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As COVID-19 Cases Rise: Oregon Pauses Reopening, Arizona Doesn't

NOEL KING, HOST:

COVID-19 cases are rising in parts of this country, and this morning we're looking at two states and two different responses to that fact. Parts of Oregon had started to reopen. They will now freeze and not reopen any further for a week at least. In Arizona, where cases are rising faster than any place else in the country, the governor says they will move ahead anyway.

With me now are Will Stone, who's following the story in Arizona, and Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Good morning, guys.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: Good morning.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Amelia, why did Governor Kate Brown essentially freeze reopening in place?

TEMPLETON: It came down to the governor listening to the scientists who are advising her and paying close attention to the data. The situation here looks comparatively good. Oregon has, you know, many fewer cases than other places. But new cases here almost doubled over the course of about two weeks, and hospitalizations for severe COVID were also starting to tick up slowly. This is really about prevention and slowing the growth of cases while that's still feasible. Governor Brown said it was a hard decision for her because the largest city in the state, Portland, was on the brink of reopening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATE BROWN: To all of the business owners who had planned to reopen this weekend, I want to acknowledge how difficult this is for all of you. However, as Dr. Fauci has said, we don't make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline.

KING: The virus makes the timeline. That's in Oregon. In Arizona, Will, Governor Doug Ducey seems to be saying, uh-uh, we make the timeline.

STONE: That's right. Governor Ducey said they expected to see a spike in cases during this time period. And we're definitely seeing that. The average daily case count has nearly quadrupled since the end of May. And still, Ducey is saying that hospitals have enough beds to handle it, even as the state's largest hospital system has warned they're running low on ICU beds. So while many national experts are sounding the alarm about Arizona's outbreak, Ducey's really trying to counter that narrative that the state is on the verge of a crisis or that he lifted the stay-at-home order too quickly. Here he is at his most recent press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DOUG DUCEY: This has always been about saving lives. And it's also about livelihoods in the state of Arizona. We put the stay-at-home order there so we could prepare for what we are going through right now. And we are prepared for it.

STONE: The governor's really focused on this idea of hospital capacity - that there's plenty of room to deal with the surge. And basically, people have to accept that this virus will keep spreading in the community, and they have to adapt but continue to live their lives.

KING: Medically, is that why the number of cases is going up so dramatically in Arizona?

STONE: Yeah, it seems like Arizona could be a cautionary tale about it reopening. If you look at the data, it's clear that new cases and COVID hospitalizations, those started ticking up after the governor's lockdown order was lifted in mid-May. Now, there was more testing being done, but experts say that still does not explain this spike right now because the rate of positive cases has also gone up. The state is reporting about an 8% of tests are coming back positive. Some national COVID tracking projects put that much higher - above 15%. And that compares to about 3.5% in Oregon.

I spoke to Saskia Popescu. She's an epidemiologist based in Phoenix. She says it's not only that Arizona may have opened prematurely but also how it went about doing that.

SASKIA POPESCU: A lot of the concern surrounding the reopening of Arizona, like many states that were not quite there yet, was that it was done so rapidly, there wasn't time to make sure we were doing it appropriately and correctly.

STONE: Meaning, in just a few weeks, stores, restaurants, gyms, they were all allowed to get back to business with just some general guidance to socially distance. And this approach does not give public health time to actually figure out, you know, what's happening on the ground. Are we seeing outbreaks? Where are they? And can we contain them?

KING: Amelia, if Oregon is trying to avoid exactly what Will just laid out in Arizona, what does that mean for Oregon reopening?

TEMPLETON: Well, reopening to date has happened really county by county in Oregon. The governor has allowed many rural and suburban areas to start reopening. And right now the greatest impact of this pause is on people in Portland and its eastern suburbs. They're the last parts of the state basically under a stay-at-home order still. That was expected to lift last Friday.

Restaurants, barbershops, even tattoo parlors would have been able to provide some in-person services. And now they'll remain closed for at least another week. And you know, the governor has been slammed by our local business alliance. They said the timing was particularly painful because a lot of businesses are hanging on by a thread and they had started scheduling people. They had started getting ready to reopen only to see that sort of evaporate.

KING: And yet, the governor is still not making any promises. What does she want to see happen? What does she and state health officials want to see happen?

TEMPLETON: Well, what they're trying to figure out is how much more transmission of the virus is taking place with this partially reopened economy. And they've said the state can manage a 10% or even a 15% increase in transmission of COVID-19. But if that jumps up to 25%, it only takes a few weeks at that higher level of transmission for our case count to go from small to very overwhelming. And the pause buys the state a little bit of time to refine its contact tracing effort, the effort to get ahead of new cases. Like many states, we've seen the Latinx population very disproportionately impacted. And we need more contact tracers with the cultural and language skills to reach those people who are hurting the most.

KING: And Will, I wonder, in Arizona, is there any sign that Governor Ducey will change his mind if the numbers continue to spiral?

STONE: At the moment, it doesn't appear so. He says, you know, they're always monitoring the situation. They're looking at hospital capacity. And they may make some adjustments if necessary. Maybe they'll halt all elective surgeries. But putting in place any major new restrictions, something like a second stay-at-home order, you know, Ducey has said that's just not under discussion and at the moment they need to focus on educating people in Arizona and making sure they wear masks.

KING: That's reporter Will Stone covering Arizona and Amelia Templeton from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thank you both so much.

TEMPLETON: You're welcome.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.