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Experts don’t see sustained surge in virus deaths in Arizona

April 23, 2020 GMT

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — A surge in deaths from the coronavirus this week is likely the result of a boost in cases weeks ago and should slow because hospitalizations appear to have leveled off, Arizona health officials said Thursday.

The state counted 62 deaths in three days this week, well above the average in recent weeks. But it was not an unexpected boost because it frequently takes several weeks for patients to die once they are hospitalized, health officials said.

“We always know that as we see a rise in cases about two weeks later we are going to see a rise in hospitalizations and then several weeks after that we tend to see a rise in deaths,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, Maricopa County’s health director.

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“We were anticipating an unfortunate rise in deaths when we saw the rise in hospitalizations,” she said. “And we hope that as the hospitalizations leveled off we expect to see the deaths level off.”

Maricopa County is the state’s most populous and has seen the greatest number of cases; about half the 249 deaths reported statewide since the first on March 17.

The state Department of Health Services also reported 5,769 cases as of Thursday, an increase of 310 cases over Wednesday. The 20 additional deaths reported Thursday follow increases of 21 reported each of the previous two days.

Also Thursday, state Health Director Dr. Cara Christ eased restrictions on testing that had been put in place weeks ago because of a shortage of supplies.

She said in a blog post that anyone who thinks they have been exposed and possibly infected can now be tested. Previously testing was limited to patients with symptoms or people considered to be highly at risk. Private laboratories at the University of Arizona are being given extra state money to perform tests.

Former state heath director Will Humble agreed with Sunenshine that a surge in deaths isn’t a sign that cases are going up.

“The new cases is one of the newest indicators,” Humble said. “Hospitalization is sort-of a moderate indicator, along with ICU bed hospitalizations, and then deaths is the lagging indicator – and lagging by a long shot.

Sunenshine said the increase has mainly come from nursing homes and assisted living facilities, whose residents are mainly over age 65 and have chronic health conditions that make those people especially susceptible to the new disease. The county has counted 115 deaths, of which 70 have been people living in those locations.

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That’s despite a concerted effort to boost infection control in those facilities, which are required to isolate sick patients and greatly increase the use of masks, gown and face shields by workers.

“What we found is the vast majority of these facilities who implement these precautions are able to keep it to one or two cases,” Sunenshine said. “But there are a lot of facilities where we have seen a lot of spread and tragically that is why we’re seeing this increase in deaths.”

Eighty eight long-term care facilities in Maricopa County have tallied cases, but Sunenshine would not identify them. Other counties and the state have similarly declined to identify the locations of such outbreaks, even though some have done so themselves.

Officials cite patient privacy, but Sunenshine noted there are other factors.

“It’s very important we continue to maintain a relationship of trust when we work with these long-term care facilities so they will continue to work with public health and implement all of the infection control recommendations that we have.”

The rise in deaths comes as Gov. Doug Ducey considers whether to lift his statewide stay at home order when it expires next week.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

— Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed.