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COVID infections 'plateauing' in Pima County, but cases still 'high' in Maricopa & Pinal for July 4

Pima County had more than 2,000 new reported COVID-19 cases last week, which marks a “plateauing” of surge underway since late April. Hospitalizations have also trended upward since then as neighboring counties have also seen cases spike, officials said.

Pima County is ranked in the "yellow" range by the Centers for Disease Control, but much of Arizona is rated "orange," with substantially more new infections reported — including Maricopa and Pinal counties, and all of Northern Arizona.

Residents should be cautious heading into the holiday weekend, county health officials warned, as COVID cases and hospitalizations locally and statewide are highest they’ve been since the last surge trailed off at the beginning of March.

“It is critical that residents protect themselves and each other with vaccination (and boosters),” according to a memo from County Administrator Jan Lesher, which also advised “staying home when sick, and masking indoors if you are interacting with individuals not part of your household.”

The county counted 2,263 new COVID cases since last week and seven deaths from the virus, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. The state had 16,514 cases and 63 deaths in that period.

Measurements for community spread by the the CDC have changed since March, but Pima County is ranked as “medium” for the level of the virus in the community, because officials are reporting COVID at a rate of 216 cases per 100,000 individuals for the last seven days.

“Hospitalization of Pima County residents has been rising during the last four weeks, and was noted to be 60 last week,” Lesher told the Board of Supervisors on Friday.

ER visits for “COVID-like illness” have gone up 1.5 percent since mid-April, according to the county, and now account for 4 percent of ER admissions.

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Community spread in Maricopa and Pinal counties is “high,” according to the CDC. Pinal County has a smaller case rate than Pima County at 212 COVID cases per 100,000 people since last week. Maricopa, however, has 231 new cases per 100,000 people in the same period.

Pinal County ranks “high” unlike Pima County because it had about 10 new COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people since last week while Pima County had a rate of 9 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, just below the benchmark.

Maricopa County had the same hospitalization rate as Pinal County. Every county in Arizona besides Graham, Greenlee and Santa Cruz counties are ranked “medium” or “high.” Only Pima, Yuma and Cochise counties are “medium.”

Masks in public, still

Masking is recommended by the CDC:

  • If you develop symptoms or think you’ve been exposed to the virus
  • On public transportation
  • If you’re in crowded indoor settings
  • If you're an older or vulnerable adult, consider wearing a mask indoors in public

Testing (and treating)

Testing is also recommended by the federal agency, but free testing is rolling back locally. Thursday was the last of free testing at the Ellie Towne Center, as state and federal support has stemmed, though it’s still available at Paradigm Labs on Grant Road and at the Tucson International Airport.

Information on self-test giveaways by the county is available online along with how to make an appointment at the last two free testing sites. Self-test kits are also available at retail pharmacies, and for free via the U.S. Postal Service.

Fewer test results have been reported to the county during June, however. The trend inflated the county’s seven-day positivity rate to more than 27%. In April, between 3 to 4 percent of results reported to the county were positive for COVID.

More than 10,000 tests were performed last week in Pima County, but common home-use rapid antigen tests are particularly under-reported, according to county officials.

Certain COVID-infected residents can also try out a COVID pill. In what’s called a “test-to-treat” program, county residents who test positive for COVID can receive an antiviral medication meant to treat coronavirus.

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Residents have to meet requirements based on their age, weight, COVID symptoms and health then go through evaluations by health department staff and a medical team supported by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA.

In the first nine days of the program, 252 people were accepted to receive the treatment. Registering is possible 7 days per week with limited hours on the weekends.

Vaccinations

Slightly more than 70% of the vaccine-eligible county population has been fully vaccinated, which doesn’t include third or fourth doses, but 50% percent of those people have also had at least one booster. Residents aged five or older are 74% fully vaccinated.

Vaccines for children 6 months to 5 years old were made available last week, but the county or CDC haven't yet reported vaccination rates for younger children.

Several county locations offer the newly approved vaccine for infants and young children. Those sites and their hours are listed online.

The number of COVID cases reported in vaccinated Pima County residents, or the breakthrough rate, is about 9% since the vaccine became available at the start of 2021. The total number of breakthrough cases in that time is almost 64,000 cases in the county.

“Breakthrough cases result in less severe disease” according to the county. “1.8 percent (12,446) of fully vaccinated individuals have required hospitalization, and 0.6 percent (3,897) have died of COVID-19 related illness.”

Vaccines remain “abundantly available” in Pima County, health officials report, including at retail pharmacies, the county’s fixed and mobile vaccination sites listed online and at clinics throughout the county.

Almost 2 million doses of the COVID vaccine have been administered by Pima County.

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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