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Pima officials 'alarmed' at COVID-19 spike: Infections & hospitalizations on rise

The "alarming rate" of new coronavirus cases in Pima County looks "like the beginning of the huge spike that we saw over the summer," and local officials are cautioning people to be safer as the holidays approach.

Over the past three weeks, cases have been on the rise with just more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases reported from the first week of November in the county. Hospital admissions for COVID-19 have also "spiked," officials said, with 75 hospitalizations reported for last week.

"This is the highest one week total since the large spike in cases over the summer," Pima County health authorities said. "The first week of November saw the same level of cases during the beginning weeks of June 2020."

Across Arizona, the percentage of coronavirus tests that are positive is still increasing (9% the week of November 1), "indicating increased community spread," state health officials said. "Five weeks ago, during the week of Oct, 4, just over 4,800 COVID-19 cases were reported in Arizona. Last week, over 13,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported. This is a 187% increase"

"We are very concerned, especially with holidays like Thanksgiving upon us," said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department. "This is starting to look like the beginning of the huge spike that we saw over the summer."

This week, in a report provided to state governors, the White House warned that Arizona was among the states that had re-entered the "red zone" because of the sudden jump in COVID-19 cases here. Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey has signaled he won't impose any new restrictions. In neighboring New Mexico, where an average of 1,000 new cases has been reported daily for the past week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that her state was returning to a "shelter in place" order, with only essential workers and people shopping for food or seeking medical care allowed outside their homes.

In Arizona on Friday, 3,015 new COVID-19 infections were reported, with 336 in Pima County. 17 new deaths from coronavirus were reported, bringing the statewide total to 6,257. As of Thursday, there were nearly 1,400 known or suspected COVID-19 patients in hospitals around the state.

Over the last week, Arizona has averaged 2,049 new confirmed cases per day at a rate of 28 cases per 100,000 residents.

The last time Arizona saw numbers this high was in August. However, that was during a downturn in infections, while the current numbers are in the midst of a climb. One important factor is the infection rate, which is judged on a scale of 0-2; a rate of less than 1 means little spread is happening, while rates above 1 indicate community spread. In August, Arizona's infection rate was .72, much lower than the current 1.18, according to data compiled by COVID Act Now.

The increase in hospitalizations, along with the local and national rise in new infections, increases the risk that hospitals will become overwhelmed just as the holiday season begins — with more people traveling and gathering with family.

"We anticipated that we would see an increase after Halloween and the political events leading up to the elections. We cannot relax on taking steps as a community. We all have a role to play in preventing the spread of the disease before we see more increases in transmission," Cullen said.

"We need people to take the extra steps that we know can help slow the spread of the virus," said Cullen. "We will continue to struggle to keep people healthy and out of the hospital if we can't get these numbers down."

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, health officials remind everyone to:

  • Wear a mask anytime you are around people who you don't live with
  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer
  • Maintain at least 6 feet of space from others
  • Protect those at most risk of complications from the virus by limiting visits and other physical contact with family members who are elderly or have other health conditions

"With the holidays approaching, everyone must do their part. Limiting households that gather together, moving gatherings outdoors, wearing masks and allowing for physical distancing will help protect your loved ones who don't live with you," said an update from the Arizona Department of Health Services this week.

"Arizonans should wear masks and physically distance if attending small household gatherings with people who do not live in the same household," said the report, released by ADHS's Dr. Cara Christ.

Christ said that mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing and hand washing are still the best ways to mitigate the spread of the virus. The state provides masks for free at azhealth.gov/ordermasks

"We urge all Arizonans to appropriately wear a mask, whether or not they live in an area with a mandate," Christ said.

Christ also urged that news of a possible COVID-19 vaccine should not sway people away from mitigating current efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

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"The recent news about a potential vaccine for COVID-19 is indeed exciting, but this is no time to let up on masks, distancing and other precautions that slow the spread," Christ said.

In addition to the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals, it appears that certain procedures related to COVID-19 are back on the rise as well, according to ADHS data. Earlier this week, 92 intubations were performed, the highest single-day number since July.

Emergency departments are beginning to see an increase in coronavirus activity, per AzDHS data, with nearly 50% of emergency department bed availability being used by COVID-19 patients.

And more are in intensive care. Two weeks ago, 11% of the state's ICU beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients; today, that figure is 20%. Roughly 14% of ICU beds in Arizona are currently vacant.

In July, when hospitalizations for COVID peaked, almost 60% of all ICU beds in the state were in use by COVID-19 patients.

Arizonans over the age of 65 are currently experiencing the highest hospitalization rate.

But almost 50% of the new cases in Arizona are 20- to 44-year-olds, according to data presented by AzDHS.

"Among 20 to 44 year olds, college aged individuals continue to see the highest number of cases," Christ said in a YouTube video Thursday .

Arizona State University has had 2,466 students and 90 staff test positive for COVID-19. Currently, 405 students are positive and 37 staff are positive, according to ASU's data.

Northern Arizona University has had 1,543 students test positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 2 and is currently managing 57 current cases.

The University of Arizona has had 2,538 students and 48 staff members test positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 2.

Eleven of Arizona's 15 counties have been seeing an increase in cases, with only Greenlee county seeing a decrease in cases.

Arizona is not alone in its surge in cases. The country saw a record number of cases this week with Thursday being the highest one-day infection total on record, according to John Hopkins University data.

There have been over 269,000 cases of COVID-19 in Arizona and more than 6,200 deaths as of November 13.

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