One Year Later: Twelve Months Ago, The Outbreak Hit Pima County. Here's Where We Stand

Just about one year ago, on March

9, 2020, the first patient in Pima County tested positive for COVID-19.

Earlier in the day, a group of elected officials, including Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and the late Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías, held a press conference to warn that COVID-19 was on its way. They predicted it would be like a bad flu season and encouraged people to wash their hands more often.

But within weeks, it was clear this was going to be much worse than a bad flu season.

By mid-March, dozens of spring events had been canceled, from the Tucson Festival of Books to concerts at the Rialto Theatre. Restaurants and bars shut down or switched to takeout service. Pasta, meat and especially toilet paper began flying off grocery shelves. As we all learned about Zoom, Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced that the public school system would go to remote learning at the end of spring break; university and college leaders did the same.

Over the last 12 months, Arizona has twice been one of the world's worst COVID hot spots. As of Tuesday, March 9, one year after the first case was diagnosed, 16,326 Arizonans have died after contracting COVID, with 2,262 of those deaths here in Pima County.

After 827,800 cases of COVID in Arizona (and 110,642 in Pima County), here is where we stand.

COVID still killing hundreds of Arizonans every week

While COVID cases are trending in the right direction, UA School of Public Health epidemiologist and public health professor Dr. Joe Gerald warned that COVID will likely continue to kill hundreds of Arizonans per week through the end of March.

On the positive side, Arizona appeared to be headed into a state of moderate risk with most counties now transmitting fewer than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents each week, but that's still two to three times as high as the low point reached between the summer and winter waves.

"Hospitals remain busy and hundreds of Arizonans continue to die each week so we must encourage continued adherence to the recommended public health mitigation efforts," Gerald wrote in his weekly update on the state's COVID numbers. "Doing more to slow transmission (and keep it low) will ensure more at-risk Arizonans can be vaccinated."

Gerald noted that in the week ending Feb. 28, at least 6,872 Arizonans tested positive for COVID, a 29% drop in the previous week's tally of 9,649 cases.

Hospitals continued to see relief; as of March 5, 966 patients were hospitalized outside of ICUs, a drop of 27% from the previous week and 81% from the Jan. 11 peak of 5,082 patients, according to Gerald's report. That same day, 280 COVID patients were in ICU beds, a drop of 33% from the previous week and 76% from the Jan. 11 peak.

In the week ending Feb. 28, 826 people in Pima County tested positive, a drop of 24% compared to the previous week, with cases being diagnosed at a rate of 79 per 100,000 residents.

With the second wave receding, state and local officials are lifting some restrictions while continuing to urge caution.

Gov. Doug Ducey announced Friday, March 5, that he was rescinding his previous executive order limiting occupancy capacity for restaurants, gyms, theaters, water parks, bowling alleys and bars with dine-in service.

The governor's new executive order still allows local communities to enforce mask mandates, but businesses can return to full occupancy "effective immediately."

"We've learned a lot over the past year. Our businesses have done an excellent job at responding to this pandemic in a safe and responsible way," Ducey said. "We will always admire the sacrifice they and their employees have made and their vigilance to protect against the virus."

Ducey also gave Spring Training and major league sports the green light to proceed, provided they submit a plan on how they will implement CDC and state guidelines to the Arizona Department of Health Services and it received approval.

The executive order also precludes local municipalities to implement "extreme measures" that would stop businesses from operating.

"Unlike other states, we never did a shutdown here in Arizona. We withstood the calls from the extremes on both sides, and we will continue to ignore them," Ducey said. "We always knew that fighting this virus would be dependent on the personal responsibility of everyday Arizonans."

While Ducey said the new executive order was a "measured approach" in response to the state's vaccination efforts, he noted Arizona is "not in the clear yet" and urged citizens to continue proper COVID-19 safety protocols.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he would ask the Board of Supervisors to bring county regulations in alignment with the new state regulations at the next meeting.

"It's worth noting that today's action by the governor restores occupancy limits similar to what the Board had imposed in May, allowing for occupancy greater than 50 percent if distancing could be maintained," Huckelberry said following Ducey's announcement. "In order to match the state's more restrictive requirements, the Board of Supervisors modified operational rules and guidelines for restaurants in July to include the tighter occupancy limit."

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, called the announcement "no big deal."

On his blog, Humble, who headed up ADHS in the Brewer administration, said "those mitigation 'requirements' were just on paper anyway. They were never enforced by the ADHS and for all practical purposes never really existed. Businesses have been and will continue to do what they think their customers expect. They have known for many months that they don't actually have to follow the mitigation measures 'required' by ADHS- because there has never been any enforcement."

Schools must offer in-person classes no later than the end of spring break

There's little argument that this has been a terrible academic year for many kids, who have had to adjust to learning over a computer screen while sometimes attending school a few days a week.

But most kids will be returning to the classroom later this month after Ducey told schools last week to resume in-person instruction by March 15 or the end of spring break.

The March 3 executive order came as 12 of Arizona's 15 counties, including Pima, are "in phases where all schools are safe to open," according to Ducey, although the majority of Arizona counties were still in the "substantial" category of COVID-19 spread.

The order includes district and charter schools.

"Arizona's students need to be back in the classroom," Ducey said. "More than half of Arizona's schools are open and offering in-person options. More schools need to follow their lead, and pave the way for equitable education options for every Arizona student."

However, an individual district may close if the local health department advises closure due to "a significant outbreak" of COVID-19 that poses a risk to the students or staff, and is approved for closure by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Gerald said he was generally supportive of the idea of returning students to the classroom, particularly those in kindergarten through fifth grade, but warned that if the virus began spreading more rapidly, Ducey's order doesn't offer many opportunities to reverse course.

Ducey's order came as local districts were already offering some form of hybrid on-campus learning or were moving toward resuming classes, although all districts are also offering some form of remote learning if families prefer that option. The choices available vary from district to district and sometimes from school to school or class to class.

Tucson Unified School District, which has not resumed in-person instruction since last year's spring break, was already planning on returning to in-person instruction on March 24. Following Ducey's announcement, TUSD will now resume in-person learning on March 22.

Less than half of Sunnyside School District students returned to an in-person hybrid model on March 1, said Marisela Felix, director of public information at Sunnyside School District. The students are split into two cohorts, A and B. Cohort A attends a full day of school on Monday and Thursday, while Cohort B attends a full day of school Tuesday and Friday. All students attend school remotely on Wednesday.

Marana School District Superintendent Dan Streeter told families last week that the district would resume five days of in-person instruction for pre-K through 8th grades as well as MCAT students.

Marana High School and Mountain View High School will offer in-person instruction Monday through Thursday, with Fridays reserved for remote learning so that teachers will have time to work with students who prefer to remain in virtual schooling.

Amphi Superintendent Todd Jaeger announced on Friday, March 5, that the district would fully reopen schools on Wednesday, March 24, with all students learning virtually on Monday, March 22, and Tuesday, March 23. (On-campus supervision of students would be available as capacity permits on March 22-23.)

Catalina Foothills School District has been offering in-person instruction since the end of winter break.

New Pima Health Advisory drops county's voluntary curfew, allows gatherings of up to 25 people

As COVID cases continue to decline the Pima County Health Department relaxed some restrictions last week in a new public health advisory that dropped the county's voluntary curfew, lifted the recommended cap on safe gatherings from 10 people to 25 people and allowed the reopening of parks and recreation facilities with a limit of 50 spectators and face mask requirements for all those in attendance except for athletes who are actively playing the sport.

How to get a vaccine

While vaccine doses have been in short supply, more than 2.1 million vaccine doses had been delivered as of March 8. That number includes at least 1,386,000 Arizonans who have received at least one dose, accounting for roughly 20%of Arizona's population. More than 774,000 Arizonans have been fully vaccinated. Among the million people in Pima County, nearly 310,000 vaccine doses have been administered. More than 200,000 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine and almost 120,000 have been fully vaccinated.

To find out if you are eligible for a vaccine, visit the Arizona Department of Health website at AZDHS.gov.

Supplies remain limited, but at the start of this week, Pima County is providing vaccination shots to people 65 and older as well as educators, first responders and healthcare workers. Those who qualify in Pima County's 1B priority group of eligible vaccine recipients can register for a vaccine at www.pima.gov/covid19vaccineregistration or by calling 520-222-0119.

The county plans to expand eligibility to those 55 and older as well as frontline workers once officials estimate that 55% of the currently eligible population has been vaccinated.

A state-run vaccination site at the University of Arizona was accepting first dose applications as of Monday, March 8. As the state-run POD, or point of distribution, registrations at the UA vaccination site will go through ADHS's website. You can make an appointment at pod vaccine.azdhs.gov, and those who need assistance can call 1-844-542-8201.

Some local pharmacies are now receiving vaccine doses. To find one near you, visit the ADHS website.

Get tested: Pima County has free COVID testing

While Pima County officials continue to bicker with the state regarding reimbursement for running testing centers, the county is continuing to offer a number of testing centers around town. You'll have a nasal swab test at the Kino Event Center (2805 E. Ajo Way) and the Udall Center (7200 E. Tanque Verde Road).

The center at the northside Ellie Towne Flowing Wells Community Center, 1660 W. Ruthrauff Road, involves a saliva test designed by ASU.

Schedule an appointment at these or other drive-thru or pop-up sites at pima.gov/covid19testing.

The University of Arizona's antibody testing can determine if you have had COVID and now have antibodies. To sign up for testing, visit https://covid19antibodytesting.arizona.edu/home.

Austin Counts and Christina Duran contributed to this story.

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