AZ public health leaders prepared to battle coronavirus, Ducey says

PHOENIX – Arizona health officials have the go-ahead to test at the state level for coronavirus cases and are awaiting test results for a second potential case of COVID-19, a novel disease that has sickened nearly 89,000 worldwide and killed six in the U.S., public health officials said Monday.

“We are taking precautions to protect public health,” Gov. Doug Ducey said at a news conference. He added that Arizona public health officials have extensive experiences handling outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as the H1N1 flu, Ebola and measles.

Increased testing for coronavirus – Arizona officials can check up to 450 samples daily – could reveal more diagnoses, according to Dr. Cara Christ, who heads the Arizona Department of Health Services. But that is to be expected, she cautioned, and doesn’t necessarily mean coronavirus is worsening. Also, she said, several samples can come from one person.

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In response to a question about preparation, 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 build 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.

Ducey said Vice President Mike Pence, who oversees the U.S. response to the potential pandemic, gave the nation’s governors an overview in a meeting Monday.

Arizona has had one confirmed case of COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory illness that began in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to parts of the West Pacific, Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the U.S., according to the World Health Organization. As of Monday, the U.S. had 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the WHO website, with other government officials reporting six deaths.

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The Arizona case was someone connected to Arizona State University who had recently returned from China. That person, who did not live on campus, has since recovered, Christ said.

ASU halted its study-abroad programs in China in response to the outbreak, which began in late December.

Until recently, all samples for coronavirus had to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control for testing. Arizona is one of about a dozen states and cities that have been granted permission to do their own testing.

The Arizona Department of Health Services previously sent 26 potential cases to federal health officials for tests. One sample tested positive, 24 were cleared and one is waiting on lab results.

The spread of COVID-19 has led to the U.S. setting 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.

Some members of the Asian community have reported discrimination by people who misunderstand the illness and disease.

At the news conference, Ducey said he has not heard of such situations but added that public officials want to be sure people who have concerns about COVID-19 “have the facts and can go on living their lives.”

Top video by Madison Atkinson/Cronkite News

Money Reporter, Phoenix