As the Omicron wave continues to pack hospitals and spread across the region, the Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a plan to increase COVID testing availability during their Jan. 19 meeting.
The Board unanimously voted to increase PCR testing in Pima County with an additional 1,000 tests per day through Paradigm Laboratories.
“I am concerned with our PCR testing site at the airport,” Supervisor Sharon Bronson said. “We are seeing that we’ve got some issues at TAA (Tucson Airport Authority) with staff coming down with COVID and we’ve got people in line who have COVID. So I would think as part of the implementation of the new testing we need to find other sites than the airport.”
Cases continue to rise in Pima County due to the Omicron variant, with the county seeing 17,528 cases as of mid-January as opposed to 14,735 cases in the entire month of December, according to Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher.
Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said she had noticed that testing appointments through the county website were being scheduled two days out. She raised concerns this would make it more difficult for children to get back into school under the new test-to-stay policy.
Bronson added that constituents reported testing sites had a two-hour waiting period, even with
Low testing availability has also impacted the local healthcare system.
“People, because they can’t find a testing site, are going to ERs to ask to get COVID tested and that is incredibly disruptive for the healthcare system,” Supervisor Matt Heinz said.
Pima County launched the new PCR test center this week at the Kino Event Center, 2805 E. Ajo Way. Testing is open to anyone 2 years and older from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
PCR (or polymerase chain reaction) tests amplify trace amounts of virus DNA to provide an accurate result. Getting PCR test results through the county is expected to take between 24 to 48 hours. Testing at this location will be available for 30 days.
To provide more access to rapid testing, the Board voted unanimously to approve a master agreement with Stratus Point Global to supply more than 45,500 COVID-19 BinaxNOW Antigen Self-Test Kits to Pima County this year.
“The kind of testing that is widely available is typically 24 to 48 hours so it doesn’t get children back in school and doesn’t get people back into the workplace,” said Garcia.
The County also received federal support for a new drive-through PCR testing site at Pima Community College West Campus. The site was fully operational on Monday, Jan. 24, and test results are expected to take about 48 hours. It will be open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Lastly, a contract funded by the CDC with Partners in Health was passed by a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Steve Christy opposed. Partners in Health is a nonprofit healthcare organization that will help the County collect quantifiable data on K-12 schools as they reopen with new COVID mitigation strategies, such as mental health services for children that tested positive for COVID.
“This contractor over the next three years will be providing these services to include helping us with some of the data gathering, analysis, as well as some of the new strategic initiatives in this space,” said Garcia.
Meanwhile, COVID cases continue to put pressure on hospitals across the state. Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health in Arizona, said during a Jan. 24 press conference that COVID cases now account for one-third of the hospital system’s total patient population.
But Bessel said that while intensive care units remain busy, “ICU numbers are less than they were during our peak of January of the prior year, and we believe that is a direct result of the decreased severity that we are experiencing with Omicron.”
She said she hoped that hospitalizations would peak next month before declining.
Bessel noted that 83 percent of hospitalized COVID patients at Banner are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated and 87 percent of ICU COVID patients are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. She encouraged Arizonans to get vaccinated if they haven’t already and to get their booster shots.
“Vaccination continues to be your best defense to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death due to COVID infection,” Bessel said. “Boosters will help maximize your protection.”
She also said people should wear high-quality masks such as a N95 or KN95 mask when indoors or around large crowds while Omicron is in widespread transmission.