As coronavirus cases continue to rise county and statewide, experts are raising alarms about a COVID-19 surge worse than Arizona experienced this summer.
Pima County is on track to exceed the number of COVID-19 cases it had in July, according to a Nov. 17 memorandum from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
The first 17 days of November saw 4,620 coronavirus cases, whereas the first 17 days of July, “the worst month of COVID-19 case increases to date,” had 5,057 cases, according to the memo.
The week of Nov. 8-14, 1,165 more coronavirus cases were reported than the week prior.
“The continued growth of COVID-19 cases in Pima County during the last 4 weeks has been geographically diffused reflecting a substantial degree of community spread in Pima County,” Huckelberry said in the memorandum.
Federal prison is a “hot spot” for COVID cases
However, the memo says there are specific "hot spots" contributing to the surge in cases, including a case outbreak at the federal prison at 8901 S. Wilmot Road. Nearly 500 infections were found in a facility with 1,600 detainees and 600 employees.
“The initial cases were identified quickly, and the institution implemented an aggressive program of inmate testing, case identification, and isolation and quarantine to mitigate the risk of spread,” Huckelberry said in the memo.
On-site medical services for inmates are “limited to outpatient acute care” from a team of four nurse practitioners or mid-level providers, 12 supporting nursing and paramedics and a medical director from inside the facility, according to the memo.
About 24 detainees had to leave the prison facility for hospital care, and the memo says “even fewer required inpatient care at local hospitals, principally TMC.”
“These numbers are modest however given the current staffing issues that are being experienced throughout Pima County and the state, we remain very concerned about the additional strain this may place on local hospital resources,” Huckelberry said in the memo. “TMC is working with the federal facility to improve the process by facilitating direct admission of patients where appropriate.”
According to the memo, 160 staff members have been tested for COVID-19, but it did not reveal how many tested positive. However, Huckelberry says in the memo, “there appears to be a large amount of unmet testing need in this population of essential workers.”
The county administrator said plans are in place to create an employee roster to keep track of COVID-19 infections for contact-tracing efforts and that all staff should be tested.
The memo says although comprehensive mitigation tactics are in place at the prison, “significant lapses in basic mask and PPE use have been noted among correctional staff participating in transport and hospital settings.”
“These anecdotal observations...lead us to believe that there is still significant staff education and reinforcement must continue at the facility for the protection of the workforce and the detainees,” Huckleberry said in the memo. “In general, our interactions with the leadership at the federal prison have been collaborative and productive.”
As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across Pima County, the county administrator emphasized the importance of social distancing, wearing masks and frequent sanitization as the holiday season approaches.
Huckleberry writes in the memo, “While there may be prevention fatigue from these practices, they are essential to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and need to be practiced for at least another 6 months while the public health agency is able to obtain and vaccinate a significant portion of the regional population. “