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Pima officials again sound positive note on COVID cases, despite low vax rates & pressured hospitals

Garcia: Biden's vax mandate is 'right thing' to do

The current trend in new COVID-19 cases had Pima County health officials sounding a positive note Friday, though local hospitals remain overwhelmed and the number of people being vaccinated is expected to remain low despite the mandate announced by President Joe Biden on Thursday.

The coming flu season also presents concerns for the Pima County Health Department, with officials urging people to get both their COVID and flu shots soon if they haven't already.

Arizona reported 2,988 new COVID-19 cases and six deaths from the virus on Friday. There were 338 new cases and one newly reported death in Pima County.

There were just 10 intensive care beds available in all hospitals across the county on Wednesday and Thursday. For weeks, there haven't been more than about a dozen ICU beds available. County health officials said that 22 percent of ICU beds are now being used by COVID patients. Tuesday, they reported that about 40 percent were.

The number of new COVID cases is trending toward a plateau, if not yet a decrease, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, told reporters Friday.

“Although we’re not yet ready to have a party, I think in general this is a good sign,” he said, going over the number of Pima County cases during the current surge, fueled mostly by the contagious Delta variant. He said the trend “continues to be something we watch very carefully.”

Garcia also highlighted vaccination rates, noting that over 75 percent of the population 18 and older in Pima County has at least one dose and Marana, Sahuarita and Oro Valley have the same rate.

“But the fact that there is this residual 30 percent unvaccinated population continues to be of concern,” he said. “We’ll never get to 100 percent. It’s probably not realistic.”

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The number of school-reported cases has increased to 1,705, which includes adults and children. Garcia said the that total number is “a lot by any measure.”

“But again,” he said. “As large as that number is, one of the bright spots here is that we’re actually not talking about 1,705 outbreaks.”

Giving another positive note, he gave schools credit for doing a “very, very good job” mitigating outbreaks. The number of outbreaks is “relatively limited,” he said, and cases related to students and teachers have mostly been contracted outside of schools.

Garcia didn't give updated numbers on the number of school-connected outbreaks, but the most recent figure provided by the Pima County Health Department was 50 outbreaks in schools.

Pima County, like most of the U.S. and every county in Arizona, has a “high” rate of community transmission of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control, meaning there have been more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. Pima County’s rate is 164 per 100,000 as of Friday. Of new COVID tests performed in the county, 8 percent have been positive for the virus.

Federal vaccination mandate is 'right thing' to do

Garcia said he’s not expecting a jump in vaccination demand despite the federal mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure employees have their shots.

The county had already had sufficient vaccine availability, he said, mentioning not only county sites but also federally supported sites and private locations such as CVS and Costco pharmacies.

The details of how the new vaccine mandate will be carried out at the local level are still being worked out, Garcia said, and Pima County still doesn’t know how it will be enforced and implemented.

“They’re still making these rules up,” he said. “This rulemaking stuff, though, is going to take a little bit of time to actually get done.”

He also said that the “federal government is doing the right thing” by passing the mandate and holding businesses accountable for keeping their communities safe.

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Garica said he expects the mandate to be enforced by Occupational Safety and Health Administration, because the agency already has the role of sanctioning employers for workplace violations, but he repeated that he was uncertain about the details.

The federal mandate likely won’t make a large dent in the local vaccination rate, however, he said. He doesn’t know how many percentage points the mandate will add to the number here who have gotten their shots, but he said it “could add icing to the existing cake...with regards to vaccine coverage.”

What will limit the impact of the mandate, he said, is the small number of employers with more than 100 employees in the area. The Health Department will keep extending resources to small businesses that aren't covered by the new federal action.

“The federal mandate is a good thing,” he said. “I think we need to think beyond the mandate to where there are other places in our community that need our assistance.”

Flu season

Garcia said that people should consider wearing masks to prevent themselves from the flu as they should with the coronavirus, and he recommended getting flu shots as soon as possible.

The use of masks had already been important given the high local transmission rate of COVID, he said, especially for protecting the elderly. He also stressed that people have to know that they should get the flu vaccine even if they have the COVID vaccine.

“Cases of influenza can be very severe, even fatal, in the elderly and in children,” he said, answering in Spanish. “It’s very important to emphasize that we remind our community that they also need this vaccine.”

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 will continue to see a decrease in COVID cases despite low vaccination rates and coming flu season.

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