Four cases of the COVID-19 UK variant have been found in Pima County, said Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen during a briefing this afternoon.
Pima County Health Department has been tracking genomic sequencing of positive COVID-19 PCR tests (aka the nasal swab test). They send a random sample of those positive PCR tests to the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Flagstaff for sequencing, Cullen said.
This process takes up about three to four weeks from the collection and procession of the sample to getting a positive result and then sending it to a lab like TGen, where the genetic sequencing takes place. In other words, the variant has been in Pima County for at least three to four weeks since the sample was collected, Cullen said.
According to the CDC, this variant, first detected in the U.S. in late December 2020, spreads more easily and quickly than other variants. Some experts in the U.K. reported the variant may be associated with an increased risk in death, but this finding has not been confirmed.
“It's not to make the community frightened, but it is to remind the community that COVID-19 is a deadly disease,” said Cullen. “It has significant morbidity and mortality and the way we protect ourselves right now is to do the three W's, to abide by the recommendations that we've given.”
When asked if the uptick in hospitalizations for COVID-19, may be related to the variant, Cullen could not be sure of a causal relationship, but said they will monitor both the spread of the variant and the increase in hospitalizations.
Cullen said Pima County has administered a little over 330,000 vaccines. Roughly 209,000 people have received the first dose and around 134,000 are fully vaccinated.
Cullen said daily vaccinations vary from about 5,000 to 9,000, with the Tucson Convention Center currently averaging around 1,400 to 1,500 and sometimes delivering above 2,000 doses, while the UA POD’s goal is around 3,500 to 4,000 vaccines a day.
Pima County Expands Eligibility for 55+ and Frontline Essential Workers
Pima County will expand eligibility to those 55 and older and as well as frontline essential workers, defined by Cullen as “someone who needs to work with the public and are routinely less than six feet for more than 15 minutes in those situations.”
On Monday, the state informed Pima County that they had met the goal of vaccinating more than 55% of the 65+ population, having vaccinated 59.4% of the 65 and older residents, said Cullen.
Based on data from the state, Cullen believes Pima County has already vaccinated around 20% of those 55 and older, because they fell into other categories like health care workers, law enforcement, and teachers.
Pima County is now in line with the state vaccination POD at the UA. Cullen said she hoped the consistent model would help reduce confusion about eligibility.
She said there are about 136,000 residents in Pima County who are aged 55 to 64, and frontline essential workers may be somewhere between 40,000 to 60,000 people.
“We believe that that group is, independent of age, at risk to acquire the disease,” said Cullen. “Our goal is really prevention of COVID, the acquisition of COVID and the transmission of COVID.”
Those eligible can apply for vaccine appointments starting 9 a.m. Friday, March 12.
Go to azhealth.gov/covid19vaccines to check eligibility.