New Wave

Arizona COVID cases rising swiftly in wake of holiday

With holiday gatherings now over, health experts are bracing for a new wave of COVID patients as the Delta variant wave begins to subside and the Omicron wave begins to build.

More than 7,200 new cases were reported on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday, Jan. 4.

Jessica Rigler, an assistant director with Arizona Department of Health Services who oversees the Division of Public Health Preparedness, said that Arizona began seeing a spike in COVID cases starting two days after Christmas, “with more than 7,000 and even 8,000-plus cases on days for which we’d expect to have the majority of results reported.”

Rigler said that was likely undercounting the number of positive cases, especially since many people are using home test kits and not reporting the numbers to health officials.

“There is still much to learn about Omicron, but there is growing evidence that cases and hospitalizations may not correlate as strongly as other surges,” Rigler wrote on the ADHS website. “But don’t bet your health on that.”

Rigler urged Arizonans to get vaccinated, get a flu shot, wear face masks, keep a physical distance from those outside your household, stay at home if you get sick and get tested.

She also said that the state is working to provide additional nurses to Arizona hospitals, which are stretched thin.

Last week, officials with Banner Health announced they were operating at higher than 100% capacity as a result of both COVID-19 as well as medical cases unrelated to the novel coronavirus. Emergency rooms were strained for resources. Roughly 40% percent of those in the ICU were COVID-19 patients and 90% of those COVID-19 patients had not been vaccinated against COVID. Half of the patients on ventilators had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Dr. Majorie Bessel, Banner’s chief clinical doctor, said there had been a pause in providing monoclonal antibodies, a treatment that helps in the early stages of COVID infection to prevent serious illness. Bessell said Banner was expected to resume limited treatments this week once more Sotrovimab was available.

Bessel also said Banner would have a limited supply of the oral treatment Paxlovid, which has reduced the need for hospitalization of COVID patients, for people who meet criteria and are at the highest risk of hospitalization. Banner physicians and providers will evaluate whether a patient qualifies for Paxlovid, although Bessel warned that even a high-risk patient might not qualify. 

If a patient tests positive for COVID-19, it will most likely be the Omicron variant because, according to Bessel, Arizona is at a “tipping point” between the Delta and the more transmissible Omicron variant. Bessel said she expected the Omicron variant to “likely” displace Delta in January in the United States and the new variant will affect even those who have had previous infections or who have been vaccinated, especially those who don’t have their booster shot.

Early evidence suggests that the Omicron variant might produce less severe disease, but because it is more transmissible, it could still cause havoc in hospital capacity even if only a small percentage requires hospitalization, according to Bessel. 

Bessel pleaded with the public to remember that healthcare workers are exhausted after two years of battling the pandemic. The limited staff is stretched thin even though Banner continues to bring in external contracted labor.

Bessel recommended reducing the strain on emergency rooms by taking non-life-threatening illness and injuries to urgent care, primary healthcare clinics or scheduling virtual visits to meet medical needs. 

Bessel predicted increased cases and increased hospitalizations in the weeks to come. 

Bessel suggests for Arizonans to continue to wear a mask inside of public indoor spaces or when around other people, get vaccinated and a booster shot, stay home if you feel sick and are experiencing COVID-19, cold, or flu symptoms, quarantine if you test positive and seek medical care if you’re experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or other life-threatening symptoms. 

The Banner Health website includes a symptom checker that can help you figure out what level of care you might need. There is also a blog that provides step-by-step guidance on selecting appropriate levels of care. 

In late December, the CDC changed its recommended quarantine policy. After five days of being diagnosed with COVID-19, if the patient feels healthy enough to engage in day to day activities, they may do so but should remain masked around other people for another five days.

As of Tuesday, Jan. 4, a total of 24,509 Arizonans had died after contracting COVID, including 3,206 people in Pima County.  ν

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