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Experts find promising signs in latest COVID-19 data

Posted at 6:54 PM, Jul 15, 2020

PHOENIX — As Arizona experiences thousands of newly reported COVID-19 cases every day, experts say there are now some optimistic signs in the data.

Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of ASU's Biodesign Institute, pointed to the rate of infection on Wednesday.

"There is a trend...that we have flattened somewhat," he said.

While that does indicate a problem that is slowing down, LaBaer notes there are still thousands of confirmed cases every day and numbers remain consistently high.

"It's hard to say whether we are really going to round that curve or not," he said. "The bottom line is we really have to, at the very minimum, maintain everything we're doing and then ideally reduce as much as possible."

ASU is also working to scale up their saliva-based COVID-19 tests which publicly debuted over the weekend. Through two collections thus far, LaBaer said roughly 1,400 samples were collected. They are working to add resources and expect the capacity to increase going forward.

"We are also expanding the platform, we're ordering a number of new robots," Dr. LaBaer said. "Once we've expanded the actual physical platform and continue hiring new people, we probably can get that, we believe, up to 16,000 tests a day."

On Wednesday, Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, Medical Director for Maricopa County Department of Public Health, also noted some trends heading in a better direction.

"What we're seeing is that our average number of cases is right around 2,500 cases per day," Dr. Sunenshine said. "That is slightly decreased from what we were seeing right around the 3rd week of June."

Dr. Sunenshine noted that part of June is around the time a mask mandate went into effect in Maricopa County and around the time Governor Ducey ordered bars, gyms and other businesses to temporarily close.

"What we found is just about two weeks after those events occurred, we started to see a decrease in the number of cases," Dr. Sunenshine said. "That is what's referred to as a slight flattening of the curve. What we don't know for sure is how prolonged that flattening will be."

Dr. Sunenshine noted that data will likely be reflected further in the coming weeks.

"We do anticipate that we're going to see a flattening, or a decrease, in hospitalization data coming up in the next one-to-two weeks," she said. "Then followed by one-to-two weeks later, hopefully, a flattening and decline in the death rate."

Another promising sign, albeit with its own caveats, is a number watched by health officials that's trending better for Arizona. Called r-naught, it measures how many people an infected person passes the virus to. Essentially, you want the number below one. According to one data source considered by Maricopa County, Arizona is now at 0.97.

"As more data shows how effective masks are we hope that the community will take that individual responsibility, we can continue to get that r-naught less than one and that we will eventually get there where we can suppress the spread," Dr. Sunenshine said.

She also urged caution about relying on any singular source of data.

"All of those estimates are based on a lot of different data and a lot of different assumptions," she said.