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Ducey, health director urge caution, calm as coronavirus spreads in US

Doug Ducey (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

Doug Ducey (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Doug Ducey and public health officials said Monday the risk of a coronavirus outbreak is low for the vast majority of Arizonans, but they urged people to take precautions to prevent one.

In the case the virus, known as COVID-19, spreads exponentially quicker than experts expect, Ducey has power to issue mandatory vaccinations, quarantine people and utilize the national guard and he said he would use it if the situation calls for it.

“I’m aware of the authorities under the governor and, if necessary and needed, I will use every tool possible to protect public health in Arizona,” Ducey said. His comments came hours after he was briefed by Vice President Mike Pence and senior administration officials and said his team and theirs are in “close and frequent communication.”

Ducey was joined by Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, who helped the state navigate the H1N1 epidemic in 2009, the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the measles outbreak in 2016.

While there is no current risk for a community-wide spreading of the virus, Christ urged people to maintain proper hygiene and businesses and schools to be ready to work remotely if needed. Christ, a medical doctor and infectious disease expert, said while she understands the news can make people afraid and nervous, people should rest easy.

“The top priority of every data driven and evidence-based action that we take is to keep our communities and families safe while having as minimal of an impact on Arizona’s daily lives as possible,” Christ said.

Starting Monday, the state began testing samples from people suspected to have the virus in the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory, on the same block as the state Capitol Mall, after being cleared to do so Friday. That clearing came after Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Arizona, wrote a letter to Pence and said, according to Maricopa County health officials, the kits used to determine if patient samples had the virus were defective.

Christ said the state was one of dozens working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said they were unable to validate the results correctly because of the way the test kits worked. As a precaution to ensure accuracy, the state sent the samples back to CDC labs in Atlanta, Georgia, and results were delayed by weeks.

“There wasn’t any difference in how that changed our testing,” Christ said. “So while we were able, we would have been able to do it faster here, the CDC was still able to provide testing for public health.”

After officials were able to determine that a portion of the test wasn’t needed to validate the results correctly, the state continued testing normally and didn’t tell the public because as of that afternoon, Christ said, the state had tested 26 people for COVID-19 and 24 were negative. One person, a young man with ties to Arizona State University, tested positive for it in late January and has since recovered, while the results for the other person are pending.

Christ said that case in January was a “blessing in disguise,” that activated the state’s emergency response protocol and made it more aware of the issue.

In its facility, the state can test 450 samples per day, some of which could come from the same person depending on the sample, with a same or next-day turnaround. The department will be updating its website daily with testing statistics and other useful information for the public.

But, Christ said, the public needs to do their part too. The best way to prevent a spread is by maintaining proper hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and items and staying home if one is feeling sick and seeking a medical evaluation.

On Saturday, Pence announced new travel restrictions and warnings for certain countries and said the White House’s task force is “very strongly” considering closing the U.S.-Mexico border if the situation worsens. While that issue didn’t come up in the conference call with Pence and the nation’s governors, Ducey said he is leaving that decision up to the federal government.

“My first concern is for public health, of course, and there’s going to be certain decisions that are made from Washington, DC,” Ducey said. “I’m going to defer to the subject matter experts in a situation like this, when you’re talking about a potential pandemic so that we make the proper decisions to protect public health.”

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