Maricopa County has largely gotten its COVID-19 response right

Will Humble opinion contributor
Published at AZCentral.com

Opinion: From a mask mandate to a school data dashboard, Maricopa County has made effective decisions to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented elected and appointed officials and the public with a host of historic challenges. Knowledge about the novel coronavirus has increased, changed and forced us to shift directions, sometimes contradicting statements made months earlier.

Luckily for us, amid the twists and turns of new data, public policy decisions and a restless public, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) and the Board of Supervisors have largely gotten the response right.

Masks have made a major difference

Early in the pandemic the evidence was crystal clear that wearing a face covering in public is the single most effective (and highest return on investment) tool we have. Yet local jurisdictions, including Maricopa County, were unable to require face coverings in public because the governor’s executive orders prohibited them from doing so.

Finally, on June 17, the governor relented and removed his restriction. Within 36 hours of being allowed to implement a face covering ordinance, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors did so (as did several cities within the county).

The results have been dramatic.

This local intervention is perhaps the single biggest reason why we are now seeing a slowing of the spread of COVID-19. One of the reasons why the board acted so quickly is because MCDPH plowed the ground by educating the supervisors about the merits of mask wearing well ahead of June 17.

Contact tracing adapted to the unexpected

Contact tracing and case investigation have been staples in the public health toolbox for more than a century. MCDPH, like other local public health departments in Arizona, ramped up quickly to build the capacity to conduct case investigations and trace contacts. 

Many have been critical of Maricopa County and their contact tracing efforts. Much of the criticism is unwarranted. Why, you ask? 

MCDPH and the board were left to deal with an exponential growth in cases that resulted from policy decisions they had no influence over, including the prohibition of face covering ordinance requirements and the fact that bars and nightclubs were allowed to continue to cause exponential community spread.

MCDPH was prepared to investigate 500-600 cases a day, a reasonable assumption with responsible policy decisions from the top. But when external policy decisions caused cases to spike up to 2,500-3,000 a day, along with lab turnaround times of 10-14 days, the county had to improvise.  

And improvise they did, by continuing to innovate their contact tracing and case investigation program to make it as effective as possible. Among their many innovations, they contracted with community partners and automated components of the process, a concept recommended by the CDC.

Its school data dashboard is terrific

Maricopa County has also been an important partner with the Arizona departments of Education and Health Services in issuing back to school guidelines. Early on, MCDPH convened a working group of 20 school superintendents from around the county to collaborate on recommendations to provide reopening guidance and metrics.  

They recently published a terrific data dashboard that displays per capita positivity and COVID-like illness down to the school district and ZIP code level to help local school boards make the right decisions about opening schools safely.  

Oversight and criticism are a healthy part of performance improvement for public systems. In the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody has made perfect decisions. 

But to my eye, Maricopa County stands out as a public entity that deserves praise for its COVID-19 response.

Will Humble is the former director for the Arizona Department of Health Services and the current director of the Arizona Public Health Association. Email him at willhumble@azpha.org and follow him on Twitter @willhumble_az

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About

Bill Gates serves as the District 3 Supervisor for Maricopa County. His Maricopa County District 3 reaches from the far southern boundary of McDowell Road, north to the border of Yavapai County, from the eastern boundary of Scottsdale Road in places, to the western boundary of 43rd Avenue and includes the areas of Anthem, New River, and Desert Hills.

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