Benchmark COVID-19 data meant to guide Arizona schools in their decisions regarding in-person instruction continued to improve for Santa Cruz County, though the state was still recommending virtual learning in the community.

According to the data released on Thursday, the COVID-19 test positivity rate in Santa Cruz County declined for the second-consecutive week during the period of Jan. 31-Feb. 6, the most recent week for which numbers were available. It dropped to 12.7 percent from 13.4 percent the week before. The week before that, it had been at 22.7 percent.

Still, the new figure kept Santa Cruz County in the “substantial transmission” category in terms of the percentage of people who test positive for an active COVID-19 infection.

The county also remained in the “substantial” transmission category in terms of new cases per 100,000 residents, at 130. Even so, that number has fallen steadily since the first week of January, when there was a rate of 907 new cases per 100,000 county residents.

To reach “moderate” transmission levels, the county’s weekly test positivity rate will need to drop below 10 percent and the new case rate must be less than 100 per 100,000 residents.

The Nogales Unified and Santa Cruz Valley Unified school districts are currently operating on a virtual-only educational model, with plans to shift to a hybrid distance/in-person model starting March 15.

In letter to parents dated Feb. 12, Patagonia Public Schools Superintendent Kenny Hayes said that if the metrics continue trending in the right direction, Patagonia Elementary School will begin five-day-per-week in-person instruction for students in grades K-5 on March 1. Pre-K and grades 6-8 will return to campus on an every-other-day schedule on the same date, with the high school to follow after spring break, if not sooner.

Metrics posted Thursday by the County Health Services Department showed 7,560 confirmed COVID-19 infections in the community since the start of the pandemic, an increase of 42 cases during the previous week – an average of six per day. That was less than one-tenth the number of new cases being confirmed during the first part of January.

In another encouraging sign, the county confirmed only one new COVID-related death during the week leading up to Thursday, bringing the local pandemic total to 166. The county had been averaging more than two confirmed deaths per day earlier in the year.

Hospitalizations have also slowed dramatically since the first week of January, when an average of six local residents were being hospitalized each day for COVID-19. The county numbers posted Thursday showed three hospitalizations reported in the past week, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 524.

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