives workers more flexibility to stay home when ill, as well as pay options and support if they are affected by the virus.

Nancy Keane, a spokeswoman for Albertsons and Safeway in the Southwest region, was not at liberty to discuss the shortage of product.

“We just can’t comment,” she said.

State response

Gov. Doug Ducey declared a public health emergency Wednesday to gave state officials more leeway and tools to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nothing in the governor’s decision actually restricts what people can do or where they can go. And state Health Director Cara Christ said there are no plans to limit large public gatherings as governors in other states have done.

But even as Christ was saying there is no need to cancel events or urge closure of public facilities, two Arizona universities made announcements related to the virus.

The University of Arizona, on spring break this week, will delay the start of classes to March 18 and move “from in-person instruction to online instruction wherever possible,” according to President Robert C. Robbins, who is a medical doctor.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow announced the school would switch to online instruction “wherever possible’’ for the next two weeks over concerns about the virus.

Crow, in a formal statement, said the school remains open, including the dormitories and food service. And he said that there are going to be exceptions where necessary for things like computer and research labs and performing arts.

What the Ducey’s declaration includes:

- Easing licensing requirements for health officials and facilities, potentially making room for more patients as they are diagnosed;

- Allowing hospitals and health care facilities, including nursing homes, additional “flexibility’’ to question and screen both employees and visitors;

- Giving health officials new authority to procure “needed medical supplies.’’

Christ said the situation remains fluid.

“We are constantly monitoring the local, national and global activities so that we can make data-driven decisions that protect our communities while having as minimal an impact on Arizonans’ daily lives as possible,’’ she said.

Includes information from Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

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