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Lessons In Handling The Coronavirus Arizona Could Learn From Massachusetts

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Right now, Arizona is ablaze with the coronavirus. The state reopened in May, and now a quarter of coronavirus tests are coming back positive. And Arizona added nearly 27,000 new cases last week alone. At the same time, other states, like Massachusetts, have successfully driven their infection rates down. Massachusetts is expanding its reopening today, but now there are concerns that doing so will reverse progress. To compare how things are going in Massachusetts versus Arizona, we're joined now by Katherine Davis-Young with member station KJZZ in Phoenix and Martha Bebinger at WBUR in Boston.

Welcome to both of you.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Thank you.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: Thank you.

CHANG: So Katherine, let's start with you. Can you just give us more of an idea of just how bad things are in Arizona right now?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Well, cases in Arizona have been rising exponentially since Governor Doug Ducey started reopening the state in mid-May. The state surpassed 100,000 total cases today, and that number doubled in just over two weeks. For several weeks, Governor Ducey was saying there was no need to close down again and the main reason we were seeing more positive cases is because the state was doing more testing. But more recently, he's changed his tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DUCEY: We can't be under any illusion that this virus is going to go away on its own. Our expectation is that next week our numbers will be worse.

DAVIS-YOUNG: So he was right. Since he said that a week ago, the state has continued to report thousands of new cases each day. But the skyrocketing positivity rate of tests here shows increase in cases is clearly not just a matter of more testing. At the time the state started reopening in May, about 1 in every 20 tests was turning up a new positive case. It's now around 1 in 5.

CHANG: Wow. That is a drastic change. OK. So Martha, how does that compare with the situation we're seeing in Massachusetts?

BEBINGER: Well, we were there back in late April with an even higher positivity rate. But right now in Massachusetts, that rate is under 2%. So for some perspective, the World Health Organization says the positivity rate should be 5% or less for two weeks before communities reopen. And there are two reasons for that. One is to make sure that the state is testing widely, not just people who are clearly sick. And it also gives states a sense of whether their efforts to slow the virus are working.

CHANG: So how did Massachusetts reverse course here - I mean, from being a hot spot to now seeing much lower rates of transmission?

BEBINGER: Well, everything except essential businesses was closed from late March to late May. And now the reopening that you mentioned earlier, Ailsa, is happening in phases with gyms and movie theaters today. But some venues, like bars and nightclubs, will not open in Massachusetts until there's a vaccine or an effective treatment.

Now, in addition, masks have been mandatory in public places for two months. Dr. Dean Xerras, who's the medical director in Chelsea, Mass. - it's a community with some of the highest infection rates in the country initially - sums up what has worked to bring those infection rates down.

DEAN XERRAS: People listened. They isolated as much as they could. They physically distanced as much as they could. They wore masks as much as they could. And I think that really had an effect. And we're seeing that in Massachusetts and Connecticut. And I think it's really sad that the rest of the country didn't learn from our devastation.

BEBINGER: But as Dr. Xerras notes, the Massachusetts shutdown coincided with a surge in cases and deaths, so many people here were scared and understood the need for precautions.

CHANG: Right. Well, Katherine, I mean, we've been hearing that hospitals in Arizona are now allowed to use what's called crisis standards of care. What exactly does that mean? And is the hospital situation there starting to scare people into changing their behavior?

DAVIS-YOUNG: The crisis standards of care means hospitals are now allowed to triage patients according to their likelihood of survival. And the Department of Health says not all hospitals are to the point where they need that yet. But 89% of our state's ICU beds are now in use, and the virus doesn't look like it's slowing down. Vice President Pence visited Arizona last week, and our governor asked him to send 500 additional medical personnel to Arizona. Pence says he told the Department of Homeland Security to move immediately on providing that.

The governor last week also ordered bars, movie theaters, gyms and water parks to close for at least 30 days. And he's now encouraging Arizonans to wear masks and urging people to stay home. And he's banned gatherings of more than 50 or more people in the state. But just two weeks ago, Governor Ducey himself attended a campaign event for President Trump here in Phoenix. That was indoors. It was attended by thousands of people, and most attendees were not wearing masks.

BEBINGER: Hey, Katherine, it strikes me that there's a really different mask culture here in Boston. So last week, I got out of my car to go to the hardware store, and I just forgot to put on my mask. Within 10 steps, I realized something was really wrong. This one woman kind of veered off the sidewalk into the street to get away from me, and two men who were just ahead of me stopped short with their eyes wide open like I was some kind of pariah without my mask on.

CHANG: (Laughter) Some social pressure. Well, Katherine, are you seeing that kind of reaction in Phoenix? Real quickly.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Well, there's no statewide mask order here. In the last few weeks, the governor allowed cities and counties to put their own mask mandates in place, and many did do that. But there are still a few outliers. This weekend, there were crowded Fourth of July celebrations in the city of Prescott, Ariz., no masks required.

CHANG: All right. That's Katherine Davis-Young at KJZZ in Phoenix and WBUR's Martha Bebinger.

Thanks to both of you.

BEBINGER: Thank you, Ailsa.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.