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'We are in a very dangerous place': White House reports Arizona still in COVID 'red zone'

Post-Thanksgiving cases could put hospitals over the edge, federal task force warns

The White House Coronavirus Task Force warned governors in private reports this week that “the COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high” and said virus-mitigation efforts in many states are still not strong enough.

“We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID baseline and limited hospital capacity,” the new reports, dated Nov. 29, read. “A further post-Thanksgiving surge will compromise COVID patient care, as well as medical care overall.”

The task force also issued some of its strongest warnings yet to individual Americans, even though the reports to governors are not made public. It said anyone over age 65 should not enter indoor public spaces with unmasked people and should have groceries and medications delivered. It also said that people under 40 who gathered with others outside their households for Thanksgiving should assume they became infected, isolate themselves and be tested immediately.

“You are dangerous to others,” the task force said.

Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia were in the red zone for new cases in this week’s report — one fewer than the week prior — meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents. But 39 states were in the White House’s red zone for deaths — three more than the prior week — meaning they had more than two new deaths per 100,000 residents. North and South Dakota again led the nation in both cases and deaths per capita.

Arizona appeared on the red zone lists for all three factors: number of cases, test positivity, and COVID-19 deaths. The state has now been included in the White House's red zone report for four straight weeks.

Tuesday, as more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases were reported in Arizona, the Tucson City Council voted to impose a nightly curfew to slow the outbreak. The 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew begins Friday night, and includes a slew of exceptions.

The measure was approved unanimously by the all-Democratic Council at a special meeting Tuesday. Violators will be subject to a civil fine of $300.

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"People are safer at home," said Mayor Regina Romero. "The governor has said that, public health experts have said that."

More than 10,000 new coronavirus cases in Arizona were reported Tuesday by state officials, and another 3,840 confirmed infected people were added to the count Wednesday morning. More than 6,700 people have died from the disease in Arizona, with more than 41,000 total infections in Pima County and nearly 700 dead from COVID-19 here. Nearly 1,000 new cases were added to Pima's total on Tuesday, and another 510 on Wednesday.

52 new deaths were added to Arizona's count on Wednesday.

Statewide there have been at least 340,979 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 822 new infections Monday and an additional 10,322 new cases reported Tuesday as data was processed after the long holiday weekend, according to the daily report from the Arizona Department of Public Health Services. Those figures were added to Wednesday, with another 3,840 new cases confirmed. More than 6,600 Arizonans have died from the disease. More than 34,000 new infections have been reported over the past week, including 944 in Pima County just on Tuesday and more than 500 on Wednesday. Arizona has been in the coronavirus "red zone" for weeks, according to the secret White House task force reports that have been leaked to the press.

Last week, that White House report, which was provided to Gov. Doug Ducey but not released to the public by state officials, declared that "Arizona is in full resurgence and must increase mitigation back to the summer interventions. Hospitalizations are rising rapidly and Arizona must mitigate to flatten the curve."

“In many areas of the USA, state mitigation efforts remain inadequate, resulting in sustained transmission,” the task force said. “All states and counties must flatten the curve now.”

A group of University of Arizona experts said that the numbers of COVID-19 infections here will "likely exceed twice the prior (summer) peak in the next two weeks," putting local hospitals into a crisis.

"Stricter measures are our only path" to slowing the spread of the deadly virus, Judy Rich, president of Tucson Medical Center, told the Council on Tuesday. "If we don't take actions today, the crisis will grow, and result in unnecessary illness and deaths."

The White House has said it does not share the reports publicly because it wants states to lead the pandemic response. The Center for Public Integrity is collecting and publishing the documents. Last week it exclusively obtained the 50-state version of the Nov. 22 reports, revealing that the White House was taking tough stances with many states that refuse to share their reports, including Indiana and South Dakota.

“Improved public observance of social distancing measures is urgently needed to limit overrunning of hospital capacity,” the White House told officials in Indiana. “The Governor’s active engagement and support of mitigation measures are critical.”

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Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey has repeatedly signaled he doesn't intend to impose any additional restrictions as the pandemic again spikes in the state. He has dodged questions about what level of new infections and deaths would prompt him to take measures such as returning to the modest "stay at home" order he announced earlier this year when the COVID-19 outbreak here was at lower levels.

Ducey is scheduled to hold a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday afternoon — his second in a week after a long period of not holding public briefings on the outbreak.

The White House reports this week again urged states to do more rapid testing. The task force also urged seniors to get tested immediately if they gathered with others for Thanksgiving and start experiencing symptoms: “If you are over 65 or have significant medical conditions and you gathered outside of your immediate household, you are at a significant risk for serious COVID infection; if you develop any symptoms, you must be tested immediately as the majority of therapeutics work best early in infection,” the reports read.

"I know this may cause hardship for some businesses in our community," Romero said of the Tucson curfew. "More support will be needed, and I urge both Gov. Ducey and Congress to act as soon as possible to provide additional economic relief."

"We've waited and waited and waited for the governor, and despite a huge surge we have not seen any meaningful action from Gov. Ducey," Romero said, noting that Ducey declined to speak with her about the move, and that he has refused her phone calls since March.

Last week, Pima County officials declared a voluntary nightly curfew at 10 p.m., but Ducey has blocked counties from instituting mandatory curfew measures.

The Board of Supervisors is set to meet Friday to discuss the possibility of instituting a county-wide mandatory curfew in the face of Ducey's orders.

The states in the red zone for cases in this week’s report (meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents in the week prior):

  1. North Dakota
  2. South Dakota
  3. Wyoming
  4. New Mexico
  5. Minnesota
  6. Iowa
  7. Nebraska
  8. Indiana
  9. Kansas
  10. Montana
  11. Utah 
  12. Wisconsin
  13. Alaska
  14. Colorado
  15. Rhode Island
  16. Illinois
  17. Ohio
  18. Nevada
  19. Oklahoma
  20. Michigan
  21. Idaho
  22. Missouri
  23. Kentucky
  24. Arkansas
  25. Pennsylvania
  26. Arizona
  27. Tennessee
  28. West Virginia
  29. Delaware
  30. New Jersey
  31. Connecticut
  32. Louisiana
  33. Mississippi
  34. Massachusetts
  35. Maryland
  36. Florida
  37. Washington
  38. Texas
  39. California
  40. North Carolina
  41. New York
  42. Alabama
  43. Oregon
  44. Virginia
  45. South Carolina
  46. New Hampshire
  47. District of Columbia
  48. Georgia

The states in the red zone for test positivity in this week’s report (meaning more than 10 percent of tests in the state were positive in the week prior):

  1. Idaho
  2. Montana
  3. Kansas
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Missouri
  6. Utah
  7. Iowa
  8. Nebraska
  9. Nevada
  10. Indiana
  11. New Mexico
  12. South Dakota
  13. Ohio
  14. Wyoming
  15. Michigan
  16. Kentucky
  17. Tennessee
  18. North Dakota
  19. Alabama
  20. Mississippi
  21. Illinois
  22. Minnesota
  23. Wisconsin
  24. Pennsylvania
  25. Arizona
  26. Colorado
  27. Texas

The states in the red zone for deaths (meaning they had more than more than two new deaths per 100,000 residents in the week prior):

  1.  South Dakota
  2. North Dakota
  3. New Mexico
  4. Montana
  5. Wyoming
  6. Iowa
  7. Michigan
  8. Minnesota
  9. Indiana
  10. Illinois
  11. Wisconsin
  12. Nebraska
  13. Rhode Island
  14. Tennessee
  15. Missouri
  16. Mississippi
  17. Pennsylvania
  18. Kansas
  19. Colorado
  20. West Virginia
  21. Arkansas
  22. Connecticut
  23. Idaho
  24. Nevada
  25. Louisiana
  26. Ohio
  27. Texas
  28. Maryland
  29. New Jersey
  30. Oklahoma
  31. Alabama
  32. Alaska
  33. Kentucky
  34. Massachusetts
  35. Utah
  36. Florida
  37. South Carolina
  38. Arizona
  39. North Carolina

The secret White House Coronavirus Task Force report sent last week to Ducey advised that all universities in the state should mandate weekly COVID-19 testing for all students, whether they live on campus or not, when they return to class after winter break. "Planning for that must being now," the administration report said.

The "silent community spread" from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic infected individuals must be combated with a giant testing effort and "significant behavior change of all Americans," the White House task force said last week.

In addition to ensuring masks at all times in public, Arizona must "increase physical distancing through significant reduction in capacity in public and private indoor spaces, and ensure every American understands the clear risks of ANY family or friend interactions outside of their immediate household indoors without masks," the White House report said. "Public spaces where masking is not possible must have a significant reduction in capacity or close."

The outbreak in Arizona is "not going to crash under its own weight," said Dr. Joe Gerald, the team leader of the University of Arizona modeling group that has been making recommendations based on examining COVID-19 data in the state. "If we do nothing, there are enough susceptible Arizonans" for the pandemic to continue "for many, many weeks after Christmas."

"Nature will literally take its course, with orders of magnitude more cases, more hospitalizations, more deaths," the analyst said.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed Arizona reporting to this story.


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