Surge of New Coronavirus Cases Slams US, AZ up 344% in One Month

A surge of new coronavirus cases is flooding the United States with fresh waves of pain ahead of Thanksgiving, and the CDC has issued new recommendations advising against traditional holiday celebrations. This, after a record-shattering single-day increase of 181,571 new SARS-CoV-2 infections was recorded nationwide on Nov. 13.

Here in Arizona, current coronavirus numbers are also rising steadily, concerning public health officials, endangering residents, and keeping many schools closed.

One might wonder, then, why a small horde of maskless people was allowed to enter a “masks required” Pima County administrative building and gather in its downtown Tucson lobby on Nov. 17?

Whatever the reason, the issue is one we’ll explore in-depth throughout this article: research shows us that masks work to prevent new coronavirus cases, but there are still sizeable gaps in public buy-in, and too many of us are still just… walking around with our gaps hanging out.

Why are we letting them getting away with it? And why do otherwise reasonable, intelligent people work so hard to justify resisting all they were ever taught about good science and good manners? Why do they feel the need to “get away with” anything besides their lives right now?

Because an inexpensive, non-invasive, life-saving medical device has been reduced to a political prop. We need to get over that.

‘MASKHOLES’ AND MISINFORMATION PERSIST AS PANDEMIC RAGES

The video below shows a group of maskless people standing together in the lobby of 130 W. Congress for an unknown purpose on Tuesday morning.

Though unconfirmed, the source who provided the video believes at least some in the group were there as part of the small, but vocal-on-Facebook “Recall Romero” movement, despite the fact that City Hall down the road would be the more appropriate location to baselessly pursue removal of the City’s top official. (According to the source: Tuesday wouldn’t be the first time the “Recall Romero” crew made this mistake.)

Those in the “movement” take issue with first-term Mayor Regina Romero’s diligent and science-backed coronavirus leadership, arguing restrictions have been too harsh for small business to survive.

There is direct overlap between the anti-mask “movement,” the local spread of misinformation, and efforts against the popular Democratic mayor. The tiny minority pushing for her recall and refusing to mask up out of spite (and in the name of their precious “freedom”) will accomplish nothing for all their noise, except, of course, needlessly putting other people at greater risk.

Despite rules in place that require masks be worn, a group of apparently anti-mask individuals was seen gathered inside the lobby of the Pima County administrative building in Tucson, AZ, on Nov. 17, 2020.

Another possibility is that the group’s presence was somehow related to a scheduled Board of Supervisors meeting. More important than who they are, or the reason for their visit, though: why were they allowed past security and into a Pima County building without masks? And if they were masked when they entered, why were they not immediately addressed for having removed their masks after clearing the access point?

Why were any County employees, County residents, or other visitors who may have been doing business in the building Tuesday morning placed at increased risk to accommodate this group, even as local cases climb toward numbers not seen since summer’s ravage?

We do recall summer, don’t we — July, specifically? — when Arizona saw its worst surge yet and was considered a top Covid-19 hotspot in all the world? It wasn’t so very long ago, and after a rapid and meaningful reversal of course seen through August and September, the numbers are once again trending the wrong way.

The County has continued to have staff report to work in person throughout the pandemic, and has seen multiple positive cases in employees over the months. The same week this video was shot, for example, three additional Pima County employees tested positive: one each day for three days in a row.

Statewide, Arizona recorded 3,270 new coronavirus cases on Nov. 18; for contrast, on Oct. 18, that number was just 737. That is a 344% rise in just one month. At the height of summer, we were topping 4,800 cases a day, a rate that was every bit as unsustainable then as it would be now. The messaging must be clear: this is an emergency.

Emergencies can and do get worse if they aren’t managed effectively, and the image below serves to illustrate how this fact is playing out across the US in real-time. The absence of federal leadership has been killing us for nearly a solid year, King Baby will not work with the transition team full of grown-ups who want nothing more than to help save our sorry asses, and now Americans of good conscience must accept that (beyond-the-bubble) Thanksgiving is cancelled.

(Search results from Nov. 19, 2020, Google.com. Data: New York Times.)

SERVICE WITH A SMILE… BEHIND PPE, OF COURSE

I spoke with a local Tucson HVAC technician, Adam, about the occupational hazards of working with mask-resistant clients as the coronavirus pandemic currently rages out of control. Old, cranky appliances don’t care that we’re having a pandemic… stuff breaks. How receptive are Arizonans to wearing masks in their homes during service calls in the age of Covid-19?

Adam explained the nuance and compromise involved when servicing Covid-deniers, anti-maskers, or those unsure what to believe (please: believe science). “I always wear my mask, but with some [clients], I have to present it to them as a ‘whether this virus is real or not, I go from house to house as part of my job, and it’s my responsibility to protect all of my clients’ sort of thing,” he said. “They seem to accept that.”

While he always wears his mask to enter client homes, what a given client chooses to do when he arrives is another matter. Adam estimates the number of clients who mask up for his visit compared to those who don’t are “right at fifty-fifty.”

Simple, cheap, effective: masks work to help reduce the spread of Covid-19. (Image:©2020 J.M. Waite.)

In his line of work, masks only offer so much protection and even less peace of mind. When you spend your days crawling around in attics and crawl spaces, taking apart the ventilation systems of peoples’ homes and becoming one with whatever organisms are floating around in the ductwork, whether or not the client is wearing a surgical mask for the few minutes you speak face-to-face becomes less of a crucial metric.

That is not the case when we’re all out among one another in public, however. Or in small, intimate groups indoors with people we know. Or walking into a medical complex for a doctor’s appointment. Masks work.

No, really, when we take the time to wear them correctly and consistently, masks literally WORK. It’s like an already-available vaccine for your FACE you can take every time you leave your house. (Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and a mask is not a vaccine. Ok then.) And at a national level, more of us need to be wearing them more consistently (and more correctly) than we currently are in order to slow the wildfire spread.

IT GOES OVER YOUR NOSE

As condoms are to pregnancy and STD’s, a mask seems to be to SARS-CoV-2 and other airborne and droplet viruses: imperfect, sure. Fallible, yes. User error possible? Of course.

Unlike with condoms, however, even among those who agree we must wear them, there is not yet a baseline minimum standard we’ve agreed on as a society. This means some folks mask up with medical grade coverings, while others are pulling on a neck gaitor and calling it good enough. (Heads up: it probably isn’t, but it’s likely better than nothing.)

For all the confusion and mixed messaging surrounding them, face masks are the best protection we can currently offer ourselves while still living life to some degree of normalcy and in accordance with necessity. Masks are no free pass, though, and should not be used to disregard other coronavirus safety guidelines. These guidelines are designed to be stacked and used together by all of us, all of the time; specific approaches will differ and that’s okay, but start stripping away biggies like “masks” and “physical distance,” and the whole house of cards will collapse.

With so much recent good news looking toward vaccine-filled horizons, the least we should do is give ourselves and each other (and our struggling healthcare system) a fighting chance to hold on until we can see them. Hope is a hell of a drug, but nothing about the pandemic is materially better or safer until those vials appear at all our local clinics, ready to become shots in our arms and antibodies in our blood.

Otherwise, what has this all been for?

Recent announcements by Pfizer and Moderna promise hope, but no quick fixes for coronavirus pandemic. We must get through the winter to feel the warmth of spring. (Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash)

If you’ve sensed over the past few weeks that doctors, scientists, and members of the media are, despite their exhaustion, growing even more manic in their pleas for cooperation than they were six months ago (when they were already pretty damn insistent), you’re absolutely correct. And there is good reason for renewed alarm.

New coronavirus cases are skyrocketing across the country, with many states reporting the worst posivitity rates they’ve seen in months — or, in some cases, at any time during the Covid-19 pandemic. The United States lost 1,923 Americans to a preventable virus yesterday. Over a quarter of a million have died in the past 10 months, more than losses from several other leading causes of death (such as car accidents and suicides) — combined.

Arizona’s curve was a straight line, rocketing upward toward doom and outer space before we finally got a handle on it as summer closed. What brought our numbers down, and did so quickly enough to avert complete collapse?

It can’t be emphasized enough: it wasn’t magical thinking… it wasn’t going about life “as normal” and hoping for the best… it was limiting our gatherings as individuals, and mostly? It was MASKS.

DOUG DUCEY IS USELESS

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey remains one of a handful of hold-out governors nationwide who still refuse to issue statewide mask mandates in their states, but numbers of new cases in the Grand Canyon state plummeted as soon as he freed mayors such as Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego to institute their own. Both mayors have this week renewed their calls on Gov. Ducey to issue a statewide mandate.

During a Nov. 18 press conference, Ducey again refused to do so, stating that “90%” of the state was already covered by local mask mandates such as those Mayor Romero and Mayor Gallego have imposed. This is disingenuous PR phrasing that implies 90% of Arizonans are following mask guidelines, when the reality, based on the current explosion of infections, is likely nowhere near that figure.

ABC15 Phoenix reporter Nicole Grigg shared the latest coronavirus figures for AZ via tweet on Nov. 19, 2020. They are approaching peak levels not seen here since July 2020. Gov. Ducey thinks this is Arizona doing a “good” job? (@NicoleSGrigg, Twitter.com)

“Arizonans have been good at following guidelines,” Ducey claimed, despite the latest stats suggesting anything but good results. Ducey went on to announce no new meaningful control measures despite these trends, while essentially blaming out-of-state “snowbirds,” who flock to Arizona each winter, for our current rise in cases. This, despite it being unclear if they’ve even really landed yet, how much infection they may have carried here on their “wings” as opposed to our own existing community spread following Halloween and Election Day, or how any of it explains our not-so-distant summer surge, if Arizonans are so “good” at all this.

Let’s be real: like most places in America right now, some Arizonans are good at this. They’re great, in fact, and doing everything they can in terms of personal responsibility. They’ve done it willingly since March.

And others are jeopardizing ALL of our collective progress with every trip to the store, because a conman convinced them “STRENGTH” is spelled “S-E-L-F-I-S-H.” (I’m editorializing, but the data backs the heartbreaking, maddening, petty absurdity of it: across America, the issue of taking the virus seriously is split down very specific, sadly predictable lines, according to Pew Research.)

Since federal leadership is absent until after the New Year, sure would be nice if there was someone in Arizona whose job it was — hey, we could pay this person! With tax dollars, even! — to govern our state under a unified, science-based plan of attack against a fucking microscopic VIRUS that is currently outsmarting us to death, killing off small business, and pitting citizen against citizen against local government.

SIDELINED STUDENTS STILL PAYING THE PRICE

Of all those hurt by the consistently inconsistent (or blatantly misleading) government messaging, and general failure of so many once-reliable systems, students of all ages are especially feeling the pain of this extended public health crisis.

School districts in Arizona have made a variety of choices regarding education in 2020. Some have remained remote-only since first shuttering in March, some opened doors in the fall only to quickly close them again, and some have partially reopened and stayed open, employing an optional hybrid-model that includes both virtual learning and traditional classroom time.

In-person instruction and social time with peers is a tantalizing prospect for students who have been cooped up for months, and for their increasingly desperate parents. While many families have chosen the exclusively virtual route for now, it’s easy to see how the hybrid districts are getting takers.

While Tucson Unified School District has opted for the more conservative approach of staying at home at least through January, bordering Marana Unified School District is one such hybrid-model district. Admirable ambitions, hearts in the right places, certainly… but how’s it going?

On Nov. 17, a new robocall informed MUSD parents of six new Covid-19 cases at Marana High School: four students and two staff had tested positive in the time since the last robocall went out to announce the then-most recently discovered case at the school… that call had come the day before, on Nov. 16.

MHS robocall: Marana Unified School District

On Nov. 18, Marana High parents received yet another call, confirming yet another case.

The frequency of these robocalls has picked up over the past two weeks. Given that health officials in the state have referred to the past month as a period of “accelerated transmission,” this should perhaps come as no surprise. And it should be noted, the first one actually came the week before the kids even returned; a staff member had already caught the virus.

MHS only welcomed students back a month ago on Oct. 19, and six new cases identified overnight is nothing to sneeze at — pun intended. Each new robocall that rings through seems to beg the question: is attending school in-person really worth this risk until we have a vaccine? (That answer depends heavily on the sanctity one places on even a single human life, and on many other less drastic, but still weighty factors. The answer will be understandably different depending on individual circumstances, and it’s a valid debate.)

Consider that the impact of each new case typically extends beyond the Covid-positive student or staff member identified; in reality, each positive test result represents not only potential additional active cases, but anywhere from a handful to dozens of exposures.

Each of these “exposures” may have families who will all be expected to quarantine and behave as though they have the virus, even if they feel fine… but will they? Will they stay home? Who follows up to make sure? And who is paying these parents to stay out of work through one, two, multiple exposure notifications?

Because unfortunately, absolutely nothing prevents the following scenario: one 15-minute exposure to a known case, keeping an entire family (supposedly, hopefully) at home isolating for two weeks. That student (or a sibling) then returns to school to encounter another exposure, and the whole family has to start the process over again.

And all that is assuming the student doesn’t become sick or infect their family following the exposure in the first place. These are the stakes for education in 2020, and they are weighing heavily on students, parents and educators alike, though all from different (and often multiple, simultaneous) perspectives.

Though schools are quick to point out many infections are occuring off school property, which is encouraging, wherever adolescents gather, there will undoubtedly be some level of risk-taking behavior. One MHS student, C., who opted out of the hybrid-model to continue virtual learning, reported how this aspect is playing out, mid-pandemic.

“I’ve seen videos of people in my school still passing around vape pens in the bathroom, still sharing them… they think it’s funny.” C. continued, “It isn’t that they don’t care. I asked one of my friends why they would think that was safe, and the thinking isn’t really that it’s safe. It’s more, ‘I’m with these people all day anyway, so what’s the difference?’ But the difference is huge, you’re sharing saliva.”

MIXED MESSAGES

To close out this look at the week’s Covid-19 news, and after discussing both government and citizen roles in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, we turn our lens briefly to local media accountability in messaging.

On Nov. 16, KOLD News 13 reporter Brooke Wagner released an interview with Pima County Sheriff-Elect Chris Nanos. The interview with Nanos was conducted virtually, as has become standard practice for getting news out fast while observing coronavirus safety recommendations.

Hopefully less standard practice these days: Wagner ran the interview from a desk in the KOLD newsroom, with another staffer present, and neither were wearing masks.

Tucson reporter Brook Wagner was seen socially distanced, but not wearing a mask while conducting a virtual interview in the KOLD newsroom. (Screen-grab: KOLD.com)

In the screen-grab above, Wagner and an unidentified woman can be seen, maskless, in a casual office setting; a harmless scene, in another life… say, that one from way back a thousand years ago, this past January? But in November 2020, it just looks… scary. Though the two women appear to be socially distanced, and other precautions not obvious from this footage could absolutely be in place to minimize risk, it still sends a rather dangerous message to viewers in the community.

The footage could make it appear that it’s safe to resume business as usual, even as Wagner was herself conducting the interview remotely. It evokes a similar feeling as the near-constant and almost always infuriating sight of public officials removing their masks to speak at a podium in a room where others are present… just, why? No. Please no. Why, and no.

If people are wrapped up in looking for their own personal “out,” they’re not always going to also look for the nuance in every situation; they’re going to focus on the ways the exceptions should apply to them, too. It’s human nature to some degree, and poor impulse control to another, but it’s a fact at any rate. We’re all tired, but messaging still matters, and so do masks. (Really!)

SIGN OFF

Stay safe, stay home, save lives.

Love your neighbor enough.

Feeling generous? Visit Feeding America to help those currently struggling through unprecedented levels of hunger and unemployment due to the scope of this national emergency and its unforgivable mismanagement.

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J. M. Waite

J. M. Waite

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Reader, writer, sayer of things. Having covered everything from the prison industry to red carpets in Hollywood, lately I mostly groan on Twitter-and now, here.