Delta Blues: COVID cases top 1 million in Arizona as state shuts down most testing in Pima County

Arizona surpassed the grim milestone of more than 1 million positive COVID cases as the Delta wave continues to wash over the state.

As of Tuesday, Aug. 31, a total of 1,011,923 Arizonans had tested positive for novel coronavirus, with several thousand people testing positive each day, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

A total of 18,786 people had died after contracting COVID, according to ADHS.

There are signs the latest wave may be leveling off, according to Dr. Joe Gerald, an epidemiologist and professor with the UA Zuckerman School of Public Health who has been tracking the spread of COVID since it first appeared in the state in March 2020.

In an Aug. 27 report, Gerald noted that the number of cases per week has been increasing for 11 weeks but the growth in the week ending Aug. 22 was modest.

“While Arizona continues to experience a high number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, week-to-week increases are currently moderating,” Gerald wrote.

But he warned the trend could reverse and cases could start to rise again.

“There have been temporary retreats before, so it is important to wait several more weeks before signaling a more permanent shift, especially in light of university reopenings,” Gerald wrote.

Gerald also noted that transmission among children under the age of 15 continues to increase and the rate per 100,000 population has nearly surpassed rates among all other age groups for the first time.

“Resumption of K-12 in-person instruction in the face of high community transmission, inadequate vacation, prohibited masking and inadequate surveillance testing is undoubtedly the cause,” Gerald wrote. “This is underscored by higher case rates among those 10-14 years (old) as compared to those 15-19 years (old). This reversal may be short-lived as universities resumed operations last week. Therefore, transmission among those 15-19 years (old) is expected to increase in coming weeks.”

He also noted that 1,978 of Arizona’s 8,791 general ward hospital beds were occupied by COVID patients as of Aug. 25, an 8% drop from the previous week. But as of the same date, the use of intensive care beds was on the rise, up to 487 out of the state’s 1,765 available ICU beds, a 13% increase from the previous week.

A total of 112 Arizonans died after contracting COVID in the week ending Aug. 15, down slightly from the 114 who died the previous week.

Pima County resumes COVID testing

After the state of Arizona stopped funding most free COVID testing centers, Pima County has picked up the effort, opening a testing center at the Abrams Public Health Center, 3950 S. Country Club Road. Nasal swab testing is available from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Pre-registration is recommended but walk-ins are welcome for onsite registration.

But it remains unclear whether county taxpayers will have to pay the costs or if there will be reimbursement from the state or the federal government.

Pima County Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said a testing site can cost around $100,000 per day for equipment, employees and other costs. 

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry asked U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva to consider directly funding the county’s testing program or to push the state to continue funding COVID testing. This is the second time the state has declined to pay for testing costs.

Huckelberry told Congressman Grijalva that the state has said that federal dollars for testing are not intended to pay for free testing by the county, with state officials suggesting that testing providers such as Pima County “seek insurance and other reimbursements.” 

“Apparently, they would like us to charge for testing,” Huckelberry said in his letter. “It is a simple fact that adding administrative barriers to testing and vaccination is a practice proven to perpetuate the COVID-19 pandemic—hardly a wise public health response.”

The state allocated $14.4 million to Pima County for COVID testing, which was spent early on in the pandemic. The State only gave 3.4% of its federal funds for testing to Pima County. In total, Pima County has spent over $49 million on testing since the start of the pandemic.

Previously, the state declined to reimburse Pima County for $7.5 million because the expenses occurred before Jan. 15. However, the Jan. 15 limitation only applied to one federal funding source used by the state, according to Huckelberry’s letter.

Both the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, along with the Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March 2020 require states to allocate federal funding for free COVID testing. 

Pima County was quick to open free testing sites at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“It was actually one of the major elements that distinguished Pima County from other counties because we made this commitment to ensure adequate and equitable access for our residents,” said Pima County Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen.

In an Aug. 24 press conference, Dr. Cullen said state resources for testing are minimally available. The state will continue to fund the testing location at Tucson International Airport and the saliva testing location at Ellie Towne Community
Center.  ν