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'Scarily flat' - Pima COVID cases moving in 'correct direction' but still not declining

New local COVID-19 cases continue on 'plateau,' health officials 'hoping for a much steeper decline'

The number of COVID-19 cases here is trending in the right direction, Pima County health officials said Friday, as vaccination rates inched higher and school-reported case are decreasing. But the number of new infections has yet to decrease markedly, and area hospitals are still pressured with coronavirus cases.

Arizona reported 2,830 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and 19 deaths. Pima County reported 236 new cases and no new deaths.

Pima County is still an area of “high” COVID transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which means that more than 100 people are newly infected per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period. The rate for Pima County on Friday was 187 per 100,000.

The county has had that designation since early August, and every county in Arizona also has high infection rates. The number of COVID tests with results that indicate new infections is now 7 percent.

'Scarily flat' COVID case rate

Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, said Friday that the overall trend for cases is "plateauing," with the number of new infections staying flat with a slight decrease, but he admitted that “he was hoping for a much steeper decline in the number of cases.”

“We continue to believe that we are indeed plateauing or starting to decline slightly,” he said. “It’s not at the rate that I would have wanted. In fact, sometimes it looks too scarily flat.”

Optimistic nonetheless, Garcia highlighted a slightly higher number of local residents who've been vaccinated, and a slowdown in the number of new school-reported cases. The overall trend is moving in the “correct direction,” he told reporters.

In Pima County, 66 percent of the vaccine-eligible population, or anyone over the age of 12, is fully vaccinated and 75 percent of residents have at least one dose. On Tuesday, 65 percent were fully vaccinated and the same percentage had at least one dose. Overall, 57 percent of the county, including children too young to get their shots, are vaccinated.

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In addition to the “milestone” vaccination rate, Garcia said he's seeing a decreasing trend in the number of school-reported cases. He said there have been 2,013 cases coming from 247 schools across the county, and 88 percent of those cases were children while 44 percent were children under 12 years old. On Tuesday, that total was about 1,800 cases.

“I think this is good news,” he said. “It means that schools are absolutely doing what they need to do.”

There have also been 40 classroom closures across the county and 68 outbreaks, he said. The number of outbreaks had been reported at 50 last week and in prior weeks, but increased earlier this week. Garcia said the county has done a good job of narrowly tailoring recommendations for schools where cases are reported to avoid classroom closures.

Also, one local child is hospitalized for COVID as of Friday, he said.

Hospitals filled with COVID patients

Hospitals continue to be overwhelmed, Garcia said, and the trend continues to be that unvaccinated COVID patients are staying longer, become more severely ill and need more resources than those who have gotten their shots. The key to taking the pressure off local hospitals, he said, is more people getting vaccinated.

Of hospitalized COVID patients, 90-95 percent are unvaccinated, he said, and they more often need ventilators or intensive care beds for treatment.

“Those are the sickest of the COVID patients that are walking into our different hospitals or being transferred in our different hospitals,” Garcia said.

Even so, “COVID-19 hospitalizations are trending in the right direction,” Garcia said. There were 20 ICU beds available as of Thursday, the County Health Department reported, and about 23 percent of occupied ICU beds are being used by COVID patients, Garcia said, adding that this number has stayed steady over the past few weeks.

The 20 ICU beds available — the same number as Monday — is the most ICU beds reported open in weeks, dating back to mid-August, but Garcia said it doesn’t fully indicate how busy hospitals are.

“Until we have more capacity in the system, I’m not going to sleep well,” he said, talking about ICU bed capacity. “I keep telling people this is the wrong time for us to have a big disaster, a big bus crash or something like that, because we just don’t have the bed capacity.”

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Some days in late August, there were just 10 or fewer open ICU beds in all area hospitals.

Boosters

On Friday, a Food and Drug Administration panel voted against approving third COVID-19 shots for people younger than 65. The FDA has yet to make a final determination about boosters for people who are not immunocompromised or elderly.

Garcia didn't say how this might affect the county’s plans to roll out booster shot availability in the coming weeks, which will about 6-8 months after the first people in the county were fully vaccinated with two Pfizer shots.

He said he trusted the review process and that it makes sense that older people may still want to get the virus because immune systems wane with age. He recommended that people who are immunocompromised continue to seek out booster vaccinations.

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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Sep 17, 2021, 4:39 pm
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Sooner or later we have enough people vaccinated and survivors to end the spread.

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Dr. Francisco Garcia, the chief medical officer for Pima County, told reporters Friday that the current trend for COVID-19 cases is moving in the right direction with high vaccine rates and fewer cases reported from schools. Still, the county is at a ‘plateau’ that he hoped would be lower by now.

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