With the number of COVID-19 patients on the rise in Graham and Greenlee counties, health officials are starting to notice some commonalities. Many of the patients are younger and healthier and they tend to be people who have chosen not to wear face masks or socially distance.
Between June 1 and June 28:
The number of people under 20 to contract COVID-19 in Graham County jumped from seven to 17
Those between 21 and 34 jumped from three to 21.
Those between the ages of 35 and 64 doubled from 16 to 35.
The number of patients 65 and older jumped from 10 to 19.
Statewide, as of Sunday, roughly half the state’s 73,000 COVID-19 patients were between 20 and 44-years-old.
While it’s true Arizona has increased it’s testing, the increase in the number of cases can’t solely be attributed to that fact, said Brian Douglas Graham County Health Department director. Part of the reason is Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to move forward with opening the state. The percentage of positive tests overall is on the rise.
Douglas, who issued news releases almost every night last week announcing new cases, has been urging people to wear their masks and follow the other recommendations in those releases. As of Sunday evening, the county had documented 92 cases since the start of the pandemic.
“Most recently, we are finding COVID-19 transmissions occurring with people who are not wearing face coverings in public, at work, and those attending gatherings at homes of families and friends,” Douglas wrote in them.
On Saturday, Douglas reiterated the county’s findings.
“I think although some residents are complying with our recommendations, many are not. We’re just asking our residents to strengthen their efforts at slowing the spread of the virus. I know we can improve our efforts in wearing our face coverings in public, social distancing by six feet, washing hands and staying home,” Douglas said.
On Saturday in Greenlee County, the average age of the county’s 18 COVID-19 patients was 38, said epidemiologist, Matt Bolinger.
He also pointed out that people in Greenlee County aren’t staying at home.
“Nine of the 18 total were part of the recent cluster in a neighboring county. We have been able to, so far, track all of our cases to specific other cases or to travel into places where community spread is commonly happening. As all other counties around us, we are planning for the surge seen across Arizona to affect us,” Bolinger said.
As for masks?
“I am unaware of a case that has become infected when mask were being used. Theoretically it can happen, I just haven’t seen it,” Bolinger wrote in an email. “A good example is our hospitals and urgent care in the region. Masks have been being used consistently for a number of months and I am unaware of any transmission in that setting. Masks seem to be working for us.”
Gov. Doug Ducey recently gave counties and municipalities permission to institute mandatory face masks policies, while refraining to implement such a policy statewide.
If the numbers keep increasing, Douglas said he expects the state will have to reconsider that stance within the next two weeks.
How much is politics playing a role when it comes to masks?
“I don’t think it’s so much political, I think it’s individually. We all have our own thoughts and beliefs and people still have their lives,” Douglas said. “What we’re doing is trying to get a message out there that by complying with these measures that have been put forth it will reduce the spread of the virus.”
Many people may not be wearing masks or socially distancing in Graham County because with the number of cases still being relatively low overall, they may not know anyone who has contracted the virus, nor have they themselves had to be quarantined, Douglas said.
However, the fact no one is hospitalized with COVID-19 in Graham County is partially due to good fortune, Douglas said.
“We’ve had a lot of luck. We’ve had a couple of social butterflies out there. I mean they were everywhere. We were having to shut people down because they were at people’s homes, businesses, friends, parties, graduations, just everywhere,” Douglas said.
Just one Graham County resident alone resulted in 30 people being quarantined, he said. The patient exposed them at multiple places.
Ryan Rapier, spokesman for Mt. Graham Regional Hospital, said the rise in cases in Graham and Greenlee counties has prevented the hospital from resuming elective surgeries.
“What we’re doing is pretty much following the data and letting that decide when we would do that,” Rapier said. “We’d’ have to see how things go over the course of two weeks to a month before we would ever pick a time and say ‘OK things look good now we’re going to do it.’ That has not occurred so we don’t have a date in mind and never really have had. It’s been totally driven by the data and the data has never suggested that we’re ready to make that move.”
The hospital is definitely seeing the financial impacts of the pandemic, he said.
“There’s no denying that what has happened and that we’ve had to shut down dramatically affected our bottom line, especially in the March, April and May time frame,” Rapier said.
However, since the second half of May the hospital has been able to offer some imaging procedures and laboratory testing, Rapier said. They’ve also performed some surgeries that were initially deemed elective, but were later reclassified.
“It helped our bottom line a little bit and, like other institutions, we’ve received some help from the state and that has helped bridge the gap,” Rapier said. “So, at this point we’re still moving forward with the plan that we are going to weather the storm. There’s no plan at all at this time to make any kind of cuts staff wise or anything like that.”