The state’s top health official testified last week that she cannot say when the current COVID-19 health emergency will be over, when the governor will rescind his orders or when Arizonans will be able to get their lives back.
Cara Christ said a decline to minimal levels in the benchmarks her agency created to determine the risk of spread won’t necessarily lead her to recommend to Gov. Doug Ducey that he dissolve his orders and give up the emergency powers because there are other considerations.
Christ’s comments came as she was being questioned in a hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court by Ilan Wurman, who represents more than 100 owners of bars that remain unable to reopen and operate the way they used to due to the Ducey-declared emergency.
Wurman is trying to convince Judge Pamela Gates that the restrictions on bars make no sense, especially with other businesses, including restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages, are allow to be open.
So far, legal challenges to closures have been fruitless.
The Arizona Supreme Court last week rejected even hearing an appeal by landlords from Ducey’s ban on evictions, which ends Oct. 31. Ducey’s office noted there is a federal ban on evictions through the rest of the year.
What currently makes any disease an emergency is that it could overwhelm hospitals. That Christ said, is why Ducey invoked his closure orders in March.
At some point, though, she said that won’t be the case.
“That would change with COVID-19 as we continue in this pandemic,’’ Christ said.
“And then it would just be like living with the influenza,’’ she continued. “At that point, it wouldn’t be a public health emergency anymore.’’
Christ said she had no idea when restrictions on businesses might end.
“That’s hard to predict now because we learn new things every day,’’ she testified.
One issue in the case is how long Ducey can exercise his emergency authority.
Wurman pointed out the health department has established “benchmarks’’ to determine the risk of spread of the virus.
These look at three issues: the number of cases per 100,000 residents, the percent of tests for the virus that come back positive, and the percent of patients showing up in hospital emergency rooms with COVID-like symptoms. Each of those can be listed as having a substantial, moderate or minimal risk of spread.
Wurman wanted to know at what point those benchmarks will get to a point when the emergency will be over.
“It’s a little bit difficult,’’ Christ responded.
“Those benchmarks weren’t established to determine an end to the public health emergency,’’ she said. “They were really established to set benchmarks for businesses to be able to reopen and schools to go back into session.’’
Wurman told her to assume there will be no vaccine, no “therapeutic’’ to effectively treat the disease and no “herd immunity’’ where enough people have contracted the virus, survived and now have antibodies.
Given all that, Wurman asked Christ when she would be willing to recommend Ducey rescind his emergency orders.
“If we were consistently at very, very low cases, if CLI (COVID-like illnesses) stayed low and the percent positivity remains low, below that 3 percent, we may make that recommendation,’’ she responded. But no promises.
“The public health emergency is really protecting our health care system, making sure we keep as few people from getting sick or dying and having access to those resources than it is just eradicating the disease,’’ she said.
Christ conceded that she could not say whether a single case of coronavirus had been traced to a bar in Arizona. But she said that’s not because none has happened.
But the health director said she remains convinced that the risk of spread is higher at bars than at other businesses.
Some of it, she said, has to do with lack of ventilation indoors.
“There are ways that that can be increased,’’ Christ said. “But alcohol does tend to affect one’s ability to physically distance and make good decisions.’’