By Aisha Sander June 4, 2020
The curious case of the family that tested positive in Sonoita began with an anonymous statement in Clare Bonelli’s newsletter. On April 30 the family wrote, “Our family would like to share with the community the fact that we are local and have tested positive for Covid.”
For the next two weeks the PRT repeatedly watched the data from the county, waiting for it to reflect the four cases and to see a change in the zip code map. The county officials would only confirm one case in the Elgin zip code and Sonoita was, and is still, at 0 cases. They also asserted that they know of all positive tests in the county. Finally, a county official relented and said, “Maybe only one of them got tested.” If that is the answer, then you might want to know, why weren’t the other family members tested?
The PRT has been able to corroborate this information with the family from Sonoita. Only one person tested positive in the family. Even though others in the family had symptoms, they were not tested because of the lack of availability of testing. It makes one wonder how many hidden cases like this exist in our communities?
Tracking this curious case also exemplifies the challenges for a rural area like ours to receive information about cases in our community. It helps that we know how many new cases per day. The zip code map helps us identify where outbreaks are happening. But in the early weeks of the pandemic AZ was releasing less information than many other states. Journalists demanded more complete information and the current data dashboard on the AZ Dept of Health Services (AZDHS) website is a direct result of journalists advocating for more information.
Health departments should not reveal names or exact addresses of positive cases, but the reason we have to keep guessing how many cases there are in our area is because, as long as there are less than 10 cases in a zip code, the AZDHS’s policy is to not release exact numbers to protect the privacy of individuals. However, the spread of rumors about who and how many people are infected is possibly worse than if the Dept. would confirm exactly how many cases and how many of those have recovered.
The other troubling piece is the lack of transparency from the state on what metrics they are using to reopen the state. Gov. Ducey showed a graph of the percentage of positive tests in the state and ICU bed availability in the state. And yes, testing has increased but AZ is still 49th in the country in viral diagnostic testing (Johns Hopkins University). Ducey does not talk about contact tracing in the state.
The AZDHS wrote on their website that they have a robust plan for testing and tracing. Yet almost three weeks have passed since the state has reopened and according to CovidActNow.org, Arizona remains at a dismal low of 60 tracers in the ENTIRE state. The AZDHS Information Office has not answered our many attempts to get an exact number of tracers working at this time.
However, it was reassuring to hear that the anonymous case in Sonoita/Elgin was contacted and thoroughly followed up on by the county. However, that was when the county had a total of 35 cases. As of 6/3 there are 438 cases.There are now seven staff members in the county tracing contacts, an improvement from last month when the county had only one contact tracer.
On May 15 when we asked what the county was doing to further prevent an outbreak as reopening orders were in effect, Jeff Terrell, the Director of Health Services, simply replied that they are following the CDC guidelines to reopen. Yet, since May 15 the county has experienced an exponential increase in positive cases, specifically in Nogales and Rio Rico.
As of June 3, the county has the thir highest rate of infection in the state at 823.9 per 100,000 population (Read update on pg. 3). 3.4% of the county has been tested, remarkably better than last month when only 0.47% of the population had been tested, but still far from what is needed.
Public officials are taking notice. The county released an urgent letter on May 20 urging everyone to stay at home and on May 25 local elected officials released a PSA in English and Spanish because of “the spreading of COVID-19 at an alarming rate” said County Supervisor Bruce Bracker. The officials reiterated the CDC guidelines on how to prevent the spread of the disease.
Our county brings into question a statewide reopening rather than a more nuanced approach based on the data. The initial outbreaks in Arizona were happening in Maricopa and Pima counties when our county had no positive cases, which is when the state went into shutdown. Now as their outbreaks are coming under control, ours numbers are climbing rapidly. But instead of lockdown we are following the state and nation in reopening.
There is no clear enforcement of the reopening guidelines that were set by Governor Ducey. This is leading people to relax in following CDC recommendations, as statewide reopening has given us a false sense of safety, possibly at the very worst time.