Coronavirus in Arizona and a Q&A with Sonia Singh from Maricopa County Public Health

By Jeff Kronenfeld

Five months after the first human cases of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus were detected in China, the world holds its breath. The state of Arizona, like the federal government, scrambles to respond. With talk of lockdowns and social distancing in the air, people balance preparation and panic even while the state moves ahead with primary elections on March 17.

Over 7,100 people across the globe died because of the Coronavirus as of March 16, according to John Hopkins University. They reported over 180,000 people worldwide tested positive. The same day, the CDC stated 3,487 people in the US tested positive. Severe shortages in tests mean this number is almost definitely an underestimation.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 18 confirmed cases on March 16. Eight of those were in Maricopa County. The Department had only tested 200 people total, with 63 still awaiting results. Private facilities like the Mayo Clinic are now providing drive-through testing for those with a physician’s order. Sonora Quest Laboratories and LabCorp are offering testing.

On Friday, March 12, Taylor Richie, communications director for the Arizona Department of Education, said they were planning to keep schools in Arizona open. Ultimately, this decision was in the hands of Governor Doug Ducey. Less than 48 hours later,  Governor Ducey ordered schools in the state to close until March 27. Federally subsidized meal programs provide food for 55 percent of Arizona students. Eligible students are supposed to be able to receive meals as they do during the summer months.    

Arizona State University was the site of the state’s first confirmed case of Coronavirus. The patient is a male member of the ASU community who had recently visited Wuhan, China. He is no longer under quarantine after receiving multiple negative tests. The university canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester on March 16. All public events not related to teaching or research have been canceled as well. Most university facilities remain open, such as libraries, computer labs and food services. “The spread of COVID-19 may necessitate changes in the way we interact, but it does not change what we do,” wrote ASU President Michael Crow by email.

Also on March 16, the CDC and White House issued new guidelines called 15 Days to Slow the Spread. It recommends people work or engages in schooling from homes unless they are employed in a “critical infrastructure industry.”  It also recommends people avoid gatherings of more than ten people and dining out except for drive-thru, pickup, and delivery. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has yet to order the closure of restaurants and bars, unlike California and at least six other states.

Sonia Singh, a marketing communications supervisor for Maricopa County Public Health answered a few Coronavirus related questions by email. Below are here answers.

Echo: If people suspect they may have Coronavirus in Maricopa County, what does your department recommend they do? 

Singh: Individuals with symptoms such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath should contact their healthcare provider. They should contact the healthcare provider ahead of time, so they do not expose anyone in the waiting room. If the provider determines that a COVID-19 test is appropriate, they can request one from the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory if the person meets CDC guidelines for testing, or the provider can order a test from a commercial lab, such as Sonora Quest or LabCorp without meeting CDC guidelines for testing. Healthcare providers do not need to call Public Health to request commercial testing.

We recommend that people with symptoms work with a provider, as there can be many possible causes for those symptoms, and a provider can work with the individual on the appropriate course of testing, diagnosis, and treatment for that person and their specific medical needs.

What if they do not have any health insurance or other health coverage? 

Individuals can apply to AHCCCS, the state health care plan for individuals who cannot afford coverage, or they may be able to access care through a community healthcare center. Many community healthcare centers offer services on a sliding-fee scale based on what the patient can afford. 

What does your department recommend for people to do right now?  

Individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are those who are over the age of 60 and individuals with underlying health conditions, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes. Those individuals should consider avoiding large crowds. Everyone should avoid people who are sick if possible, and each individual can make a determination to their own personal risk and whether avoiding crowds is the right decision for them.

It’s always a good idea to keep a supply of prescription medications and over-the-counter medications on hand in case you get sick. People who are at higher risk of severe illness should consider keeping enough food on hand for a week or two in case they get sick or need to stay home.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the public?

The two best things anyone can do are wash their hands frequently with soap and water (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap/water are unavailable) and avoid touching their face. People can pick up germs on their hands by being around people who are sick or touching surfaces they have sneezed or coughed on. Washing hands gets rid of those germs. People can become infected if they touch their eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands, which introduces those germs into their bodies. By washing your hands and not touching your face, you have a double barrier of protection against infection.

Additionally, it’s important that people turn to reputable sources of information for facts about COVID-19. The CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), Arizona Department of Health Services, and Maricopa County Department of Public Health are all good resources.