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'Turbulent times' as COVID spikes in schools; area hospitals burdened, Pima health chief says

4,000 told to quarantine from schools after exposure to coronavirus

With almost 21,000 new COVID cases in the past week, a high transmission rate and overburdened hospitals, Pima County is experiencing “turbulent times,” Health Department officials said on Tuesday.

Despite a slight increase in the number of area residents who've been vaccinated for the coronavirus, there are concerns about a growing number of school-related cases as both K-12 and University of Arizona students have headed back to class.

Among the increase in cases, there have been 947 school-related coronavirus cases, mostly in children, an increase from the 800 reported five days ago, and the number of ICU beds available in the county is still low. About 4,000 people have been told to quarantine after school-related exposures to the virus.

These are “turbulent times” as frustration and fatigue set in over the continued fight against a pandemic that was expected to have abated by now, Dr. Theresa Cullen, the director of the Pima County Health Department, told reporters Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Arizona reported 2,695 new COVID cases, bringing the total over the past week to nearly 20,900 with 171 deaths. Pima County reported 152 new cases and is experiencing the most daily new infections since February.

Arizona has seen close to 2,000-3,000 new cases each day since the beginning of August.

This week, the state will likely top 1 million total reported coronavirus infections since the beginning of the outbreak, with about 2,000 Arizona residents now hospitalized because of the virus.

The rate of infection in Pima County is 165 cases for every 100,000 people, which is down from last week’s 168 per 100,000 but still a “significant increase” from where the county was a month ago.

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Infection rates above 100 cases per 100,000 people put the county in a red zone marking high transmission rates for data tracked by the Centers for Disease Control. Pima County has been seeing its rate continue to increase since July and entered CDC’s red zone earlier this month.

Cullen said the current infection rate is about where Pima County was in June 2020.

The county’s positivity rate - or how many people test positive for COVID - is between 8 and 10 percent of people tested, but this number fluctuates daily as it depends on how many tests are done, Cullen said.

However, Cullen also said that the county is seeing the number of people vaccinated “very slowly increasing.” In Pima County, about 74 percent of the 18 and older population has at least one dose of the vaccination and, with the 65 and over group, 94.5 percent do.

In early July, the county reported that 70 percent of adults were vaccinated.

Schools and hospitals

In schools, the number of people who have been told by the county to quarantine because of exposure to the virus is around 4,000, which includes teachers and students. Those people have been determined by the county to have been in close contact with another person with a reported infection, or because the county has declared an outbreak in a classroom, Cullen said.

Cullen said the county has reported more than 30 outbreaks in schools, slightly more than those reported last week.

The Delta variant is causing most of the current cases as 87 percent of the cases in Pima County are caused by the new variant.

The few that are not being caused by Delta are mostly caused by the Alpha variant, a variant originating in the UK. The county started seeing the variant locally a few months ago, but Cullen said it has since persisted in a small number of cases here.

The number of hospital beds taken up by people with COVID as a primary cause in Pima County is between 15 percent and a percentage in the low 20s, Cullen said.

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Hospitals are admitting more patients, generally, and Cullen said that hospitals are seeing a high level of hospitalizations for people with certain chronic diseases, particularly diabetes and congestive heart failure. Many hospitals are still doing elective surgery, however, she said.

Last Friday, there were just 7 intensive care beds available in all of Pima County's hospitals combined, county data showed. Across the state, about 2,000 COVID patients are hospitalized — about four times more than at the beginning of July.

The county is also aware of reports of high rates of depression and suicide among healthcare workers across the country, and is worried about the mental health of local healthcare workers.

“One of the things that has made it worse is that people thought it was going to get better,” Cullen said about the pandemic. “Instead we’re back here. That concept of fatigue is experienced everyday by our healthcare workers, our public health workers, by our frontline workers.”

She said she believes the past few weeks have had a “significant impact” on the mental health of healthcare workers locally.

Boosters on the horizon

Cullen said that the rollout for delivering COVID booster shots is “on the very near horizon” with immunocompromised people already able to get boosters and a plan to start delivering third shots to more people on September 20.

Most boosters are being provided by pharmacies, Cullen said, and she anticipates that pharmacies will continue to provide those shots after the rollout of additional vaccinations.

“Our goal is - and we are in the active process of this - developing a plan, reaching out to people who have traditionally provided shots, assessing whether they’ll continue to do that and deciding what other venues are needed to provide the number of shots we anticipate,” she said.

Cullen said the county is currently anticipating a spike in need for booster shots near January and a demand of about 25,000 to 30,000 booster shots a week because that corresponds to when most vaccinations became available and the eight-month period after which the fully vaccinated can get their boosters.

“Right now, I feel like the county is on top of this,” she said about the rollout plan. “There doesn’t need to be a rush. Once it opens up, there will still be a reminder to people that, while this is all based on a trusting relationship with the individual, that they not seek a shot before eight months.”

Eight months is the current guidance the county has for administering the shot, but Cullen said that could change.

Cullen also said that the FDA approval of the Pfizer shots is “huge” as it extends the life of vaccines currently frozen and stored.

“The good thing is we will not see any near-term expiration of the Pfizer vaccine,” she said.

Testing for UA and 'turbulent times'

Cullen said she’s concerned about the potential for renewed outbreaks at the University of Arizona, among the nearly 40,000 students who have returned to the campus for the fall.

“When I think of the university, I think of a little city springing up,” she said, talking about the impact it can make.

She said the county is working with UA's president and its public health team to ensure testing availability and requiring testing after outbreaks. She said the county and the UA will continue to monitor the numbers very closely as the dorms reopen.

The hope, she said, is that many of the students are coming to campus vaccinated.

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Cullen compared the challenges with the pandemic to flying on a plane, saying that at the start of the pandemic there was a take off and an attempt to leave the situation, but even though things were been running smoothly for a time, the plane has hit turbulence.

“I think what’s important is that I believe - and I hope the community believes - that we will get out of this,” she said. “I don’t want to promise there won’t be more turbulence coming, but if anything, the pandemic has taught us that we can respond, that we can work together and that there is light and that we just need to be committed.”

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

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Cullen spoke to reporters on Tuesday about the high number of cases and infection rate afflicting Pima County and Arizona right now, with new concerns like rolling out booster shots and the toll taken on hospitals (December 2020 file photo)

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