The University of Arizona is a teaching moment for COVID-19 spikes

Zip codes and COVID

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - As cases begin to spike in Arizona and Tucson again, how to tamp down the spikes, stop the spread and at the same time, not be too disruptive to business has become a priority.

How to do that depends on cooperation between the health officials and the community.

“We say this repeatedly,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the Pima County Health Director. “Our toolbox is very limited, our toolbox depends on our cooperation from the community.”

That was nowhere more evident than at the University of Arizona.

When students came back in August and September it triggered a big spike in cases off-campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“What we did was a voluntary shelter in place to a defined geographical area based on what we were seeing as a caseload,” Dr Cullen said. “So obviously we can do that.”

But the question is, even though the county health department can do that, should it? And if it does, how big should the net be? Should it be expanded to the entire zip code or a smaller more targeted area?

The answers to those questions are paramount for health officials who want to control the virus but at the same time do not want to have a negative effect on the local business community which is struggling to find a sense of normalcy.

“We didn’t need in that case, to do a shelter in place for the entire zip code,” she said. “That would be a hammer when all we needed was a scalpel and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

But the university is a different community. The campus leaders could punish students, especially off-campus students, who violated protocols. The school also has several dorms that can be used to house sick students.

That’s not available say, in a large zip code like 85756, which has been a hot spot and recently recovered from a spike in cases without intervention.

But with cases rising, that may not be the case in the next few weeks.

“We’ve been looking at some data that may enable us to look at closing, say in some areas, small business,” Dr Cullen said.

But the goal is to determine whether it should be a small area of a wider area and what the economic impact will be.

“We believe it’s really important that we balance those,” she said.

After months of learning how the virus spreads and reacts, the health department has become more proficient in targeting its response.

“When we know we have an area we’re concerned about, we try to constrain the potential negative impact on the community by focusing on an area where we believe we need an appropriate intervention,” Dr Cullen said.

That’s far different than the beginning of the pandemic when everything was shut down which stopped the spread but also left lingering damage to the area’s businesses.

That’s not the strategy anymore and the university was a case in point.

The spread was stopped with little impact on the surrounding businesses.

That’s the goal in the weeks ahead, especially with the holidays right around the corner.

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