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Tucson kids catching COVID outside classrooms; impacts of college return not yet seen

Kids under 12 in Pima County are contracting COVID-19 outside of their classrooms, Health Department officials said Friday, and there’s confidence that the total number of new cases will decline steadily in September — though students on college campuses will still contribute to spreading the virus.

Every county in Arizona is still an area of “high” transmission, with infection rates of more than 100 new cases for every 1,000 people over the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Pima County has had a “high” rate of new reported cases since early August, with 183 cases per 1,000 people as of Friday.

Also on Friday, Arizona reported 3,802 new COVID cases and 80 deaths. Pima County had 306 new reported cases and 10 deaths, and just 11 ICU hospital beds were available as of Thursday.

Pima County may see its current surge tailing off in the coming weeks, though, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical office, told reporters Friday. He gave a couple of other positive notes, pointing out that ICU bed use by COVID patients is decreasing and COVID cases among kids seem to be mainly occurring outside of the classroom.

At the same time, Garcia refused to say with certainty that COVID cases will start to decrease soon, as Pima County has yet to see the full impact of students back on campuses, especially at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College.

School-related COVID cases

Since kids started returning to class, Garcia said there have been 1,413 school-related cases including teachers and staff. Because the number of school outbreaks has stayed the same over the past several weeks — at 50 outbeaks — while school-related cases continue to increase, Garcia said there’s evidence that K-12 classrooms have low infection rates.

“In-school transmission is still a relative rarity,” he said. “Most of these kids that are being reported to us from schools are actually getting infected in their homes... in their community, in their after-school activities. They’re not actually getting infected in classrooms.”

Pima County saw a bump in cases near the start of the school year, Garcia said, because it around the beginning of many school-related activities like football practice, where precautions might be forgotten.

“That’s where infections happen,” he said. “When people are interacting, when people are engaging in vigorous physical activity and don’t have a mask, when people are being sloppy about mitigation measures.”

He also stressed that it’s still not the case that no infections are being contracted in classrooms, but "most infections among children actually happen in community settings,” he said.

He said the slow-down in classroom infections has to do with the strong effort on the part of the schools, which “have really doubled down, trying to do their best to mitigate the infection risk.”

“I think that the fact that we have not had more outbreaks speaks volumes to the level of work that our schools and school districts have done to keep our children and teachers and parents safe,” he said.

The group still most affected by school-related COVID cases is children younger than 12, which is the age of eligibility for vaccination. Of the 1,413 school-related cases this academic year, 671 of the cases involved kids in that age group, or 47 percent of the total school-related cases. Among the vaccine eligible 12-19 age group in schools, there have been 550 reported cases, or 39 percent of school-related cases.

Garcia said that the Pima County Health Department has been providing testing supplies to local schools as part of their strategy of layered mitigation, which he said includes masking, spacing and sanitation by the schools.

Pima County is providing 35,850 tests to schools in Pima County and that the state is directly providing more as well.

Hospitals and ICU beds

Garcia said that the low number of ICU beds available in Pima County — just 11 as of Thursday — is “not ideal” but that he still takes heart and feels “relatively comfortable” knowing that 20 percent of ICU beds are being used by COVID patients compared to 25 percent two weeks ago.

“ICU beds are being occupied by a variety of other patients and, we believe, are being turned over,” he said. “The patients are getting better...they’re being moved out. COVID patients tend to use beds for a long time, so it’s not just the sheer number but the number of bed days used.”

The number of ICU beds in use in all Pima County hospitals was at 347 and 346 on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, which are some of the highest numbers during the latest surge.

“I think this is trending in the right direction, but we are very aware that this is not a really easy situation,” he said.

He also emphasized again that almost all hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID have been of unvaccinated individuals since early in the year, when coroanvirus shots became available.

Garcia didn’t give a number for the children hospitalized for COVID when talking to the press on Friday, but the County Health Department has said that the number remains in a single-digit total. The number fluctuates daily, health officials said, but on Tuesday, they reported 6 pediatric cases. The number of COVID-related deaths of schoolchildren remains at zero.

The coming fall

Overall, Garcia said the current wave in COVID cases driven largely by the Delta variant, which he calls the fourth surge for Pima County, is appearing to decline though he said the day-to-day case numbers statewide and locally are still high and will likely remain high in coming weeks.

“I’m increasingly feeling like we are plateauing and perhaps even starting to go down,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, we are continuing to see a good, steady number of cases although it does appear to be tapering off in the last week...I’m the last person to call this a victory until we are further down the slope.”

Garcia said he’s hesitant to forecast a steady and quick decrease in coming weeks because “we are just now feeling some of the impact of schools being back fully in-session and children back to their normal things in the public.”

He said the same thing about the effects of students returning to the UA and PCC campuses, and he said he’s more concerned about the impact of those campuses because he’s worried about age groups in their late teens and early 20s.

“That group of particularly socially gregarious individuals, I think, will still see some cases associated with them,” he said. “I think it’s too early to say that we are reaching the end of the fourth surge, but I am hopeful that at the very least we have plateaued.”

Garcia said that at the end of September he’ll be more comfortable saying that Pima County has seen the full impact of higher education students returning to campus. He said he was certain that there will be "a degree of transmission" taking place on those campuses that hasn’t taken place yet, but he’s hoping to see a steep decline in the number of new cases by the end of the month.

If the number of new cases continues to trend downward into mid- to late-September, Garcia said he’ll be able to say that the current surge is “complete,” or finished.

Garcia said that there is some concern from the County Health Department about new COVID variants that could be more transmissible and able to survive in the vaccinated. Nonetheless, he said he’s hopeful for a “near normal fall.”

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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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county chief medical officer (center in this May 2021 file photo), spoke to reporters on Friday with confidence the upcoming fall season could be 'near normal' even as students return to K-12 and college campuses.

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