Tuesday, January 26, 2021
While the spread of COVID-19 is still considered substantial across the state, it appears numbers have slightly decreased within the last few weeks.
According to the latest report by Dr. Joe Gerald, a University of Arizona professor who creates weekly coronavirus epidemiology reports based on Arizona Department of Health Services data, the week ending Jan. 17 shows a 21% decrease in coronavirus cases from the week prior.
Both hospitalizations and ICU bed occupancy decreased 8% across the state.
In Pima County, the COVID-19 case count for the same week dropped 19% from the week before, the report says.
However, the welcome changes must be looked at relative to the concerning status the state continues to hold in terms of record-setting COVID-19 statistics.
“This week saw a large, unexpected decline in COVID-19 cases. This decline is unlikely to be an artifact of testing as test positivity continues to decline along with hospital and ICU occupancy,” Gerald wrote in the report. “While this reprieve is a welcomed change, the [coronavirus] continues to rampage through Arizona and remains at an appallingly high level.”
Arizona remains the state with the highest transmission rate for the virus in the nation with 96 average daily cases per 100,000 of the population, according to CDC data.
As of today, Arizona has reported 732,643 coronavirus cases and 12,448 deaths, while Pima County has reported 98,034 cases and 1,649 deaths.
Furthermore, in a Jan. 21 report from WalletHub that compares all 50 states and the District of Columbia using five key metrics tracking the effects of COVID-19, Arizona ranked as the least safe state throughout the pandemic thus far.
Arizona earned the grim rankings of:
51st for hospitalization rate
51st for positive testing rate
50th for death rate
49th for transmission rate
42nd for vaccination rate
The first week of January saw Pima County’s highest weekly number of COVID-19 cases at 8,778, while the following week dropped to 6,978 and the third week to 3,894, according to the latest county report. Data from the last 4-7 days are still trickling in, however.
Coronavirus deaths in January’s first week tallied 139, the second week 94 and the third week 24 throughout the county.
When asked if he believes Pima County is experiencing a plateau of coronavirus cases at a press conference on Jan. 22, the county’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia said it’s not time to celebrate a decline just yet.
“I think it would be premature for me to say that we have plateaued and we're starting to go on the other side of that peak. So yes, there are some indicators that suggest that cases are tending to flatten,” Garcia said. “But if you'll notice something, it is at a very, very high case count. So a plateau at 1,000 cases is very different from a plateau at 100 cases. I would not be claiming victory just yet.”
Some health experts speculate students’ breaks from universities and K-12 schools over the holiday season could explain the decline in cases.
“It is tempting to speculate what might be occurring. Importantly, improvements appear to be country-wide,” Gerald wrote in an email. “This suggests a common thread independent of geography, climate, or local policy. This thread is likely to be a behavior that is structurally and/or culturally imposed. So, here is me crawling out on a limb...I'm going to put my money on university and K-12 closures over the holiday period.”
At a press conference yesterday, Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen hinted at the idea school closures could be leading to a slight drop in cases.
“I do think we're seeing some stabilization. Now, what potentially may be contributing to that? There's a lot going on right now,” Cullen said. “There's been some speculation from others that the reason why our case count may have gone down is because schools were closed over the holidays. So it does seem like we are seeing at least a reprieve from any escalation in the number of cases right now.”
According to Pima County data, COVID-19 hospitalizations have decreased from 435 the first week of January, to 338 the second week and 200 the third week.
Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said hospitalizations have been decreasing at a press conference on Jan. 22 and announced Banner hospitals would resume some elective surgeries.
“Positive COVID-19 cases are on the decline nationally and locally here in Arizona,” Bessel said. “The positivity rate in Arizona, though still very high, has declined slightly from its peak the last week of December and COVID hospitalizations have been going down since Jan. 11.”
However, she shared COVID-19 patients still account for 62% of the state’s hospitalizations, and bouncing back from the ongoing surge in cases will take much longer than it did during the summer surge. Bessel estimates the state won’t reach pre-surge hospitalization levels for another 10 or 11 weeks.
State hospitalizations are 700% higher than they were on Nov. 1, while the number of patients on ventilators has increased by 1,000%, Bessel said.
Although widespread vaccinations are needed to see effective immunity among the population, Pima County is experiencing a strained vaccine supply that fails to meet the demand for them. This week, the county is expecting to receive 29,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses, but Garcia contends this is far less than what the county needs to see results.
“We are grateful, but I have to tell you that this is far insufficient for what we need. This is not nearly enough vaccination for us to be able to meet the needs of this county,” Garica said. “We continue to advocate every single day to the state health department, to the governor's office, to our congressional delegation, that the sole rate-limiting step in the equation at this time is vaccine supply, and that it is imperative that Pima County get its fair share. From my perspective, that should be about 15% of the state allocation, and we are short of that.”
The week ending Jan. 3 remains Arizona’s deadliest at 823 so far, and Gerald estimates additional death tallies exceeding 800 are expected throughout the rest of January.
The professor says statewide coronavirus mitigation policies are still needed to slow the spread, including business closures and a mask mandate.
“Many of these deaths were preventable if the state had more aggressively adopted evidenced-based public health practices,” Gerald wrote. “Arizona’s weekly tally of deaths now ranks first in the nation. Overall, we rank 10th.”
Those who currently qualify in Pima County’s 1B priority group of eligible vaccine recipients of those over 75, educators and protective service workers can register for a vaccine at www.pima.gov/covid19vaccineregistration or by calling 520-222-0119.