County Health: New data from prisons could impact schools, business

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COVID benchmarks for schools went green for the first time in Pinal County last week.
Pinal County Public Health Director Tascha Spears.

Pinal County’s public health director is warning that school and business dashboards for COVID-19 are going to be harmed by tests in correctional facilities.

Tascha Spears, Ph.D., noted Thursday, the day the county achieved the benchmarks for schools and businesses to expand reopening, that results from mass testing at prisons and jails will be reflected in future data.

“Due to mass testing in Pinal County correctional facilities through the month of August, which has produced many positive cases, our overall picture is most certainly going to be impacted,” Spears announced.

She was making a point that state Rep. Bret Roberts (R-District 11) had been stressing at the legislative level. Roberts wants the Arizona Department of Health Services to exclude prisons from data used for county benchmarks.

“While Pinal County Public Health recognizes the critical nature of testing in correctional settings for effective prevention and containment measures of COVID-19, this is typically a fixed population that is not moving in and out of the community,” Spears said.

Thursday’s benchmarks for the first time indicated Pinal schools could return to classrooms with mitigation protocols in place. While some charter schools went back to campus in August, others return this week. Maricopa Unified School District plans to bring elementary-aged students back Sept. 14, with middle school and high school students returning Sept. 21.

If weekly data does not meet the benchmarks, that plan could change.

“Therefore, we at Pinal County believe and have repeatedly requested of ADHS, so far without success, that they should remove correctional facility data when determining Pinal County benchmarks,” Spears said. “If they do not, regrettably, school and business benchmarks will be negatively impacted.”

For schools to come back to campus, county COVID-19 positivity rates had to be below 7% for two consecutive weeks, among other measures. For non-essential businesses like theaters and bars, the recommended range of positivity is 5%-10% for two weeks.

Arizona Department of Corrections statewide positivity rate was last reported at 6.2%.