“Cautiously Optimistic”: Arizona’s top health official talks state’s current COVID-19 condition

Cara Christ interview

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - As cases top 185,000, the health official leading the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the coroanvirus said Arizonans are doing a great job at practicing social distancing, mask wearing and staying home if they are sick.

But, it’s going to take more of that to get us back to wherever our ‘new normal’ is.

“We are seeing improvements. So we are cautiously optimistic we are heading in the right direction,” said Dr. Cara Christ.

The Director of the Arizona Department of Health Services said, for a start, the slow down of a community spread will lead to students safely returning to schools.

“Really, we need people to go get tested, even if they are asymptomatic so we know what the community spread is,” said Dr. Christ.

Officials released guidelines Thursday, August 6 for school leaders to consider in safely reopening buildings for in-person learning. For initial reopening, the state health department recommends leaders follow these three county-specific metrics for determining when to welcome students back.

1. Decline in cases or less than 100 cases per 100,000 individuals for two consecutive weeks

2. Two consecutive weeks with percent positivity below 7%.

3. Two consecutive weeks with hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses below 10%

The ADHS recommends county-specific public health benchmarks fall within the moderate or minimal spread category in all three benchmarks for two weeks in order to provide hybrid learning, which would be some students in physical buildings and some students distance learning. It is not a requirement.

“We’ve heard a lot of positives,” said Dr. Christ. “They were really pleased that we did set thresholds with the metrics.”

According to an Executive Order issued by Governor Doug Ducey on July 23, school districts and charter schools must still offer free, on-site learning opportunities and support services for students who need a place to go during the day on August 17.

“Whenever we bring groups back together, we will see increased infections, just because that’s how the virus is transmitted, is person to person,” said Dr. Christ.

Is that risk, at some point, worth the reward? Dr. Christ said it’s important to get kids back in the classroom because of all the services schools provide. Arizona Superintendent Kathy Hoffman continues to echo that importance.

“The best place for kids to be learning is in the classroom,” said Hoffman. “We are going to see a continued setback for our state as long as we are in this distance learning mode, which is why it’s so important that our communities rally behind these metrics so we can safely reopen our schools.”

When it comes to reopening businesses currently ordered closed, like bars, nightclubs and gyms, there does not sound to be as much urgency. Dr. Christ said the state is not ready for that move based on data that they are set to review every two weeks.

“Right now, I think, even as you look at the school’s data, we are not in a place where we can return to in-person activities like that,” said Dr. Christ. “But, as we get more into where the schools in a moderate phase and there are hybrids, we certainly can look at reopening those types of businesses.”

Sitting next to a business-minded boss, Dr. Christ has been caught in the crossfire during the coronavirus pandemic. When asked how she was doing, Dr. Christ responded with a smile, laugh and said “doing pretty good... I’ve got a great team.”

The smile and support are shadowed by calls for her resignation. Nearly 200 healthcare professionals signed onto a petition requesting her resignation. The petition stated those who signed lost confidence in her leadership.

“I don’t have a lot of time for stuff that’s not related to the pandemic,” said Dr. Christ. “I have a great team here, they are very supportive, the governor’s very supportive. If he ever asked me to step down, of course I would do so.”

KOLD News 13 received the following statement from Gov. Ducey on the reports of a resignation request:

“Dr. Christ is an infectious disease epidemiologist and medical doctor with a Master’s degree in microbiology with an emphasis in molecular virology and public health. She led the state through H1N1, Ebola, a Measles outbreak and more. She is one of the most qualified health professionals in the country and has worked tirelessly since the start of this pandemic to protect public health and save lives. We are lucky to have her as part of our team and have 100% confidence in her.”

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