Friday, August 6, 2021
With 2,826 new positive cases of COBVID-19 reported across Arizona today, health officials are increasingly concerned that the Delta strain is driving a third wave of outbreaks in the state that could be similar to last summer.
In his latest weekly COVID-19 forecast released Friday morning, Dr. Joe Gerald, an epidemiologist with the UA Zuckerman School of Public Health, presented yet another week of bad news, as Arizona saw a 38% increase from last week, with 14,188 Arizonans diagnosed with COVID-19 for the week ending Aug. 1. Further, Arizona currently is experiencing 50 deaths per week and Gerald predicts deaths will increase in the coming weeks, exceeding 100 per week by the end of August.
Gerald said the high rates of transmission signal another substantial surge within the coming weeks.
While the potential size and/or duration of the surge remains uncertain, he said it “will likely be at least the size of the summer 2020 outbreak and may approach that of the winter 2021 wave.”
Last summer, cases peaked at around 5,500 cases of COVID-19 and over 12,000 during the winter. Gerald finds the current outbreak is most similar to the winter surge, with both beginning at a rate of 40 cases per 100,000 residents per week. Sixty-five days later, the rates for the winter 2020 and summer 2021 outbreaks were 220 and 195 cases per 100,000 residents per week, respectively.
“While these two curves may diverge, it would be prudent to assume they won’t unless we intervene to slow transmission,” said Gerald. “Unfortunately, we are squandering the efforts of the vaccinated and ignoring the sacrifices of the previously ill and dead, to party like it was 1999.”
Gerald also noted that despite a higher degree of vaccination for those 65 and older the current community transmission is impacting hospitals similarly to how it did last winter.
“Because herd immunity applies to populations not age groups, high vaccination rates among those greater than 65 years doesn’t provide any protection to those who interact with unvaccinated adults who have much lower levels of vaccination,” said Gerald. “So, we should not hold a false sense of security that this outbreak will necessarily have less impact on our already overburdened hospital system.”
The Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey have limited the ability of local jurisdictions and schools to respond to the rise in cases.
In response to the updated CDC guidance, recommending individuals mask in public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination in areas of high or substantial transmission, Gov. Doug Ducey remained unmoved.
"Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports or discrimination in schools based on who is or isn’t vaccinated. We’ve passed all of this into law, and it will not change,” said Ducey in a press release on July 27. “The CDC today is recommending that we wear masks in school and indoors, regardless of our vaccination status. This is just another example of the Biden-Harris administration’s inability to effectively confront the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As most school districts returned to in-person instruction this week, they are already seeing positive cases. Since schools can't require masks, Gerald expects “frequent school-related outbreaks and accelerating community transmission.”
The order states all known or suspected cases should be sent home immediately and with 24 hours confirmation of case by PCHD, school must identify close contacts. Confirmed cases must isolate for 10 days at least and close contacts who can provide documentation of a completed COVID-19 vaccination series, meaning they are fully vaccinated, may return to school immediately if asymptomatic.
This contradicts the letter from the Governor's office directing Pima County's Catalina School District change the language of their isolation and quarantine guidelines for stating fully vaccinated individuals would not be required to quarantine, as stated in the CDC guidance.
Despite children’s cases making up about 15% of the cases, an increase from 10% in the winter, Gerald notes that this outbreak, like previous outbreaks, is driven primarily by adolescents and working-age adults.
“Incomplete vaccination among older adults, but particularly among working-age adults, means that hospitals remain at risk of being overwhelmed and a substantial number of deaths can once again accrue,” said Gerald.
Despite the dreary forecast, Gerald continues to advocate for vaccinations as the most important public health priority. His one positive note indicates an increase of 10 thousand vaccine doses administered from the previous week, with 90,000 vaccine doses administered last week.
In Arizona, 53% of residents have received at least one dose and of those nearly 47% have been fully vaccinated.
“COVID-19 is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. If you are basing your decision to not be vaccinated on social media claims, I urge you to seek your doctor’s advice,” pleaded Arizona Department of Health Services Dr. Cara Christ in her blog this Friday. “I don’t want to see more people get seriously ill, go into the hospital or die from COVID-19. In almost every case today, it is preventable with vaccination.”