By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona's COVID-19 infection rate is creeping back up again, with one organization predicting a escalating increase in deaths beginning next month if the state imposes no new restrictions.
But don't look for Gov. Doug Ducey to do that.
New figures from Rt live, an organization that tracks cases on a state-by-state basis, show the effective "reproduction rate'' of the virus here is at 1.12, its highest point since early June.
That figure is how many new cases will result from each person who is infected. The higher the number in positive territory, the faster the virus will spread.
Arizona actually dropped into negative numbers in June after Ducey reversed course and reimposed some of the restrictions he had allowed to expire the month before.
It isn't just this data that reflects an upward trend in infections.
The state Department of Health Services is reporting an upswing in the past month in the number of patients in intensive-care units of Arizona hospitals who have with COVID-like symptoms.
And the outlook unless something changes is not good.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that the number of daily deaths, which has been on a declining trend since the beginning of August, is likely to start rising again by the end of the month based on current projections. But IHME contends that could be sharply tempered if the state were to impose a universal requirement for people to wear masks.
By Christmas, for example, the report says Arizona will have an average of more than 31 deaths a day using current practices. But a statewide requirement for everyone to wear a mask, it says, would cut that to fewer than 15.
Ducey, however, has refused to issue such an order. In fact, until the middle of June he actually forbade local governments from imposing their own mask mandates.
Gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said no one should be alarmed by the figures.
"We've been clear that as schools resume and businesses begin operations again, we should expect a rise in cases,'' he said. And Ptak pointed out that it's not just Arizona where the virus is experiencing a resurgence.
Steve Elliott, spokesman for the Department of Health Services, acknowledged that the "dashboard'' of issues his agency monitors, things like cases, deaths and hospital admissions, "has shown an uptick in statewide cases in recent weeks.''
"It serves as an important reminder that COVID-19 remains active in communities,'' Elliott said. "And that this is no time to let our guard down.''
But Ptak said the Ducey administration sees no reason to look at new or renewed restrictions.
He said Arizona is in a much better situation now, with businesses like restaurants that were allowed to reopen now operating at reduced capacity and customers required to wear face masks. Ptak said large gatherings remain prohibited, though that does not apply to political rallies.
And the governor himself has said repeatedly he won't reimpose any restrictions even if the infection rate goes up.
"Arizona's economy is open, Arizona's educational institutions are open, Arizona's tourism institutions are open,'' he said three weeks ago. "The expectation is they are going to remain open.''
As to that rising reproductive rate for the virus, commonly referred to as "R-naught,'' Elliott said his agency does monitor that statistic. But the decisions being made by the health department are not tied to it, saying that the modeling used by Rt Live is "sensitive to days with high reports of cases or low lab numbers'' and "may not provide the full picture when comparing to all data.''
"Our response will be based on an uptick in the metrics on our dashboard,'' Elliott said, which measures things like new cases, daily deaths and hospital admissions.
But how important those reproduction rate numbers are to the Ducey administration appears to be based on whether they tell the story the governor and his staff want to convey.
On Sept. 1, for example, Ptak tweeted out "BREAKING: Arizona's r-naught has dropped to being the lowest in the nation again at 0.81.''
Now Arizona has the 16th highest reproductive rate in the country.
The change in Ducey's staff publicizing the rising rate did not escape Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. He said the governor wants to use those numbers for PR purposes only when they are low.
"And then it's like CIA data when it's 1.2,'' said Humble, a former state health director.
He said the Rt number isn't the only thing that matters. Humble said health officials need to look at things like the percent of tests coming back positive, hospitalizations and even the number of visits to emergency rooms of people with COVID-like symptoms.
He said monitoring hospital capacity, as does the health department, simply "shows you where you are.''
"But the Rt can forecast what might be happening in terms of hospitalizations in the coming days and weeks,'' Humble said.
That leaves the IHME projections of future deaths,which neither Ptak nor Elliott addressed, which show there would be a marked difference in mortality if Ducey were to impose a mask mandate. Humble said reports like those are crucial as public officials make policy decisions.
"Is saving lives the most important thing or is economic activity, and how do you balance the two?'' he asked.