By Robert Gay
Opinion & Comment
July 1, 2020

As 2020 unrolls, the devastation wrought by an imperceptible lethal organism creeps around everywhere. Our way of life, thinking, news intake and conversations are being transformed by newly important words and ideas. As if we are all amateur epidemiologists we talk about outbreaks, hotspots, incubation periods, asymptomatic transmission, clinical trials, test protocols, and super-spreaders.  

Telemedicine is becoming the new normal; masks proliferate; sanitizer is everywhere; patients may be on IV, intubated or put on ventilators and some die alone in hospitals, families using face-time to say good-bye to their loved ones. New acronyms have become commonplace in our everyday usage, such as PPE, ICU, WHO, and CDC. Socially, we talk of essential services, social distancing, lockdown, reopening, misinformation, virtual workplaces and meetings, and distance learning. We might zoom, skype, IM or tweet. Between the lines of these conversations we face our own mortality as well, and more of us experience the sickness or death of friends, neighbors or loved ones, or become survivors ourselves. There is hope for lasting immunity after a COVID-19 infection but research has yet to confirm this. 

It seems that we forget the most important word about this pandemic; it is caused by a novel coronavirus. A virus that we are simultaneously learning about and processing the implications of the information. Before the pandemic, scientific findings would take months of vetting before printing in journal articles. Then journalists would report on them. Today journalists are inundated with hundreds of “pre-print” studies from scientists, ranging from a sample of three people to thousands of people, being written and distributed all around the globe without any peer-review. As the stakes are high, everyone, including the scientific community, is in a rush to understand and make sense of this novel virus. We may know more than we did since March, but more is being discovered and refuted as time goes along.

Besides the infusion of new epidemiological, medical and social vocabularies and concepts to help us cope with the fears and changes, we’ve also become data analysts and curve-watchers out of a desire to comprehend and monitor the spread and speed of the virus and respond in the safest and smartest way we can. We’ve learned about curve-flattening, doubling times, exponential growth, rolling averages, and fatality rates.

The first reported case of C0VID-19 for Santa Cruz County was March 19. The first hundred days of pandemic statistic-keeping was completed on June 26. During that time, Arizona has emerged as a national hotspot for new cases, and as of June 30 our county has the highest rate of infection per 100,000 people in the entire state.

Our 100-day curve began rather flatly for about the first 50 days, getting to only 38 total cases by May 7th. Then it shows an eight-day doubling time by the middle of May, but 38 more cases didn’t seem like so many. Five more doublings got us to Day 100, with an average doubling time of about 12 days. We are looking for the doubling time to increase, to slow the spread, but one interval of longer doubling time is not enough to judge that the curve is flattening.  

In the last few weeks, the math of exponential growth lifted the curve to its steepest and most terrifying. Our 100-day curve began rather flatly for about the first 50 days, getting to only 38 cases by May 7th. Between May 22 and June 20, the next three doubling times are seven, seven and 12 days. 

Let’s imagine what this curve behavior might mean for the near future, based on continuing the average doubling time of about 12 days. Three doublings at this rate would take 36 days, and is projected as a dotted line on the graph. At this rate, the case numbers would grow from 1,654 to 3,308,  then 6,616, and finally to 13,332, which is about 28% of the County’s population. The published data are likely to be less than real cases because of the limits in testing. First, only those with symptoms or exposure to a proven case can get testing in our county. Second, as of June 30 only about 12%of the population has been tested.

This graph is a projection based on calculations of the trends in the county’s confirmed cases. It shows that in another month (not accounting for any mitigation measures) the county could theoretically have over 13,000 cases. 
Produced by Robert Gay

The recent steepness of our county’s spike is alarming. Local elected officials, including the Santa Cruz County Supervisors and city of Nogales Mayor, pressured Gov. Ducey to amend his Executive Order so that local governments could require face coverings as a measure to stop the spread of COVID-19. Ducey relented on June 17 and the County, city of Nogales and Town of Patagonia all instituted mandatory mask wearing in public places in effect right now (Read More). The PRT will be watching how that impacts the spread of the virus. 

Arizona-style reopening may seem to have brought temporary comfort by restoring a bit of the Old Normal, but it is not working to flatten the curve. A lot of lives are at stake.

Chalk graffiti in the Town of Patagonia Park sidewalk. “It’s Crona time, wear a mask and stay 6 feet away”. Photo by Robert Gay

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