As NAU crosses the halfway mark of the fall semester, questions still loom over the accuracy of COVID-19 case numbers on campus.
By the time of publication Oct. 8, Coconino County recorded 4,259 cases since the pandemic started, according to the county’s data dashboard. Throughout the month of September, cases in Coconino County have grown by 80%, or 829 cases.
The county’s weekly positivity rate was dropping at an average of 19% from the week of July 11 until the week of Sept. 7, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. The county then reported 74, 150, 304 and 259 weekly positives in September respectively, for a total of 787 positive cases in that month alone.
Dr. John Mougin, chief quality officer for Northern Arizona Healthcare, said Flagstaff Medical Center (FMC) hospitalized roughly 12% of Coconino County’s overall COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.
“Currently, we have treated 471 patients since the pandemic started and we are now seeing eight patients for treatment of the virus,” Mougin said. “Additionally, when it comes to hospitalized patients, we have seen a majority of our patients from the 40 to 59 median age range.”
Recently, the Arizona Daily Sun reported Flagstaff has been the largest contributor to the influx of COVID-19 cases in Coconino County throughout September.
Mougin agreed that FMC has seen a steady stream of Flagstaff residents with COVID-19 symptoms throughout the summer months and into the beginning of fall. Additionally, he said when the pandemic began, the hospital mostly saw patients from surrounding tribal communities, but that soon changed as more patients from the local area came in and presented symptoms.
Dr. Marie Peoples, deputy Coconino County manager and county emergency operations center commander, said over the month of September, Coconino County started to see an increase in infections similar to the height of the pandemic during summer months.
“Throughout September, we have seen the rate per 100,000 creeping back up to where we saw it around late May and the early part of June,” Peoples said. “We are monitoring this increase very closely. The city of Flagstaff has seen a considerable decline in mid-June and we are now seeing quite an uptick in cases in September, as we have seen 114 cases in the week ending Sept. 12 with 108 of those 114 coming from Flagstaff.”
Additionally, Peoples said the rise in cases also led to an increase in the rate per 100,000 cases, which local health officials had not seen since the beginning of the pandemic and around late May.
“Our incidence rate, which is really important, was before 80 [cases] per 100,000, but we are now seeing 123.6 cases per 100,000 on the week ending Sept. 19 versus 40 cases per 100,000 on the week ending Sept. 5,” Peoples said. “We are concerned with the increases, and the most important thing that any of us can do is wearing a mask or face covering and hand washing.”
Peoples said that Coconino County is currently at a moderate level of community transmission, which demonstrates a rate between 10 and 100 cases per 100,000 people.
Moreover, according to recent data published by Coconino County Health and Human Services (CCHHS), COVID-19 cases in Flagstaff have steadily increased in one particular ZIP code — 86001 — since the beginning of September.
This ZIP code, according to UnitedStatesZipCodes.org, encompasses the outer boundaries of the NAU campus, which has its own ZIP code of 86011. However, it is currently unclear if the reopening of NAU for hybrid instruction is solely responsible for the sudden increase in COVID-19 cases in Flagstaff, especially because the rise in cases associated with the 86001 ZIP code that surrounds campus.
Peoples said there can be confusion when it comes to NAU students reporting positive cases because many students live off campus, giving them a different ZIP code than NAU’s. In turn, these different living situations can make it difficult to report statistics to NAU.
“Individuals are counted based on the ZIP code that they give,” Peoples said. “However, NAU is working with students to make sure that they are recording their NAU ZIP code, which if they are on campus, is a specific ZIP code. However, many NAU students do not live on campus and so their ZIP code will be recorded according to where they live.”
Similarly, Peoples said students have the ability to use different addresses — even those out of state — while living in Flagstaff. This can potentially lead to a missed case for that week’s report.
“Anybody is able to use an address to register for testing or when they are filling out the forms, and that is what the disease investigators do a really good job at,” Peoples said. “For instance, if I have an out-of-state address, but it has landed here, the investigators will work with the students and learn that they are currently living in Flagstaff. There is a lot of work to find out where the positive individual is living and when we gather that information, we update the cases by ZIP code.”
She added the recent rise in positive cases is somewhat connected to NAU students returning to Flagstaff for the fall semester.
Additionally, NAU partnered with CCHHS through an intergovernmental agreement to allow the university and county health department to share important information regarding COVID-19.
“The current spike that we are seeing is somewhat related to students returning to campus,” Peoples said. “NAU has been partnering with the county and we have entered into an [agreement], so we can share information back and forth. They have also hired seven staff members that will be assigned to the health district for case investigations ... and all coronavirus responses.”
According to NAU’s website, the university implemented mitigation testing by randomly selecting approximately 2,500 students, faculty and staff each week. Moreover, 8,500 tests were administered since Sept. 2, and as of Sept. 25, President Cheng announced via email that NAU is managing 226 positive cases on and off campus.
Around much of the state, businesses are beginning to reopen indoor dining as the Arizona Department of Health Services announced all 15 counties around the state met the benchmarks for safely reopening businesses, such as indoor gyms, fitness centers and movie theaters, according to the department’s website. However, it is unknown how reopening these facilities will affect the number of positive cases in the county.