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Rise in COVID, flu cases 'of concern' for Pima County

Officials keep eye on monkeypox, taking steps for gun safety

COVID cases are on the rise in Pima County though hospitalizations remain low, local health officials announced Friday. A sustained increase in new COVID infections, as well as flu and strep throat, is "of increasing concern," they said. The county is also taking steps to hand out free gun locks, and have a plan in case of a monkeypox outbreak in the community.

The county is seeing “accelerated transmission” of COVID along with lingering flu and strep cases, Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county health director, said at a press conference Friday.

“This is of increasing concern to us,” Cullen said. “While the hospitalization rate is still just minimally increasing, COVID is still resulting in mortality or death for individuals that are vulnerable or at-risk. We don’t want to minimize that and we also don’t want to minimize the long-term effects of COVID.”

Pima County had 1,692 new COVID cases and 5 deaths from the virus reported in the last week, according to the state health department. Across Arizona, 11,498 new COVID infections and 40 additional deaths were reported in the last week.

The county has a COVID infection rate of 162 new cases per 100,000 in the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the past, that rate would mean “high” transmission, but the county remains “low” because its hospitalization rate is only eight new admissions per 100,000 in the last week.

The rate of new cases in county was “high” from August to March and rose to three times the baseline for the “high” infection rate during surges in December and January.

Heading into the Memorial Day weekend and the summer months, Pima County residents should still wear masks when indoors with others, vaccinate and be cautious, Cullen said. She also recommended booster-eligible populations get their first or second booster shots, even if another may be needed in the future.

Flu and strep throat cases are also "lagging," with new cases continuing from the winter months. Spread of those infections is expected to last through the rest of spring.

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If they haven’t already, people should get their flu shots, Cullen said, as they are offered through the end of June.

Flu cases at the end of May are at levels that are usually seen in February, Cullen said. Not only have flu cases increased compared to what the county sees this time of the year, but the number of cases has “stayed elevated” since winter, she said.

The reason for the sustained jump in flu cases is “a little inexplicable,” Cullen said, but it could have to do with masking. It’s possible fewer people got flu shots because they thought masking was sufficient and that they're having a tougher time fighting it off because they were less exposed to it because of masks, she said.

“This is atypical,” she said about the rise in flu. “Respiratory diseases are normally what we see in the winter…I would caution people. We are seeing that people are being hospitalized with the flu.”

“The same is what we’re seeing for strep (throat),” Cullen added. “That is a respiratory transmitted disease and that’s probably contributing to it (the recent increase in strep throat cases).”

Gun safety & monkeypox

The County Health Department will also start giving away more than 4,000 gun locks following the shooting of Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead on Tuesday. The American Medical Association and other national medical groups now consider gun safety a public health crisis.

The several thousand gun locks that the county bought with a federal grant will be available in a few weeks, Cullen said. The safety devices will be handed out at libraries and clinics, including pediatric clinics, with the goal of “preventing more firearm deaths,” Cullen said.

Firearm concerns in Pima County have been a focus of the Health Department during the last six months, Cullen said. About 8,000 children have suffered unintentional firearm injuries or deaths annually from unsecured firearms since 2019, the ​​American Academy of Pediatrics reported in Sept. 2021.

Gun lock distributions have also been hosted by the Sheriff’s Department, the County Attorney's Office and the Tucson Ward 6 offices in recent years.

With news also covering the international outbreak of monkeypox, Cullen wanted to reassure the public that the county is prepared to respond if any cases are confirmed in Arizona. Several countries that don't normally report monkeypox, including the U.S., have started tracking multiple cases in recent weeks. 10 cases of the virus have been reported in the U.S., including one in Colorado and two in Utah.

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“We are prepared if there are any cases of monkeypox to initiate testing, case investigation, contact tracing and ring vaccination,” she said, referring to the vaccination strategy where people who have been in contact with confirmed cases are vaccinated right away.

The “accelerated public health infrastructure (put in place) because of COVID'' left Pima County ready to respond to monkeypox, Cullen said. The county has also planned their response in coordination with the state and federal partners, she said.

Cullen also asked that Pima County residents continue reporting the results of home COVID testing.

“That information is critical for us to be able to follow the COVID pandemic and the impact of it on our community,” she said. “We encourage you to test at home… but if you do a test at home, consider reporting to the Health Department.”

Reporting self-test results can be done online or by calling 520-724-7147.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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Dr. Theresa Cullen at FEMA site in May 2021


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