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Coconino County COVID spike certain, but complicated by misassigned cases and definition changes
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Coconino County COVID spike certain, but complicated by misassigned cases and definition changes

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Coconino County had a complicated beginning to its week as its reporting definition changed and 89 misassigned positive results were returned to the demographic.

The main takeaway from the county meeting Tuesday is that it is currently experiencing a spike of positive coronavirus cases mainly in Flagstaff, according to Marie Peoples, deputy county manager.

“We wish we could bring you any news other than this,” Peoples said to the county on Tuesday. “This is not good news to bring.”

The 89 newly returned saliva tests were first lost after they were sent from the county down to Arizona State University for evaluating and were filed without a return address. The Arizona Department of Health Services was able to track the test results back to the county, Peoples said.

Officials expect to distribute data about the positives correctly across their COVID-19 data dashboard by the end of the week.

Peoples warned that these new specimens could cause the county’s data to show the virus is moving at a high rate throughout the community as opposed to its current moderate rate of spread. The rate of spread is measured based on three different factors including cases per 100,000 people, percent positives and prevalence of COVID-19 like illnesses.

The virus’s minimal, moderate and substantial rate of transmission throughout the community is used to measure how heavily the virus is impacting communities.

County epidemiologist Matt Maurer said that the 89 cases could be placed in as far back as Sept. 1 to Monday.

“There is a potential that when their report comes out, the numbers from week September 12 will put us into the substantial transmission category,” Maurer said.

Coconino County has also modified their COVID-19 reporting definitions, meaning that all probable positives and confirmed positives will be combined and reported as confirmed positives going forward.

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The definition change led to what appeared to be a one-day spike of 105 positives on Monday. The 105 positives included previously reported probable positives from the past two weeks but are now being classified under the positive category.

The change was recommended by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and was recently adopted by the Arizona Department of Health Services. The council felt new forms of tests required county and state officials to combine the probable and confirmed reports to give people a better sense of what is happening in towns around the county and state, Maurer said on Monday.

“That 105 is spread out over the past couple weeks of probable cases that is now being combined in our total case counts,” Maurer said. “Yesterday’s new cases were only really about 10, but because of the change it looks like a much higher number. Those [other] cases were spread out over the past two weeks.”

State and Coconino County data dashboards should reflect similar data in the days going forward, as the two had been using different definitions for positive cases.

Before, a person with a positive test would only be counted on the county’s positive count when the person had a known exposure to a person with COVID-19 or was symptomatic. People who could not track their exposure or who were asymptomatic classified only as probable positive.

“It’s very important to capture those infections, those positive COVID-19 cases, within our numbers and report out both confirmed and probable cases as they do more represent active infection,” Maurer said.

The county is currently seeing a spike of positive cases after seeing seven weeks of reduced transmission from July, and flattening out toward the end of August and early September. As of Tuesday night, the county saw an increase of 11 positive cases.

The first week of September saw 66 positive cases, the second week increased 71% to 113 cases and last week is reported to have increased 63% to 184 cases.

Northern Arizona University recently reported an increase from 96 to 273 cases as of Sept. 18 during their most recent weekly update, contributing 177 cases on and off campus in the county during the week. Flagstaff Medical Center has only seven positive COVID-19 patients, with 16 cases pending. It’s regular bed capacity is 64% full and critical care capacity is 61% full.

The reported spike inspired Flagstaff Unified School District's decisions to halt school sports on Friday. Many parents, student athletes and community members protested at Flagstaff City Hall on Monday and were expected to voice their concerns at Tuesday's school board meeting.

County data shows that the spike reported during the week of Sept. 12 impacted people younger than 20 and people from 20 to 44 years old much more severely than elderly populations.

According to county data, residents from 20 to 44 years returned positive results 78% more than people 65 and older.

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