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Another COVID surge in Arizona? Sharply rising cases worry health experts

Arizona had been seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases but new data is showing that cases are continuing to rise, with 11 of the state’s 15 counties having “substantial” spread and the state increasing its number of cases for five consecutive weeks as hospital capacity continues to be strained.  

The highly infectious Delta variant has quickly been becoming the dominant strain of the virus in Arizona, and public health officials say it is driving the increase in cases in Arizona and across other parts of the country.

A report by University of Arizona’s Dr. Joe Gerald looking at the week ending on July 11, found that cases began to show an increase in numbers for the fifth consecutive week — increases that come on the heels of state lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey restricting what schools, businesses and local governments can do to curb the spread of the pandemic.

Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and a former director of the state’s Department of Health Services, said recent actions by Ducey and legislators “have tied the hands of virtually the entire state to the point where nobody is allowed to do virtually anything to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Humble wrote on his blog Friday: “K-12 schools are prohibited from requiring masks on campus. Universities and community colleges cannot require masks nor can they have a student code of conduct that has different expectations for vaccinated and unvaccinated students. Cities and counties cannot have mask requirements in their jurisdictions. Vaccination requirements and requirements for vaccination records are prohibited. It’s like they have us in reverse lockdown.”

Gerald’s report found that cases had jumped 48% from the previous week, and he estimated that the current rate of 80 cases per 100,000 Arizona residents a week will increase to 105 cases per 100,000 residents per week by the end of the month.

The last time Arizona had a similar level of transmission was in mid-October of last year, just before the state began its major surge of cases in November.

“Prudence suggests we heed this warning and prepare for the worst even as we hope for the best,” Gerald writes in his report.

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Hospitals are also seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients, according to data in Gerald’s report.

General hospital beds occupied by those patients saw a 26% increase from the previous week, while intensive care unit beds saw a 22% increase. Hospital capacity still remains at higher than normal levels, with most hospitals in the state at least 85% full.

Only four Arizona counties are not listed as having either substantial spread or higher per the data in Gerald’s report: Pima, Graham, Yuma and Cochise all have “moderate” spread of the virus, while 10 counties had “substantial” spread of the virus, including Maricopa.

Mohave County has a “high” spread, with more than 150 cases per 100,000 residents being reported, the most of any county by far. Only about 38% of Mohave County has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Arizona has begun posting new case numbers in the thousands again recently, with July 12 being the first day Arizona has reached that number since March, when cases first started to decline. Over the last week, the state has averaged approximately 851 new cases a day.

The Delta variant has been spreading around the world, having caused major spikes in cases in India, the United Kingdom and Missouri.

One study by a group of UK scientists found that the Delta variant is 225% more transmissible than the original strain of the SARS-COV-2 strain that kicked off the global pandemic in early 2020. Another recent study by researchers at the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that people infected with the Delta variant had 1,000 times more copies of the infection in their lungs than those with the original virus.

The variant was first sequenced in Arizona in May and then began becoming the dominant variant shortly after, according to researchers.

Recent studies have shown that breakthrough cases happen for those who have been vaccinated, but those who were vaccinated were far less likely to be hospitalized than their unvaccinated counterparts. Meanwhile, one in five unvaccinated people who caught COVID-19 wound up in the intensive care unit.

Arizonans who are unvaccinated currently make up a majority of the cases of COVID in the state, and approximately 95% of all cases in May were from unvaccinated Arizonans.  

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“With inadequate vaccination uptake, eliminating COVID-19 is no longer a plausible public health policy goal,” Gerald says in his report. “COVID-19 is almost certain to become an endemic disease with varying temporal and geographic implications. Fortunately, vaccination will remain a viable disease control strategy offering a high degree of protection to those willing to accept them.”

Public health officials have already been pushing for more people to get the vaccine with the spreading Delta variant as it is seen as one of the best ways to combat the virus. In L.A. County, where a similar surge in cases is happening, a new mask mandate has been initiated.

Gerald recommended a mask mandate for Arizona, noting that “individual action will not be able to stem the tide unless those most resistant to vaccination and mask-wearing change their behaviors,” but acknowledged that it would not happen because of recent decisions from policymakers.

However, in Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and the legislature banned mask mandates in schools as well as local mask mandates. He also issued an executive order barring state universities and colleges from implementing testing protocols and mask requirements for students and faculty who aren’t vaccinated.

Arizona reported 1,251 new cases of COVID-19 and 17 new deaths on July 16, according to Arizona Department of Health Services data. As of July 16, more than 906,000 have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 18,000 people have died from the virus.

Those looking to get vaccinated can find statewide vaccine information here.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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The last time Arizona had a similar level of transmission was in mid-October of last year, just before the state began its major surge of cases in November.


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