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Arizona COVID-19 Cases Fall For Two Consecutive Weeks

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Since June, Arizona has seen rapid, unrelenting growth in daily coronavirus infections. But now case counts have dropped for two weeks in a row. Health experts say it's a clear sign that local orders to wear masks and a statewide shutdown of businesses like bars and gyms are working. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Ben Giles reports.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Arizona has seen both the number of new cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 drop. But Josh LaBaer, who does coronavirus modeling at Arizona State University, remains cautious.

JOSH LABAER: We really couldn't say that we've reversed any trends, but I do feel confident in saying that we have stabilized at a sort of plateau here.

GILES: Arizona does not have a statewide mask order, but most residents are now covered by local requirements. LaBaer said those have helped, as did orders aimed at breaking up large gatherings of people that Governor Doug Ducey issued this month.

LABAER: The evidence right now suggests that the new restrictions and the new practices that have been put into place are definitely having an effect. Without a doubt, we have plateaued in terms of the number of new cases we see a day and also in terms of the following on effects of that - hospitalizations and ICU beds and so on.

GILES: Former State Health Director Will Humble, who's been a sharp critic of Ducey, agrees. But he warned that the state has plateaued in an untenable position. The number of coronavirus tests coming back positive remains high, at roughly 25%.

WILL HUMBLE: We are not seeing an absolute improvement. What we're seeing is a relative improvement. What I mean by that is that week after week after week over the last two months, things have been getting worse every single week. And finally, we have a week where things didn't get worse. They're still bad, but at least they didn't get worse.

GILES: There are still nearly 3,000 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in Arizona. Dr. Scott Anderson is the chief medical officer at two Sun City hospitals. He said hospital workers across the state have relied on health care workers from across the country who've come to Arizona's aid. It's a relief that the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 is no longer rising. But, Anderson said, staff has been stretched thin for too long.

SCOTT ANDERSON: Well, remember we're stable at 90% of our ICU capacity. So while we're stable, it's not sustainable. We have so many people who are working additional shifts, who stepped up and worked extra hours. And they're doing that because the community needs them. But we need the community to take a very active role in continuing to slow the spread of this going forward.

GILES: Health experts say that means Arizonans must stay the course. ASU modeler Josh LaBaer said he's concerned about social gatherings at places like bars, where people could interact without masks and transmit the virus.

LABAER: This is not a time to let up on the pressure. I think we need to keep what we're doing right now in place. We need to find ways to kind of keep the economy going but do so while we are following all of these practices that are clearly working.

GILES: Governor Ducey's order shuttering bars, gyms, nightclubs and water parks was set to expire on Monday at midnight. On Thursday, Ducey extended the order indefinitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DUCEY: There's no victory lap today. There's no celebration, OK? We cannot let up. We need to continue to be vigilant every day in the state of Arizona, to continue pressing and to make sure that we stay focused on the fundamentals.

GILES: For NPR News, I'm Ben Giles in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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