ASU COVID-19 team says cases will double to 80K in a month

By: - June 17, 2020 2:02 pm
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Based on current trends, researchers at Arizona State University expect Arizona’s total number of COVID-19 cases to double by mid-July, if not sooner.

According to an update that ASU’s COVID modeling team released on Wednesday, Arizona will hit 80,000 cases sometime between late June and July 15. Dr. Joshua LaBaer, the executive director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute, which has closely tracked data related to the COVID-19 pandemic in Arizona, said the modeling team is now expecting the later date to be the most accurate.

Arizona has seen a pronounced spike in new COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks, with total cases nearing 41,000 on Wednesday and the two highest number of new cases reported in one day being notched in the past two days. While Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services have attributed that to increased testing, including a heavily promoted “testing blitz,” LaBaer said there’s clearly more to that trend than more testing.

“It is certainly true that the more testing you do, the more cases you’re going to see. But, obviously, the number of cases we’re seeing is going up faster than just that,” LaBaer told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday. “The new cases we’re seeing is a reflection of increased transmission of the virus and more spread of the disease to the community.”

The modeling team also noted in its report that Arizona may be undercounting COVID infections because of “a relatively low rate of testing statewide.” Arizona ranks 42nd out of the 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, in per-capita testing, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Ducey imposed a stay-at-home order on the state in March. He loosened it in mid-May, allowing restaurants to begin to re-open their dining rooms, then allowed it to expire entirely on May 30, saying Arizona had met federal criteria for the first phase of reopening. 

The modeling team disagreed, writing in its report that Arizona hadn’t met U.S. Centers for Disease Control criteria when Ducey lifted the restrictions, and that Ducey’s administration failed to develop a comprehensive plan for adequate testing or measures that would slow the spread of the virus.

As of June 10, the state still did not have a plan for additional “non-pharmaceutical intervention,” of NPIs, such as social distancing, masks, school closures or stay-at-home orders, “despite strong evidence of increased community transmission.”

The modeling team also estimated that, without additional non-pharmaceutical intervention, the state is likely to exceed hospital care capacity.

However, LaBaer said he isn’t yet convinced that the state is at imminent risk of running out of hospital space. He noted that the modeling team’s work shows that potentially happening in late July, but he doesn’t believe Arizona will hit that threshold. And if it does, he said it’s unlikely to happen so soon.

“Obviously, if we continue for many months at this increased rate, yes, that’s going to happen. I personally don’t think we have enough evidence right now to say that that’s imminent,” LaBaer said. “If our trends continue to accelerate, we have to reexamine that. But right now, there are still beds available. There are still ICU beds available.”

Ducey has repeatedly emphasized that Arizona has enough hospital capacity, including in-patient beds, intensive care unit beds and ventilators, to handle increased COVID-19 cases. The chief clinical officer at Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital network, warned on June 5 that the network was running out of ICU beds, and doctors at other hospitals, such as University Medical Center in Tucson, have sounded similar warnings since then.

The Health System Alliance of Arizona, which represents Abrazo, Banner Health, Carondelet Health Services, Dignity Health, HonorHealth and Northern Arizona Healthcare, issued a statement last week saying their hospitals, which account for about 80 percent of the state’s capacity, are well equipped to handle any increase. 

According to data that ADHS makes available on its website, 85% of the state’s in-patient beds and 83% of ICU beds were filled on Wednesday. An executive order Ducey issued in late April allowing hospitals to resume elective procedures required them to have no more than 80 percent of their capacity filled. 

ADHS does not release capacity data on individual hospitals or hospital systems.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”