No room at the ICU: Hospital beds fill as COVID remains widespread

Pima County intensive care unit beds are shrinking in availability as COVID hospitalizations remain high.

Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen reported that only eight ICU beds were available countywide during a Dec. 1 press conference.

“We’ve had less than 5% ICU bed availability for the past 42 days,” Cullen said.

Epidemiologist Dr. Joe Gerald, a professor in the UA Zuckerman School of Public Health who has been tracking COVID cases since the virus first arrived in Arizona, reported that as of Dec. 1, 31% of Arizona’s general ward beds were occupied by COVID-19  patients, a 5% increase from the previous week. Gerald also reported only 5% of Arizona’s general ward beds remained available for use, which he called “a new all-time low.”

Gerald urged people to get vaccinated or a booster shot.

“Vaccination remains the most important public health priority to reduce transmission and severe illness,” Gerald wrote in his Dec. 4 weekly report. 

“However, mask mandates, restrictions on indoor gatherings, and targeted business mitigations are also needed to reduce/control transmission in the short-run with the primary goal being to avoid overwhelming our critical care facilities.”

Health officials worry that holiday celebrations coupled with snowbird populations in Arizona could put even more pressure on already stressed hospitals.

“If we look at the trends in the last decade, you will see hospital admissions go up, people get the flu, they get respiratory problems, they have a heart attack, senior citizens fall and break an arm or a leg and we accommodate those, but now there is no ability to accommodate as we have in the past,” Professor of Public Health and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona said during the Nov. 29 University of Arizona status update.

Pima County reports that more than 99% of residents 65 and older are fully vaccinated. They hope this will decrease the need for COVID-related hospital visits from this age group. Cullen advised Pima County residents to get a booster shot if they have already received the first two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Pima County expanded booster availability by offering boosters to everyone 18 and older.

Omicron concerns

The newly discovered Omicron variant has been labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization. The variant was identified by South African scientists, but this does not mean the variant developed in South Africa.

Cullen reported that as of last week, Omicron had not been found in Pima County. The county was made aware of the new variant over Thanksgiving weekend. Cullen said TGen, the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, is doing viral sequencing for Pima County and will be able to identify Omicron from testing samples.

There is speculation the new variant may decrease the efficacy of the vaccines due to new mutations. However, health officials still recommend the vaccines to protect from COVID-related mortality and hospitalizations. Delta remains the most prevalent variant in Pima County and the United States.

New Vaccine Center and Monoclonal Antibodies

The Pima County Health Department, in partnership with the City of Tucson, is offering free COVID-19 vaccines at the Tucson Convention Center.

The vaccine clinic is in the TCC east lobby, 260 S. Church Ave., adjacent to the DoubleTree Hotel, and will operate Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free parking is available in the Lot A Garage, accessible from Church Avenue.

The Pima County Health Department also reached out to the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response from the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services to request federal support for monoclonal antibody treatments. Cullen said the county will receive two teams to administer monoclonal antibodies and one team should arrive within the next seven to ten days.

Monoclonal antibodies help those infected with COVID by blocking the virus from attaching to human cells and slowing the virus’s reproduction. The treatment mimics the body’s natural immune response in a faster, more effective way. 

Pima County has several requirements to receive monoclonal antibodies: patient must test positive for SARS-CoV-2; they are within 10 days of symptoms appearing; be at least 12 years old and weigh at least 88 pounds; and be at high risk of getting very sick from COVID infection. 

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