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Tucson book festival called off over coronavirus fears

30 percent of authors pulled out before cancellation decision, organizers said

The Tucson Festival of Books, set for this weekend, has been called off over coronavirus fears after more than 100 authors canceled their participation.

The annual event draws tens of thousands of people daily to the campus of the University of Arizona, with visitors from around the world taking part — including high-profile authors. About 30 percent of those scheduled to appear had already dropped out of the festival before the organizers decided they had no choice but to call off the event.

Although no cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in Pima County, many of the authors who pulled out of this year's event cited the virus. Local health officials said earlier that they had not recommended calling of the event.

Because of the number of authors dropping out, the earlier cancellation of "hands-on" activities and the inability to forecast whether all of the necessary volunteers will show up, "we are unable to provide a quality festival," organizers said Monday. More than 340 authors had been scheduled to take part in the March 14-15 event.

"We realize that this change in course is significant for the Tucson community, our financial supporters, exhibitors, food vendors and other partners," organizers said. "We appreciate everyone's patience and understanding as we work with stakeholders over the next few weeks on sorting through the ramifications of this difficult decision."

"We know the Festival of Books brings much joy to many in our community as well as visitors from around the country," they said in announcing the cancellation.

The number of writers dropping out "deeply affected our author panel schedule and we anticipate more changes and cancellations will be forthcoming. This leaves us with little or no way to plan for author panels or to communicate effectively with the public about those changes," festival organizers said.

During a Monday morning press conference on the local response to the virus, Pima County officials said that they hadn't recommended canceling the book festival because of any "public health concern."

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Dr. Francisco Garcia, chief medical officer, said the county had recommended that "medically frail" people should avoid large gatherings, and that the county was set to provide the festival with hand-sanitizer and hand-washing stations.

The Arizona State Museum, which is located at the end of the UA Mall, has also called off its public events this weekend amid coronovirus concerns. The museum had scheduled a number of activities to coincide with the books festival, including an open house, used book sale, and a cultural crafts event.

No cases in Pima County

Friday, Pima County officials said that no tests here have been positive for the coronavirus, pushing back against rumors that a patient here has been diagnosed.

Local health department officials encouraged residents to "be alert, but not anxious," while acknowledging that a coronavirus case is likely to occur in Pima County.

As of Monday morning, 56 people in Arizona have been tested for COVID-19 — the novel coronavirus that was first diagnosed in people late last year — with the two confirmed positive cases and three "presumptive positive" cases the only ones in the state. Another 7 tests were pending results, and 44 people have been ruled out, officials said.

The virus has caused the deaths of at least 21 people in the United States, with more than 500 people diagnosed as having the virus. There have been more than 3,000 deaths worldwide.

3 cases in Pinal County

Three Pinal County residents were announced as having been "presumptively" diagnosed with coronavirus on Friday and Saturday.

The two new cases disclosed Saturday are residents of the same Pinal home as the Arizona resident who was "presumptively" diagnosed with COVID-19 — a woman who has been hospitalized.

Health officials did not release many details about the additional patients in the state. The woman whose illness was disclosed Friday is a healthcare worker and a resident of Pinal County. She is being treated in a Phoenix-area hospital. The woman, who works in Maricopa County, has not had any contact with any confirmed coronavirus cases, officials said.

A second Arizona resident was "presumptively" diagnosed earlier last week. Those cases have been sent to the federal Centers for Disease Control for confirmation, health officials said. That case is a 20-year-old Maricopa County man who was "not hospitalized and is recovering at home," officials said Tuesday.

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No positive coronavirus tests in Pima County

Friday, Pima County officials said that while there have been some patients tested here, there have not been any confirmed or presumptive positive COVID-19 tests here.

"There is no current positive test for coronavirus in Pima County," chief county spokesman Mark Evans said flatly, pushing back at rumors circulating that a patient at a Tucson hospital has been diagnosed.

Saying he had confirmed his information with county Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia and Dr. Bob England, interim director of the Pima County Health Department, Evans said that there have been no presumptive positive tests here, either.

Tests done at the state level are being confirmed with another test by the CDC if they are presumptively positive, officials have said.

'Be alert, not anxious' & 'Stay home if you're sick'

Pima County officials downplayed any thought of closing schools and calling off events here.

"There have been calls by some in our community to close schools, shutter businesses, or cancel events because of the mere threat of the virus coming to Pima County, not just when (and it's likely going to be when, not if) there is a confirmed case here," said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry in a memo of the Board of Supervisors. "Doing so will only cause severe economic and social disruption beyond what we will already experience and will have little to no effect on containing the spread of this virus."

"We do not close schools due to the flu, and we are going through a pretty bad flu season currently, and we should not close schools and the like for COVID-19," he said.

Huckelberry said the county is "prepared for changes as the situation evolves."

Seven regional health providers joined Pima County in issuing a joint statement late Friday afternoon, urging a measured public response to the coronavirus.

'One of the worst things we can do is over-react.'

"Though the virus is quite contagious, the vast majority of infections are mild – sometimes asymptomatic – and not typically lethal (deadly). COVID-19 is most dangerous for many of the same people who are most at risk for the flu: older adults and those with chronic disease," said the statement, which was backed by Tucson Medical Center, Carondelet Health Network, University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, Arizona Community Physicians, El Rio Health, Marana Health Center and Desert Senita Community Health Center.

The health care providers supported the county's position on closing schools and calling off events.

"One of the worst things we can do is over-react," Pima County's Dr. England said in a video update posted on Facebook. "COVID- 19, once it's widespread, will feel to all of us something like a bad flu season."

"It's really contagious, it'll spread among us, but only certain people are most likely to get into severe trouble from it," he said. "Same as with the flu: older adults, people with chronic heart and lung disease, people with diabetes, are the most at risk."

"The best thing we can do to protect the most vulnerable is to do the things we all know already to slow down the spread of that virus: Wash your hands frequently, keep your hands away from your face, avoid sick people if you can," he said.

"And stay home if you're sick," he emphasized. "Please don't go to work and don't send your kids to school if you're sick."

"The COVID-19 outbreak is rapidly evolving and based on events in other states, we expect additional cases and community spread in Arizona," Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said in a news release Friday.

"Keeping Arizonans safe and healthy is our number-one priority and we are confident the public health system in Arizona is well prepared to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak," Christ said.

The first case of coronavirus in Arizona was determined in late January. That patient, described by officials as a "member of the Arizona State University community," has recovered and is no longer infected with the disease.

COVID-19 is believed to spread mostly through respiratory droplets produced when a sick person coughs or sneezes. Signs and symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The best way to prevent COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases is to:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently-touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water is not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Increased testing for coronavirus – Arizona officials can now check up to 450 samples daily – could reveal more diagnoses, Christ said Monday. But that is to be expected, she cautioned, and doesn’t necessarily mean coronavirus is worsening. Also, several samples can come from one person.

In response to a question about preparation on Monday, Christ and Ducey said they are not stockpiling food or water. Christ also advised against buying masks but urged people to take safety precautions by washing hands for at least 20 seconds, coughing into tissues and staying home from work or school if sick. The elderly and people with medical conditions are most at risk from the respiratory disease, with symptoms that mimic influenza and are spread person-to-person.

Still, she said, the fact the disease is spreading beyond those who had been exposed during travel to high-risk areas, particularly China, shows the need to remain alert. Arizona public health officials are working with K-12 schools, universities, health facilities and others to protect the public.

Christ urged businesses to create backup plans, such as coming up with an alternate list of suppliers and determining how they will operate with a reduced workforce or without key employees.

Officials understand that reports of the disease soaring across the globe “can cause fear and anxiety about how we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe,” said Christ, who has three children.

The spread of COVID-19 has led to the U.S. instituting travel bans, advisories and new policies for entry into the country and international travel. The U.S. has banned entry into the U.S. by foreign nationals who have traveled to China or Iran, and travel advisories have been issued for parts of Italy and South Korea.

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Pima County

The 2012 book festival on the UA Mall.

Full statement calling off 2020 Tucson Festival of Books

It is with great sadness that the Board of Directors of the Tucson Festival of Books has chosen to cancel the 2020 Tucson Festival of Books. We know the Festival of Books brings much joy to many in our community as well as visitors from around the country. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a situation this year where we are unable to provide a quality festival for several reasons:

Amid concerns over the CoronaVirus (COVID-19) we have experienced more than 100 author cancellations; authors have expressed deep regret that they will not be able to spend the weekend with us. This has deeply affected our author panel schedule and we anticipate more changes and cancellations will be forthcoming. This leaves us with little or no way to plan for author panels or to communicate effectively with the public about those changes.

Over the weekend, our board initially made the decision to make the 2020 festival a "touch free" festival, meaning that authors would not be shaking hands/hugging or taking selfies with festival goers. As a result, we had to cancel the interactive, hands-on activities and tours in Science City, and modify many activities in the children's area, again diminishing the festival experience.

There is also no reliable manner to gauge our level of volunteerism given the public concerns over COVID-19. The festival is reliant on these volunteers to provide logistical support and combined with the author cancellations this will become very difficult to manage.

We realize that this change in course is significant for the Tucson community, our financial supporters, exhibitors, food vendors and other partners. We appreciate everyone's patience and understanding as we work with stakeholders over the next few weeks on sorting through the ramifications of this difficult decision. The Tucson Festival of Books looks forward to announcing the date for the 2021 festival. We will continue to support literacy in Southern Arizona in the years to come and have donated $2 million to date. We thank the public, our supporters, and our volunteers for their understanding and cooperation during this unprecedented situation and for their commitment to supporting literacy.