Spread Ahead: Health Workers Plead with Community as COVID Cases Skyrocket

Due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant, Arizona saw more than 45,000 new COVID cases reported between Friday, Jan. 7, and Sunday, Jan. 9.

Here in Pima County, there were 6,003 new cases over the same time period, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Dr. Joe Gerald, the University of Arizona Zuckerman College of Public Health epidemiologist who has been tracking Arizona’s COVID outbreak since its earliest days, noted a total of 53,207 Arizonans tested positive for COVID in the week ending Jan. 2, which was more than twice as many as the previous week. Along with that 120% increase, cases are being diagnosed at 731 per 100,000.

COVID was spreading especially fast among those 15 to 24 years of age, who are seeing rates of 1,005 cases per 100,000, and lowest among those 65 and older, at 407 cases per 100,000. People younger than 15 are averaging 409 cases per 100,000. Those high numbers likely undercount the total number of positive cases because not everyone who gets COVID will get a test, and not everyone who takes an at-home test reports their diagnosis.

The positivity of those getting tested, which dipped down to the 8% range last summer, jumped to 50% and “remains inadequate for public health practice and many cases are going undiagnosed,” according to Gerald in his latest weekly report.

While vaccinated people tend to have less severe bouts with Omicron, hospitals are still facing huge pressure, particularly thanks to unvaccinated patients who make up the majority of those who end up hospitalized with COVID.

“While peak occupancy will not reach prior levels, the Delta, and now Omicron, waves have placed much higher levels of chronic stress on our health system,” Gerald wrote. “We have so far seen 146 consecutive days with a combined occupancy >2000 patients whereas the summer 2020 and winter 2021 waves saw 57 and 98 days, respectively. Until last week, we had experienced 37 consecutive days with >3000 combined occupancy whereas the summer 2020 and winter 2021 waves saw 35 and 78 days, respectively. After a 10-day respite over Christmas-New Years, we are once again >3000 combined occupancy (last 4 days).”

Gerald criticized elected leaders for pursuing business-as-usual policies in the face of the wave. He said “the outcome will be more death and disability than necessary, more death and disability than others in similar circumstances will experience.”

Gerald’s comments were echoed in an open letter signed by more than 1,100 healthcare workers who urged Arizonans to get vaccinated or boosted and called on elected officials and hospital administrators to act to slow the spread.

The healthcare workers, including physicians, nurses, allied healthcare workers, public healthcare professionals and other clinical support staff from across the state of Arizona signed onto the open letter last week demanding more mitigation measures to rapidly reduce the spread of COVID-19 and prevent unnecessary deaths.

They said they were worried about the stress healthcare workers are experiencing as hospitals continue to operate on the edge of capacity and medical professionals face contracting the more transmissible Omicron in their workplace.

“But we’re also suffering as healthcare workers from moral injury after watching our patients, our families, community members suffer despite knowing the suffering is preventable and completely unnecessary,” Dr. Cadey Harrel said. “We are here to say enough is enough. We demand action. It is not too late at this point in time to change course.”

In their letter, the healthcare workers called on hospital administrators to establish stricter statewide visitation policies, including requiring masks, as well as increased testing capacity and new efforts to educate the public about the importance of wearing masks and other mitigation measures to slow COVID’s spread across the state.

“Gov. Doug Ducey’s continued blocking of mitigation strategies in the state has led us to the precipice that we are standing on right now,” Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs said.

In other recent COVID news:

• Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said last week that the next several weeks will be crucial but she hopes to see case numbers decline later in January.

Thus far, health officials say the Omicron variant is highly transmissible but causes fewer hospitalizations.

“Our new hospital admissions seem to be stabilizing, though our ICU beds continue to be strained and constrained, the same as for our adult medical surgical beds,” Cullen said last week. 

Pediatric hospital beds were available for use and Cullen reported that hospitals are seeing more pediatric hospitalizations for seasonal illnesses like RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and influenza than COVID.

Although health officials say hospital admissions have stabilized, the healthcare system in Arizona is being pushed to its limit.

• The University of Arizona will head into the 2022 spring semester with in-person classes and a new indoor mask requirement amidst increasing COVID cases.

UA President Robert Robbins announced earlier this week that UA will be returning to campus with in-person classes on Wednesday, Jan. 12. UA is now requiring students and faculty to wear a surgical mask or high grade KN95 masks in indoor campus spaces. Students will need to show a negative COVID test 48 hours before dorm move-in, as well.

“There are a lot of tools we have that we didn’t a year ago, which gives me more confidence returning to in-person classes,” Robbins said.

Professor of Public Health Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who is heading up the UA’s COVID response team, said the thinking has started to change on whether the University should move to online classes again because of “COVID exhaustion.” Carmona said the academic community is becoming more opposed to lockdowns due to mental health repercussions.

“Let’s stay focused on protecting those who are most vulnerable, let’s try to keep our economy going, let’s try to keep our schools open, especially our elementary schools,” Carmona said.

The new policy says cloth masks will not be accepted, but surgical masks will be provided at the entrance of campus buildings and classrooms. Masking in school settings has been shown to lower the risk of COVID outbreaks. In late September of 2021, a collaborative study between the Pima County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control found K-12 schools with a mask requirement were 3.5 times less likely to have COVID outbreaks than schools without mask requirements.

Robbins hopes students will regularly test and report their results to the University to be put in isolation dorms, but testing is not mandatory. UA has 300 isolation rooms available for students who test positive for COVID. The University will have on-campus testing and take-home test kits available to students.

Robbins said the University can’t put a vaccination mandate in place for students but he asked students to get vaccinated, boosted, wear a mask, and regularly test each week. 

Carmona also said it was vital for people to get vaccinated.

“We really need everybody to understand this sense of urgency and getting vaccinated is the most important thing you can do for yourself, but also all of us so that the more we can accelerate towards this endpoint, the less mutations we are going to see,” Dr. Carmona said.

• A new report published by the Arizona Department of Health Services shows vaccinated Arizonans are at less risk of succumbing to severe symptoms. In November, unvaccinated Arizonans were 4.9 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and were 31.1 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Pfizer released data in early December showing a booster shot can help neutralize the omicron variant.

People are eligible to receive a booster shot if they completed a two-dose COVID-19 vaccination series at least six months prior.

• Following approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, Pima County is now offering Pfizer booster shots to ages 12 and up. The Pfizer vaccine is the only shot approved for those younger than 18.

Two dose COVID-19 vaccination series of Pfizer and Moderna are available at county sites, along with the Johnson & Johnson single-shot COVID-19 vaccine. Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are eligible for a booster two months after receiving the shot. All of these vaccines and the Pfizer booster shots are available for free at these locations:

Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.

Abrams Public Health Center, 3950 S. Country Club Road

Theresa Lee Health Center, 1493 W. Commerce Court

North Clinic, 3550 N. First Ave.

Check hours of operation at the county website at pima.gov/covid19vaccines.

• As of Tuesday, Jan. 11, a total of 24,986 Arizonans have died after contracting COVID-19, including 3,270 in Pima County, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

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